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Harlem Hellfighters - Distinguished WW I All Black Combat Unit

Updated on January 11, 2017
Chuck profile image

Chuck is a former Vietnam-era air navigator with degrees in History and Economics. Areas of interest include aviation and military history.

An American Infantry Regiment in the French Army

World War I was no different than other wars as far as African-American participation was concerned.

However, for the 369th Regiment, a segregated, Black New York State National Guard infantry regiment, things were different. In addition to their outstanding combat record, the 369th Infantry Regiment fought as a part of the French Army alongside African French colonial militia.

While General Pershing insisted that U.S. forces in Europe remain under U.S. command and fight under the American flag, an exception was made for the 369th Infantry Regiment which was assigned to the French and fought as a part of the French, rather than the American, Army. Here is the story about how and why that came about.

African-Americans Have Fought in Every American War from the Revolution to the Present

Blacks or Americans of African descent have fought in all of America’s wars and major military actions from the Revolutionary War to the present.

In both the American Revolution and the Civil War black freemen and slaves fought on both sides of those two conflicts.

During the Revolution the British offered freedom to any slave who ran away and joined the British army. Author Christian Cameron’s historical novel Washington and Caesar presents the American Revolutionary cause through the contrasting eyes of George Washington and fictitious slave of Washington’s who was fighting with the British. The slave, Caesar, is fictitious but he is based upon a composite of actual slaves (owned by others) who fought for the British.

Similarly, during the Civil war free blacks as well as some slaves were found in both the Confederate and Union armies.

Despite Discrimination and Segregation of Troops, American Blacks Joined the Army and Fought in World War I

World War I was no different in many respects from the nation’s other wars with regard to participation by African Americans. This despite the fact that, from the Civil War to the Korean War all branches of the U.S. military were segregated.

A 1948 Executive Order by President Harry Truman officially ended segregation and discrimination in the U.S. military but it was not until 1954 until the military was fully integrated.

During World War I racism was common both inside and outside the military. However, when the U.S. entered World War I African Americans, like other Americans, responded to the call to fight for the U.S. despite the indignities and injustices of the racism they lived with daily and despite efforts by the German propaganda machine to discourage African Americans from supporting the war effort.

Just as individuals within a family, an organization or community will sometimes fight and oppose one another internally, when threatened by outsiders they will put their differences aside and present a united front against the outside threat. African Americans certainly disliked the treatment they received and, while some hoped that by helping to defend the nation they would be treated better, they put their hurts and hopes aside and joined their fellow Americans in fighting the foreign enemy.

World War I Affected all Areas of the World

While fighting during World War I was concentrated primarily in Europe, it was a “world” war in part because most of Asia, Africa, the Pacific and Caribbean consisted of colonies ruled by the major powers of Europe or were former British colonies (Canada, Australia, South Africa) still closely linked to Britain through the fact that the King of England was also the King of these dominions.

In addition to naval battles at sea there was also some fighting on land that took place between the European powers in places like Africa and the Middle East. Further, millions of troops were were brought from overseas colonies and former colonies to fight in Europe. These troops consisted of locals being transported to Europe to fight.

France made extensive use of colonial forces, which consisted of local inhabitants of French colonies, to fight in the trenches of France. The vast majority of these troops were from French colonies in North and West Africa. A large portion consisted of Tirailleurs Sénégalais from the French colony of Senegal in West Africa.

African Regiments in the French Army

Decades before World War I France had found that it didn’t have the military manpower necessary to defend and expand its overseas empire. In 1857 the governor of French West Africa, facing the need to defend and maintain order in France’s expanding African empire, recruited a force of local natives to augment regular French infantry troops.

This native force was called tirailleurs (which means skirmishers in English) and, because the majority of the original recruits were from the French colony of Senegal, they became known as Tirailleurs Sénégalais. While a part of the French army, enlisted men and officers in tirailleur regiments were drawn from the local colonial populations.

Interior of Ft. Douaumont at Verdun France.
Interior of Ft. Douaumont at Verdun France. | Source

French defense planning for World War I included the use of Tirailleurs Sénégalais for European combat and when the war broke out regiments of this West African infantry were brought to France to fight alongside regular French troops where they distinguished themselves at Dixmude in the Battle of Flanders and Ypres in 1914. They also played a major role in the recapture of Fort Douamont from the Germans at the first battle of Verdun in October 1916.

As the war dragged on and casualties mounted, France recruited and drafted thousands more West Africans for service in France. Thus, when American troops began arriving in France following America’s declaration of war on Germany and its allies in April of 1917 the French Army already had thousands of black African troops fighting in the trenches in France.

While these African regiments were almost entirely African in origin (some officers, especially in the upper ranks, were European) they were not segregated by race as was the practice in the U.S. military at that time. Instead, much like the National Guard in the United States, these African regiments were a part of their colons’ local military forces that had been called to duty as a unit to serve with the larger French Army against a foreign enemy.

This set-up was similar to a New York National Guard regiment or California National Guard regiment fighting as separate regiments within the U.S. Army in France with the New York regiment consisting of residents of New York State and the California regiment consisting solely of California residents (for a more detailed explanation of make up of U.S. military in World War I see my Hub Military Draft in World War I and its Legacy)

Origins of the World War I 369th Infantry Regiment

In 1913 the New York National Guard created the 15th Infantry Regiment. This was created as an all Black regiment consisting of African Americans and African Puerto Ricans. As in other African American units in the army, the enlisted personnel were Blacks and the officers white. However, by the start of World War I military authorities had begun commissioning African American officers for Black units while keeping white officers in top command positions.

As with other National Guard units when the U.S. entered the war, the 15th Infantry Regiment was ordered to active duty by President Wilson and made a part of the regular army. While the regiment remained in tact it was re designated as the 369th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army for the duration of the war.

Despite the fact that the 369th was an infantry regiment, the Army, as was its practice, initially intended to use it for support purposes rather than actual combat.

The newly designated 369th Infantry Regiment left the U.S. for France on December 27, 1917 and upon its arrival in France its members were assigned to labor duties rather than combat training like other, white, infantry units.

369th Infantry Regiment Wearing French Helmets

Part of 369th Infantry Regiment in France
Part of 369th Infantry Regiment in France | Source

British and French Commanders Wanted to Use American Troops as Replacements

The French and British were desperate for more manpower and were hoping to use the American troops as replacements to replenish losses in their troops.

However, General Pershing, the commander of the U.S. forces, insisted that U.S. troops fight with their units and remain under American officers and command rather than being parceled out to British and French units.

Pershing held his ground and, while cooperating with and coordinating battle planning with the British and French, American troops went into battle in their own units commanded by American officers.

An Exception Policy in the Case of the 369th Infantry Regiment

In the case of the 369th Infantry Regiment and other Black American units an exception was made. On April 8, 1918, the U.S. Army made the decision to transfer the 369th to the French Army where the 369th was known as the 369th Regiment d’Infanterie Etats Unis of the French 16th Division. Later in the war it transferred to the French 161st Division. Both divisions were a part of the regular French Army but were made up of officers and men from French West Africa.

According to some accounts it was General Pershing who made the decision to assign these segregated Black units to the French.

General Pershing had served with the U.S. Army’s all Black Tenth Cavalry (note: while the enlisted men were Black all the officers were white), known as Buffalo Soldiers, during Indian wars in the west and as that unit’s commander at the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba during the 1898 Spanish American War. Pershing’s nickname, Black Jack, came from his association with this all black unit.

Because of this experience General Pershing respected the Black troops and didn’t like the way they were being relegated to menial jobs and discriminated against by white troops. He apparently felt that they would be better off being assigned to the French. And they were.

For the men of the 369th the transfer was beneficial as the French, both civilians and military, welcomed them with open arms and treated them the same as French soldiers. The French Army treated all soldiers the same regardless of the color of their skin.

Members of the 369th were issued and wore French helmets, pouches and belts while continuing to wear the rest of their U.S. Army uniforms. They were also given French weapons.

It should be noted that the officers and men of the 369th Infantry Regiment remained together and fought together as a regiment and were not disbursed among other regiments in the French Army as replacements. The only difference between the 369th and other American fighting forces in France was the fact that it fought as a part of the French Army rather than the American Army and fought under the French rather than the American Flag.

Everyone, both allies and enemy, knew that members of the 369th were Americans and the Germans came to fear this American Infantry Regiment fighting as part of the French Army.

1903 Portrait of General John "Black Jack" Pershing by French Painter Léon Hornecker

1903 Portrait of General John J. Pershing by French Painter Léon Hornecker
1903 Portrait of General John J. Pershing by French Painter Léon Hornecker | Source

Germans Name the 369th "Harlem Hellfighters"

On May 8, 1918 the soldiers of the 369th joined the other regiments of the 16th Division in the trenches at the front.

Despite the fact the U.S. Army had originally planned to use the 369th for general labor and had thus provided very little combat training, once in battle the men of the 369th learned quickly and gained the reputation as a fierce fighting force.

The Germans soon came to fear this French Army regiment and began referring to the 369th as the Harlem Hellfighters, a name that the men of the 369th accepted with pride and adopted it as their nickname

Combat Record of Harlem Hellfighters is Outstanding

The combat record of the 369th was impressive.

