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The Incredible Story of the Harlem Hellfighters, WWI's Staunch Infantry Heroes

The men who were the Harlem Hellfighters were brave, courageous, and true.

Selected Harlem Hellfighters sit for a portrait.
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  • Photo Credit: Public Domain

Black Americans have a storied and complicated history with the American military that dates back to the Revolutionary War. From the inception of this country, black men and women answered the call to defend a country that barely claimed them as their own. Though they fought and died to preserve the freedoms that we hold so dear, most of them were denied those exact same freedoms if they were lucky enough to return home. Even so, when the United States entered World War I, there were many African Americans who wanted to serve. 

At the start of the war in 1914, the United States adopted a foreign policy based on neutrality and initially declined to enter the conflict. However, after the discovery of a potential alliance between Mexico and Germany, the United States officially entered the war in 1917. 

Initially, the United States struggled to accumulate the number of troops required for combat. To remedy this, the government passed the Selective Service Act of 1917, requiring all men ages 21-30 to register for the draft. This legislation applied to all American citizens, regardless of race.

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Because they were now required by law to register for the draft, many Black Americans saw this as an opportunity to be treated as equal to their white compatriots. Unfortunately, they were in for a rude awakening: The segregation practices implemented in the United States were applied to the military as well. Upon their entry into service, black and white troops were separated by race. 

harlem hellfighters wwi draft card
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  • WWI draft card. Note the bottom left corner, which Black-Americans had to rip off to keep the military segregated.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A group of all-Black soldiers organized into the 369th Infantry Regiment was called to active duty in the final days of summer 1917. They received initial basic training before being sent for more specialized combat training. Even as the men completed training, whispers of stories of discrimination against the soldiers began to grow.

In December 1917, the 369th was finally sent abroad to France. Once there, they were relegated to labor duty despite the fact that they were already combat trained. Instead of putting their training to the test, the men were made to perform hard physical labor while they waited for the American military to decide where to use them. 

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It was not until April 1918 that the United States came to an unbelievable decision. Not only did they decide not to use the well-trained men of the 369th Infantry, they essentially gave them away. The 369th was deeded over to the French Army.

The US was so flustered by the myriad white soldiers who would refuse to perform their duties alongside a Black soldier that they sent the regiment somewhere else to be someone else's problem.

Turns out the joke ended up being on the Americans—the French welcomed these soldiers with open arms. The French military was used to working with units of different ethnic backgrounds thanks to men like Eugene Bullard and other valiant soldiers. With their troop numbers declining, they needed all the help they could get. The majority of the French treated the Black Americans as their equals and did not adhere to the segregated ideology of the United States. 

While under French command, the 369th Infantry quickly developed a reputation for their bravery and steadfast nature on the battlefield. Though they had a few different nicknames previously, it is widely believed that it was during this time that they began to be referred to as the Harlem Hellfighters. 

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The Hellfighters were put into the trenches almost immediately and excelled while there. They participated in numerous offenses that were major factors in the eventual Allied victory. This group of men actually entered physical combat with the Germans months before many American forces set foot on the battlefield. 

One of the many stories of bravery to come out about the Hellfighters is about a man named Henry Johnson. He and his comrade, Needham Roberts were on watch one night when a group of almost 30 German soldiers attempted a sneak attack. Johnson and Roberts fought the enemy combatants ferociously, shooting, throwing grenades, and stabbing any who dared attack. The enemy eventually fled, though the carnage was still visible the following morning. 

the harlem hellfighters wwi trenches
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  • The Harlem Hellfighters in the trenches. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Both Roberts and Needham suffered wounds during the attack but had managed to kill four German soldiers while holding their position. Because of their bravery, they were both awarded the French Croix de Guerre, which is awarded to individuals who ‘distinguish themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with enemy forces’. These awards would be the first of many awarded to the Harlem Hellfighters by the French military. Though Roberts and Needham were immediately recognized by the French government, it took over 90 years for the United States to do the same. 

In addition to Needham and Roberts, over 170 men of the Harlem Hellfighters were also awarded the Croix de Guerre along with other commendations for their bravery. While this unit was extremely successful in combat, by the time peace talks were reached in November the group was exhausted. The Hellfighters spent a total of 191 days on the frontlines of the war and suffered over 1,500 casualties. They suffered the largest number of casualties in a single unit and also spent more time in the trenches than any other American unit during World War I.

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Despite being significant contributors to the success of the war effort, when the Hellfighters returned home, nothing had changed in regard to the discrimination they suffered. Though they were honored initially upon their return to Harlem, they still faced the racist ideologies that ran rampant in the country. They were still subject to race riots in the streets of the North and lynchings in the Southern region of the very country they fought to protect from tyranny. 

The Harlem Hellfighters are a piece of American history that deserves to be honored and remembered. Though it is taken almost 100 years for them to be fully recognized for their contributions, we must now always acknowledge their contributions to democracy and their bravery in the face of discrimination and tyranny.