the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

War is a pure hell to all involved and those affected. However, an American regiment known as Harlem Hellfighters made life hell for their German enemies even while dealing with significant challenges associated with their race.

On countless occasions during the First World War, this all-Black American regiment terrified their foes with their reputation for repaying hellfire with more hellfire.

The Harlem Hellfighters spent more uninterrupted time in battle than all other American regiments fighting in World War I. Tragically, they also did not recognize or respect their efforts after getting home, despite the fact they fully deserved it.

Officially, the Hellfighters went by the name the 369th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard. The fearless group of fighters ended up fighting the Germans for much longer than any other American unit, and soon, their reputation started to grow around the world.

Unfortunately, despite their hard work, the Hellfighters did not get what they deserved.

They Were Heroes, But Not At Home

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

Even though they put in more work than any other regiment in the hellish war trenches, on a different front, they had to fight against racial discrimination from their own countrymen once they got back home.

So, after the Hellfighters got back to the U.S., they did not get a break from the discriminative practices experienced by black people in America at the time.

Their brave input during the war was also underplayed for decades. It is only recently that Harlem Hellfighters are finally getting the recognition they should have received for their effort during the war.

How Did The Harlem Hellfighters Come About?

Before there ever was a group known as Harlem Hellfighters, a 15th New York National Guard Regiment was a unique all-Black fighting unit.

The unit was created in 1916 by Charles Whitman, New York governor. He did this after getting a lot of pressure from Black political leaders to do so.

The group was quite diverse. For instance, it included people like Melville Miller, who was only 16 when he joined the regiment.

Henry Johnson, whose brave actions on the battlefield won him a lot of recognition later, was also part of the group.

The group was under the leadership of William Hayward, who had previously served as Nebraska National Guard colonel. He was white, and he had managed Whitman’s campaign before.

William was a big advocate for this unit, and he worked with both Black and white officers.

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

He was pretty clear about where he stood on race, and he told his white officers to “stay out” if they “intended to take a narrower attitude.”

The World War I recruitment poster above reads: “Colored Man Is No Slacker.”

The Men Had To Practice With Broomsticks, Not Guns

The fighters forming this group were not treated like other National Guard units. To begin with, they did not get any uniforms or weapons to train with from the New York Guard headquarters.

During training sessions, they had to practice while wearing civilian clothing. For guns, they had to use broomsticks.

However, this treatment was not specific to this regiment, as other Blacks experienced it.

In total, 2.3 million Black men registered for the draft. However, only the U.S. Army accepted them in large numbers.

In fact, while some Black politicians were fighting to have the men enlisted in the army, other Black leaders wondered why they should fight for a country that did not treat them as equals.

President Woodrow Wilson made an appeal asking the country to make the world safer for democracy. However, many were pointing out that Black Americans were facing many dangers back at home.

In fact, an African-American paper even wondered, “how long has Mr. Wilson been a convert of TRUE DEMOCRACY?”

The Men In The Fifteenth Regiment Were Different

Despite the racial tensions at home and strong sentiments that Blacks lacked the motivation to fight for a country that discriminated against them, the men making up the 15th were willing to fight and defend their country.

That, however, did not mean they did not have any obstacles in their way. For one, basic training in the Deep South was a big problem, and we’ll see why in just a moment.

Special Training For Black Servicemen

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i
the story of the Harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

Although these men had chosen to fight for their country, they had to prepare in a “special” way for this mission. Before leaving for Europe, the men making up the Harlem Hellfighters were taken to Spartanburg, South Carolina.

While there, Hayward told them they had to face racism with “fortitude and without retaliation.”

However, Hayward had some concerns about training the Black men in Spartanburg. The mayor of the town had made a severe threat to the members of the group:

“If any of those colored soldiers go in any of our soda stores and the like and ask to be served, they’ll be knocked down. We have our customs down here, and we aren’t going to alter them.”

Therefore, it did not matter for this mayor that these soldiers were preparing to fight for their country; they still had to put up with racial taunting and physical abuse from those they were fighting to defend.

