The Hellfighters, the infantry regiment of the New York Army National Guard, was the most celebrated African American regiment in World War I. The regiment was nicknamed the Black Rattlers. The nickname Men of Bronze (French: Hommes de Bronze) was given to the regiment by the French and Hell-fighters (German: Höllenkämpfer) by the Germans.
Like their predecessors in the Civil War and successors in the wars that followed, these African American troops fought a war for a country that refused them basic rights – and their bravery stood as a rebuke to racism.
After years of lobbying by civic leaders from Harlem, Manhattan’s celebrated black neighborhood, Governor Charles Whitman finally formed the all-black unit, first known as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, in 1916, as the U.S. prepared for possible entry into World War I. Later the regiment was reformed and named The 369th Regiment.
The majority of the enlistees actually came from Harlem, which was home to 50,000 of Manhattan’s 60,000 African Americans in the 1910s. Others came from Brooklyn, towns up the Hudson River, and New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.
When the U.S. entered World War I, many African Americans believed that entering the armed forces would help eliminate racial discrimination throughout the United States. Many felt it was “a God-sent blessing” so they could prove they deserved respect from their white compatriots through service in the armed forces.
In October 1917 the Regiment traveled to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where they received training in actual combat. Camp Wadsworth was set up similar to the French battlefields. While at Camp Wadsworth they experienced significant racism from the local communities and from other units.
The 369th shipped out at the end of 1917 and joined its brigade upon arrival in France. The unit was relegated to labor service duties instead of combat training.
The U.S. Army decided in April 1918 to assign the unit to the French Army for the duration of American participation in the war because many white American soldiers refused to perform combat duty with African-Americans. The men were issued French weapons, helmets, belts, and pouches, although they continued to wear their U.S. uniforms.
In France, the 369th was treated as if they were no different than any other French unit. For the most part, the French did not show hatred towards them and did not racially segregate the 369th.
The French army had from the start included many colonial units with non-white personnel from among others Morocco and Senegal. Also, since they faced manpower shortages, they were less concerned with race than the Americans.
The “Harlem Hellfighters” quickly established a reputation for remarkable courage and effectiveness. While overseas, the Hellfighters saw enemy propaganda intended for them. It claimed Germans had done nothing wrong to blacks, and they should be fighting the USA, which had oppressed them for years. It had the opposite of the intended effect.
On 25 September 1918, the French 4th Army went on the offensive in conjunction with the American drive in the Meuse–Argonne. The 369th turned in a good account in heavy fighting, though they sustained severe losses. The unit captured the important village of Séchault.
Overall, the 369th spent 191 days in frontline trenches, more than any other American unit. They also suffered the most losses of any American regiment, with 1,500 casualties.
On 13 December 1918, one month after Armistice day, the French government awarded the Croix de Guerre to 170 individual members of the 369th, and a unit citation was awarded to the entire regiment. It was pinned to the unit’s colors by General Lebouc.
The 369th Regiment “Hellfighters Band” was relied upon not only in battle but also for morale. So by the end of their tour, they became one of the most famous military bands throughout Europe.
They followed the 369th overseas and were highly regarded and known for being able to immediately boost morale. While overseas the 369th Regiment made up less than 1% of the soldiers deployed but was responsible for over 20% of the territory of all the land assigned to the United States.
During the war, the 369th regimental band (under the direction of James Reese Europe) became famous throughout Europe. It introduced the until-then unknown music called jazz to British, French, and other European audiences.
At the end of the war, the 369th returned to New York City, and on 17 February 1919, paraded through the city. This day became an unofficial holiday of sorts for all of Harlem. Many black school children were dismissed from school so that they could attend the parade.
(Photo credit: US National Archives / US Army Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress).