Some of the Soldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor. 1998 print. Records of the War Department General and Special. Staffs. (165-WW-127-8)

The 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, is a significant chapter in the annals of American military history. This regiment, originally formed as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, was re-organized as the 369th upon its federalization. The unit was primarily composed of African Americans, but it also included men from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guyana, Liberia, Portugal, Canada, the West Indies, and white American officers.

Formation and World War I

The Harlem Hellfighters originated as the 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, a National Guard unit. The African American community in New York City’s Harlem district had long advocated for the creation of a homegrown military unit, but white politicians blocked several attempts at establishing such a body. On June 2, 1913, a bill authorizing an African American National Guard regiment finally passed the New York state legislature.

However, the 15th New York existed in name only until June 1916, when Governor Charles Whitman appointed William Hayward, his former campaign manager, to serve as its commanding officer. Hayward had been a colonel in the Nebraska National Guard, and he, like most of the field-grade officers in the unit, was white.

World War I poster of the U.S. 369th fighting German soldiers, with the figure of Abraham Lincoln above.

Achievements and Honors

The Harlem Hellfighters were known for their bravery and valor. The French government decorated the entire unit with the Croix de Guerre, its highest award for bravery, as well as 170 additional individual medals for valor. The 369th’s battlefield prowess was almost overshadowed by its contribution to music, however, as the Hellfighters’ regimental band was credited with bringing jazz to Europe.

Flag of the old 15th New York Regiment (369th Colored Infantry) after being decorated by the French. Wellesley College Library.

The regiment was initially nicknamed the “Black Rattlers” after arriving in France by its commander Colonel Hayward. The nickname was derived from the rattlesnake insignia that adorned their uniforms. The unit crest still features a rattlesnake coiled to strike. The nickname “Men of Bronze” was given to the regiment by the French after they had witnessed the gallantry of the Americans fighting in the trenches. It is believed that their German foes were the first to dub them “Hellfighters” for their courage and ferocity.

During World War I, the 369th spent 191 days in front line trenches, more than any other American unit. They also suffered the most losses of any American regiment, with 1,500 casualties. The regiment was also the first of the Allied forces to cross the Rhine into Germany. When the regiment returned to in the United States, they were celebrated with a parade in New York City.

The 369th Infantry (old 15th National Guard) parade through New York City. Underwood & Underwood – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Legacy and Impact

The service of the Harlem Hellfighters had a profound impact on civil rights in America. Their bravery and dedication on the battlefield stood as a powerful rebuttal to the racism and discrimination they faced at home.

The Harlem Hellfighters confronted racism even as they trained for war. Despite facing racism at home and in the military, they served their country honorably. Their dedicated service played a key role in the success of the United States’ participation in World War I.

15th Infantry in France, wearing Adrian helmets. International Film Service photographer. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

In an era when segregation and racial barriers were commonplace, the 369th Infantry Regiment’s Soldiers demonstrated that those limitations meant very little on battlefields. Their courage made headlines across the country, hailing the African American regiment as heroes even as they faced discrimination at home.

The bravery of the Harlem Hellfighters stood as a moral claim to first-class citizenship. Their service helped to challenge and change perceptions about African Americans’ capabilities and contributions, both in the military and in society at large. Their actions on the battlefield served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement, paving the way for future generations to continue the fight for equality.

Harlem Hellfighters in Séchault, France on September 29, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. After being detached and seconded to the French, they wore the Adrian helmet, while retaining the rest of their U.S. uniform. Seen here they wear the U.S. Army-issue Brodie helmet, correct for that time. U.S. Army pastel by H. Charles McBarron, Jr.

Official Army Recognition

After a century, the nickname “Harlem Hellfighters” has been officially recognized by the Army. This recognition was approved by the Army Center of Military History on September 21, 2020. The unit earned this nickname from their German adversaries due to their tenacity and courage in battle.

The Harlem Hellfighters are now officially part of the 717 Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve units that have official special designations. This official recognition not only honors the past but also empowers the current members of the 369th Sustainment Brigade to proudly carry the Harlem Hellfighters name.

Distinctive unit insignia for 369th Regiment & 369th Sustainment BDE

Closing Thoughts

The Harlem Hellfighters’ service had a significant impact on civil rights in America. Their courage and dedication challenged the prevailing racial prejudices of their time and left a lasting legacy of resilience and determination. Their story continues to inspire and remind us of the power of unity and courage in the face of adversity.

 

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

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