Regiment musician, Noble Sissle, recounted how the group got all sorts of insults while on duty in town and “had some pretty bitter pills to swallow.”

The Experience Was Unifying

If the abuse and discrimination the unit experienced while training had any benefit, it was evident in the strong bond that formed among them.

Fortunately, after Hayward flew all the way to Washington D.C. to ask Army officials to allow the men to be deployed in war and leave the racial hell of Spartanburg, the unit was allowed to leave the town without any problems.

This bitter experience brought them together.

Peter N. Nelson, a writer who documented the history of the Harlem Hellfighters in A More Unbending Battle, said that:

“As a direct result of such repeated confrontations (not despite them), a bond was forged among the men of the 15th, a fighting spirit they hoped would serve them well when they got to France.”

So, in January 1918, the men started on their journey to Europe as the 369th Infantry Regiment. They referred to themselves as the “Black Rattlers,” a name that would soon change to the more fearsome Harlem Hellfighters.

Harlem Hellfighters Became Heroes In The Battlefield

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

In the photo above is Fred McIntyre, who was also known as “Devil’s Man.” He is holding a photo of the German Kaiser he carried around for luck.

When the Harlem Hellfighters first got to the front, they were given menial jobs typically reserved for Black soldiers.

Hayward, however, was not happy with this arrangement. He talked to General John Pershing about allowing his men to fight.

Eventually, Pershing granted Hayward’s request, but only because the Americans were under pressure from the French and the British to supply more soldiers.

Hayward was ecstatic, and he wrote about the development saying “a fairy tale has materialized.”

“We are now a combat unit… Our great American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away.”

The French Were Put In Charge

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

The 369th was put under the authority of the French, and they got into action on April 15, 1918. That was way before any other American troops had a chance to do so.

Soon enough, the regiment proved its worth.

Two of the soldiers helped demonstrate what this group could do. They were Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts.

Henry Johnson, pictured above, was known as the “Black Death.”

Johnson and Roberts defended a lookout post on May 15, 1918, when a German unit came charging. The two were outnumbered and outgunned.

However, that didn’t stop them from thwarting the deadly attack, killing 24 Germans in the process.

The French wasted no time in showing appreciation for the effort. The pair was awarded the prestigious Croix de Guerre.

Tales of their heroic deeds also spread around the globe. The New York World headline read: “Two New York Negro Soldiers Foil German Assault.”

It Was More Than A Successful Performance

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

By any standards, the success Johnson and Roberts reported was heroic, but more importantly, it proved that Black soldiers, just like white soldiers, could fight.

The French were also persuaded by the bravery of these Black soldiers. Initially, like the Americans, they had their own race-based doubts about their abilities.

Here is a photo of Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts. With a great deal of satisfaction, Hayward took the opportunity to speak about the amazing feat:

“It was in this way the Germans found the Black Americans.”

Harlem Hellfighters Spent Many Days Fighting

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

The Hellfighters spent 191 days in combat. That was far longer than any other American unit took fighting in the war.

During their time in battle, the unit did not retreat, and none of them was captured by the enemy. For this incredible achievement, they also paid a heavy price.

By the end, less than half of the unit remained. The rest had been killed or wounded in battle.

Above is a picture of the Harlem Hellfighters in France. Despite the heavy losses they suffered during the war, they were proud of their service and felt quite patriotic of their contribution, as they rightly should have.

Miller later recounted that everybody held their head high. At that time, the men were proud to be Americans as they made their march through German-occupied territory.

According to Miller, the men were “proud to be Americans, proud to be black, and proud to be in the 15th New York Infantry.”

When the war ended, the Harlem Hellfighters made preparations to get home in November 1918.

Back Home, The 369th Infantry Regiment Met Both Jubilation And Discrimination

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

In the above photo, the Harlem Hellfighters return home after leaving to fight in Europe in 1917. When they left, they were never invited to participate in the city’s farewell parade, also known as the “Rainbow Division.”

Hayward had been told that “black is not a color in the Rainbow.”

