The 369th Infantry Regiment isn’t a fixture in history textbooks. It should be. Nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters” by the Germans, they were the first African-American infantry unit to fight in World War I. They were also one of the most decorated. Here are 5 reasons why the “Harlem Hellfighters” are the ultimate American heroes:
1. They were the first African-American infantry unit to fight in World War I
Approximately 380,000 African-Americans served in the U.S. Army during the Great War. Although there was no specific segregation policy outlined in the draft legislation, African-American volunteers were told to “tear off one corner of their registration cards so they could easily be identified and inducted separate.” Translation: The military was willing to accept black troops as long as they didn’t mix with the white population. Most of the African-American soldiers who volunteered were confined to labor battalions. Shipped to France in December 1917, the 369th Infantry Regiment was initially going to be kept on the sidelines. Their fortunes changed when Gen. John Pershing assigned them to the16th Division of the French Army. Unlike their American allies, the French were happy to accept any soldier willing to fight on the front lines, regardless of race.
2. The got their nickname from the Germans
The 369th soon became one of the most feared units in the Allied forces. Famous for never ceding an inch of ground, they were nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters” by the Germans. Since over 70 percent of the unit hailed from Harlem, the name stuck. That wasn’t the only nickname they earned during the war: The French were so impressed by their general badassery that they dubbed them the “Men of Bronze.”
3. They introduced the French to American Jazz
Bet you didn’t see this one coming. When they weren’t scaring the bejesus out of the Germans, the369th made some pretty boss music. Led by James Reese Europe, the 369th Infantry Jazz Band, also known as the “Hellfighters,” introduced the French to the sweet stylings of American ragtime. Largely forgotten now, Europe became an international sensation. After the war, the Hellfighters performed for more then a million people when they marched up Fifth Avenue during the World War I victory parade.
4. They saw more combat than any other American unit
The 369th spent 191 consecutive days on the front lines. Which means they saw more action than any other American regiment. They were also the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine.
5. They broke down racial barriers
The “Harlem Hellfighters” helped combat racial stereotypes at home and abroad. When they returned home, the soldiers were welcomed as heroes. Unfortunately for America, this new period of racial tolerance didn’t last. During the “Red Summer” of 1919, anti-black race riots erupted in twenty-six cities across America. Tragically, lynching increased from fifty-eight in 1918 to seventy-seven in 1919. At least ten of the victims were war veterans, and some were lynched while in uniform. The U.S. military remained segregated until 1948.
Interested in learning more about the “Harlem Hellfighters”? Make sure to watch William Miles’s Men of Bronze. Filmed in 1977, the eye-opening documentary features interviews with four veterans of the 369th.