Harlem Hellfighters

Hellfighters Return to the StatesQ: The 369th Infantry, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, is featured in an animation video produced by Kendall College of Art and Design, Digital Art and Design students. Here is the expanded script for the animation. 

A: “They never lost a man through capture, lost a trench, or a foot of ground to the enemy.”

The Harlem Hellfighters “spent more time in combat than any other American unit” during World War 1.

The 369th Infantry was an African American unit. Most people know it by a nickname, the Harlem Hellfighters. It was one of the few black combat regiments. Their training was in Spartanburg, South Carolina—but the training was interrupted because southern military officials “refused to have their men exposed to northern niggers" (Tampa Bay Times, 1977). 

When they arrived in Europe for duty, they were segregated from white soldiers—and, adding insult, they spent months as stevedores. On April 8, 1918, the United States Army assigned the unit to the French Army, in large part because many white American soldiers refused to perform combat duty with black soldiers. The French unit had been depleted, so they welcomed the Black soldiers, who they called the Men of Bronze.

The Germans who fought the men from the 369th had a different name for the unit: the Hellfighters. This was a compliment, a term of respect. The Hellfighters served 191 days under fire. That represents more time in continuous combat than any other American unit. Undermining the racist contention that black men were Toms and Sambos who lacked courage, they fought and won many battles, despite suffering the most losses of any American regiment, with fifteen hundred casualties. In a letter written by future Ferris Institute student Percy A. Fitzgerald while in France, he described one of the unit’s battles.Percy Fitzgerald

During the big drive which started on the night of September 25 our boys took an active part. The regiment was in for twelve days and came out much smaller than it went in. Most of the fighting was in the open with no trenches (Southern Workman, 1919). 

The Hellfighters claim to have never lost a man through capture, lost a trench, or lost a foot of ground to the enemy. Those bold claims are difficult to prove. There is, however, no dispute that the French soldiers saw the Hellfighters as courageous fighters. The French army bestowed on the Hellfighters the prestigious Croix de Guerre for “brave and bitter fighting.”[1]

The 369th regimental band, under the leadership of band Director Lieutenant James Reese Europe, was widely popular throughout Europe. The band is credited with introducing jazz music to British, French, and other European audiences.

The Hellfighters returned to a parade in Harlem (their original home), greeted by at least a million supporters. But, when the parade ended, they were still confronted by Jim Crow racism in the South and racial segregation in the North—worse still, they returned to a country that was soon gripped by the race riots of 1919.

JCM Staff
Jim Crow Museum
2020

 1 The Criox de Guerre is a French military decoration. It was first created in 1915 and consists of a square-cross medal on two crossed swords, hanging from a ribbon with various degree pins. The Croix de Guerre may either be awarded as an individual or unit award to those soldiers who distinguish themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with the enemy. 

Resources

“’Men of Bronze’ traces regiment’s roots,” Tampa Bay Times, November 8, 1977, 45.
https://www.newspapers.com/image/318964465/?terms=%27Men%2Bof%2BBronze%27%2Btraces%2Bregiment%27s%2Broots%22

“Other Hampton Men at the Front,” Southern Workman, January 1919, 45.
https://archive.org/details/southernworkman00unkngoog/page/n66/mode/2up?q=Fitzgerald

Trickey, E. (2018, May 14). One Hundred Years Ago, the Harlem Hellfighters Bravely Led the U.S. Into WWI. Smithsonian MagazineRetrieved December 07, 2020, from
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/one-hundred-years-ago-harlem-hellfighters-bravely-led-us-wwi-180968977/

Wintz, C. D., & Finkelman, P. (2005). Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. London: Fitzroy Dearborn.

Additional Resources 

NY Parade film of the Harlem Hellfighters.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teL2sjoCY7w

More parade footage
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-EBwfO0ePA

369th getting off ships, band playing, and parade footage.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CukGoubnH6I

CBS News segment about the Hellfighters.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDBf1N2ak5g

Playlist Music from the Harlem Hellfighters band
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YeIET9ZIkGk&list=PLL4pV65Vt_St6XtxnPJVX-vcAQWf1nToN

Music from Hellfighters band director James Reese Eurpoe.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpFCuZ-B4j0