He was furious:

“Damn their going-away parade! We’ll have a parade of our own when we come back – those of us who do come home – and it will be a parade that will make history.”

Hayward was right: the Harlem Hellfighters’ homecoming parade was one for the history books.

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

When they got home on February 17, 1919, there was triumphant cheering from large crowds as 3,000 veterans marched along 5th Avenue. The media estimated that between a few hundred thousand and five million people showed up to see the march.

People of all ages can race showed up to welcome the Harlem Helfighters home on February 17, 1919, including children, as shown in the photo below.

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

The New York Tribune described the historical event in glowing terms:

“Up the wide avenue they swung. Their smiles outshone the golden sunlight. In every line proud chests expanded beneath the medals valor had won.”

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

“The impassioned cheering of the crowds massed along the way drowned the blaring cadence of their former jazz band. The old 15th was on parade and New York turned out to tender its dark-skinned heroes a New York welcome.”

President Theodore Roosevelt later referred to Henry Johnson as one of the “five bravest Americans.” Johnson was sitting in a convertible as he held a bouquet.

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

He was wounded, but he still got up to greet the cheering crowds, as you can see in the photo below.

Although he had a wounded foot, emotion overtook him, and he stood up during the parade.

The Party Was Just Getting Started

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

Although the celebrations the Harlem Hellfighters got in the streets of New York were so grand, the real celebrations didn’t really begin until they got to Harlem.

According to the Tribune, the difference between the cheering the unit got along Fifth Avenue and the greeting they received in Harlem was like the difference between the west wind and a tornado.

Once the Hellfighters got to Harlem, family and friends cheered for them. Here, the people also mourned those who had died in battle.

Since the group had fought longer, they had lost more men. In total, 1,400 casualties were reported.

The Unique Legacy Of The Harlem Hellfighters

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

About 70 percent of the Hellfighters were from Harlem. Even as peace prevailed and war became a more distant memory, the Hellfighters were still fondly remembered.

In France, they were referred to as the “Men of Bronze.” Their bravery on the waterfront had undoubtedly left a mark.

Another legacy they managed to leave was of a more musical nature. They took jazz music to Europe, and it delighted their hosts.

The Hellfighters’ band leader, James Reese, said that wherever they gave a concert, there was a “riot.” The French were truly impressed by their performances:

“We played to 50,000 people, at least, and had we wished it, we might be playing yet.”

The Frustration Back Home

Although the world knew how brave the Hellfighters had been, there was frustration that their contribution did not count for much back in the U.S.

Even though the group got home to a cheerful welcome, little had changed, with many whites fearing that the Black men’s participation in the war would make Black Americans clamor for more rights. That is pretty much what eventually happened.

In New Orleans, a white speaker said to the Black crowd:

“You [Blacks] are wondering how you are going to be treated after the war. Well, I’ll tell you, you are going to be treated exactly like you were before the war. This is a white man’s country, and we expect to rule it.”

The Deadly Racial Riots Began

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

During that summer, there were huge race riots throughout the country, which later earned the name “Red Summer of 1919.” Hundreds died, and war heroes like Johnson struggled to get back into civilian life.

He accused white soldiers of racism and cowardice. From there, he stepped away from the limelight and died a decade later of an enlarged heart.

Correcting History

the story of the harlem hellfighters, the overlooked black heroes of world war i

Fortunately for the Harlem Hellfighters and the bravery they displayed, they got another chance to get the respect they deserved from their country in recent years.

It is the least they deserve, given the sacrifices they made for their country despite the racism they had to contend with.

President Bill Clinton, in 1996, gave Johnson and Roberts Purple Hearts. Almost two decades later, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the highest recommendation in the country by giving him a Medal of Honor.

Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Willson of the New York Army National Guard accepted the Medal of Honor on Johnson’s behalf from former U.S. President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony in 2015.

While giving the award, Obama said:

“We can do our best to make it right… It’s never too late to say thank you.”

Considering that Obama was America’s first Black president, the honor Johnson and Harlem Hellfighters got couldn’t have come at a better time.