This Black History Month, we would like to commemorate one of the first all-black units to serve on the Western front in World War I. The 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, served in combat in France for 191 days and was awarded the highest medal of honor by the French government. Despite their bravery and patriotism, however, the men who fought in the 369th faced racial discrimination during and after the war.
Racism was still pervasive in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century, and the onset of World War I — just as with the Civil and Revolutionary Wars — gave African-Americans the opportunity to prove that they deserved equal treatment as American citizens. By the end of the war, a total of 2.3 million African-Americans registered for the draft; of those, about 375,000 served.
In 1916, the 369th Infantry Regiment was formed from the 15th New York Regiment of the New York National Guard, and was then called into federal service in July 1917, three months after the U.S. officially entered the war. It was a regiment that was made up entirely of black men: some came from Brooklyn, others from New Jersey and Connecticut, but most of the men came from the majority-black neighborhood of Manhattan known as Harlem.
On January 1, 1918, the 369th was sent to France and was assigned to the U.S. Army’s Services of Supply. This was a typical arrangement at the time; it was widely believed that black soldiers were not fit for combat, and so they often found themselves in service positions despite their willingness to fight. But after pressure from France and Britain to send American troops overseas for reinforcement, the 369th Infantry Regiment was reassigned to the French army as a combat unit. They received combat training, weapons, and supplies from the French, and entered the trenches on April 15, 1918.
On the front lines as part of the French 16th Division, and later the 161st division, the 369th served in combat for 191 days — longer than any other American unit in the war. The men’s ferocity in battle earned the respect of the French and the fear of the Germans, who gave the Hellfighters their name. Two of the most famous Hellfighters were Private Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts, who heroically fought off 24 Germans in a raid on May 15, 1918; Johnson, heavily wounded in the attack, later became the first American to receive the French medal of honor, the Croix de guerre. (He did not receive the Legion of Merit from the U.S. government until 2015, when it was awarded to him posthumously by President Obama.)
The regiment went on to play a major role in the Second Battle of Marne and the Meuse-Argonne offensive, as well as multiple Allied campaigns across Europe. By the end of the war, the 369th sustained a total of 1,500 casualties — the largest loss of any American regiment.
The 369th regiment was relieved from assignment in December 1918 and returned home to New York in February of the following year, where they met crowds of admirers and paraded victoriously through the streets of Harlem. After the war was over, the French government awarded the entire regiment and 170 of its members with the Croix de guerre, as well as numerous other decorations for valor. In 1933, the 369th Regiment Armory was built in Harlem in their honor. To this day, the Hellfighters are known for their heroism and for rising above prejudice to make their indelible mark upon American history.