1918-1919 Harlem Hellfighters The black heroes of the 369th
The 369th Infantry Regiment was the first African-American regiment to fight in World War I. First constituted on June 2, 1913 as the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard, it was renamed in 1918,
The 369th shipped out at the end of 1917 and was assigned to labor service roles upon arrival in France. The regiment had faced significant discrimination and harassment from civilians and fellow soldiers while in training in the U.S., and in France many white American soldiers refused to serve alongside them.
In April 1918, command of the 369th was handed over to the French Army. The men of the regiment were issued French helmets and weapons and sent into combat. The French, for the most part, did not share the prejudices of their American counterparts, and were happy to serve with the men of the 369th.
The “Harlem Hellfighters” quickly established a reputation for remarkable courage and effectiveness. In 191 days of combat, it is said they never lost a foot of ground or had a man taken prisoner, and only once failed to take an objective. They were the first Allied unit to reach the banks of the Rhine at the conclusion of the war.
The 369th was also famed for its marching band, which proved to be a consistent booster of morale. Led by pioneering composer Lt. James Reese Europe, the band traveled thousands of miles around France, entertaining troops and introducing ragtime and jazz to European ears.
One of the most famous Harlem Hellfighters was Sgt. Henry Johnson, a 130-pound porter from Albany, New York. Posted on a night watch in the Argonne Forest, Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts came under attack from dozens of German soldiers. Roberts was quickly incapacitated, but continued to pass weapons to his comrade.
Johnson fought on ferociously, first with a box of grenades, then with his rifle, and at last with his knife and hands as the Germans swarmed his trench. Finally the Germans retreated at the sound of French reinforcements. Johnson had sustained 21 bullet and shrapnel wounds, but he had killed four enemies, wounded 10 to 20, and held the line.
For this he was awarded the Croix du Guerre, France’s highest military honor, along with the Gold Palm for exceptional valor. Due to an error in his discharge records, he was denied a Purple Heart and disability pension despite his wounds.
Johnson died in poverty in 1929 and was buried honorably at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1996 he was posthumously awarded his Purple Heart, and in 2001, the Distinguished Service Cross.
With the end of the war, the 369th returned to New York City and a hero’s welcome. The Harlem Hellfighters marched up Fifth Avenue and through their namesake neighborhood to the cheers of thousands.