Fighting in the big campaigns - Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, Second Battle of the Marne and Meuse-Argonne as well as fighting while manning trenches at the front - the 369th ended up logging a total of 191 days in combat which was longer than any other American unit in World War I (although they did this combat as part of the French rather than American Army).

The 369th was known for always pushing forward and never retreating. It was the first Allied unit to reach the banks of the Rhine River separating France and Germany. Only two men from the regiment were captured but were recovered shortly by other members of the regiment.

The bravery and battlefield accomplishments of the 369th were recognized by the French who awarded a total of 171 Legion of Honor or Croix de Guerre to members of the 369th.

Croix de Guerre Awarded to 369th Regiment for Liberation of Sechault During Meuse-Argonne Offensive

The 369th Regiment itself was awarded the Croix de Guerre for its capture of the strategic village of Sechault in the Champagne Region on September 29, 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in late September 1918.

Earlier in the fighting the 369th had advanced nearly 14 kilometers (almost 9 miles) in fierce fighting before realizing that they had advanced way ahead of the Moroccan regiment on their left and native French regiment on their right and risked being surrounded by German forces about to close in behind them.

The 369th pulled back some to close the pending gap in the Allie’s line. On the 29th they were able to advance and liberate Sechault.

For this the 369th Infantry Regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Government.

Harlem Hellfighters in Action

Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts Fight off Large German Patrol

Private (some accounts refer to him as being a corporal) Henry Lincoln Johnson of Albany, New York was awarded France’s highest honor, the Croix de Guerre with a gold palm on the ribbon along with a special citation for his action on the night of May 15, 1918. On that night Johnson and fellow Private Needham Roberts of Trenton, New Jersey had been assigned to guard duty from midnight to 4 a.m.

Halfway through their shift a party of Germans began to quietly advance against their post. Hearing them, Johnson lobbed a grenade in the direction of their sound.

Soon all hell broke loose as the Germans swarmed at Johnson and Roberts. Fighting them off first with grenades, then bullets, Johnson soon found himself battling alone after Roberts passed out from his wounds. Running out of bullets for his French rifle, he shoved a magazine for an American rifle into his weapon only to have it jam. Fighting for his life, Johnson began using the butt of his rifle as a club until it broke and then resorted to his bolo knife to keep from getting killed.

After an hour of fierce fighting help arrived and Johnson, having sustained 21 wounds, collapsed. Both he and Roberts were taken to a French military hospital. Both survived with Roberts receiving a Croix de Guerre for his valor. Johnson and Roberts were both promoted to sergeant.

To Date No Congressional Medal of Honor for Corporal Henry Johnson

In addition to the French military honors, two members of the 369th received the American military Congressional Medal of Honor (these may have gone to two of the white officers) as well as Distinguished Service Crosses being awarded to a number of the men by the U.S. Army.

Henry Johnson did not receive the Congressional Medal of Honor although Senator Charles Schumer of New York did submit a bill (not yet voted upon) to Congress in 2014 to award the Medal of Honor posthumously to Henry Johnson.

369th Regiment's Victories Came at a Steep Price

The honors did not come without sacrifice as the 369th suffered about 1,500 casualties (I wasn’t able to find a breakdown between killed and wounded).

Upon returning to New York City following the end of the war, the 369th Infantry Regiment was given a hero's welcome as they paraded though the streets of New York City.

Once back in the United States, the 369th was released from Federal service and once again became the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard.

Unfortunately, having served bravely in France and having enjoyed being treated as equals by French military and civilians, the members of the 369th Regiment and other African-American veterans of World War I again faced segregation and racial hatred upon their return to the United States.

© 2015 Chuck Nugent


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    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      5 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      stevarino - you make a g good point about the Nisei volunteers in World War II. These were the sons of Japanese-Americans who were interned, by order of President Roosevelt, with their families in camps in the western U.S. due to both anti-Japanese prejudice and an unfounded fear that they would form a fifth column with Imperial Japan on the home front during World War II. The fear was unfounded and despite the fact that these families were basically imprisoned for no reason, these young men still stepped forward and enlisted in the U.S. military where they fought bravely and honorably on the European front in World War II.

      Thanks again for your comment.

    • stevarino profile image

      Steve Dowell 

      5 years ago from East Central Indiana

      Your story of the 369th brings to mind the Nisei volunteers of the Second World War, who also rose above prejudism with honor. Excellent piece, very informative. Thanks!

    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      5 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Just History - Thanks for your comments.

      Legal segregation was very common in the last decades of the 19th and early decades of the 20th Century. The 1954 Brown vs Board of Education overturned the 1896 Plessy vs Ferguson decision which had ruled that school segregation was Constitutional.

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 

      5 years ago from England

      In the 21st century any form of segregation seems appalling but even more so in wartime when it is all against the enemy. I did not realize that all american forces were segregated until 1954 - unbelieveable


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