The Harlem Hell fighters commissioned

Date: 
Mon, 1913-06-02

*The Harlem Hell fighters were commissioned on this date in, 1913. They were an all black WWI 369th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army.

They were a unit in the New York Army National Guard in the 15th New York Infantry Regiment. The Hell Fighters were assembled on June 29th that year and called into Federal service on July 25th 1917 at Camp Whitman, New York. While at Camp Whitman, the 369th Infantry learned basic military practices. These basics included military courtesy, how to address officers and how to salute. They also learned how to stay low and out of sight during attacks, stand guard and how to march in formation. After their training at Camp Whitman, the 369th was called into active duty in New York. While there, the 369th was split into three battalions in which they guarded rail lines, construction sites and other camps throughout New York. On October 8, 1917 the Regiment traveled to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where they received combat training that was set up similar to the French battlefields.

While at Camp Wadsworth they experienced significant racism from the local communities and from other units. There was one incident in which two soldiers from the 15th Regiment, Lieutenant James Reese Europe and Noble Sissle, were refused by the owner of a shop when they attempted to buy a newspaper. Several soldiers from the white 27th Division came to aid their fellow soldiers. Lieutenant Europe had commanded them to leave before violence erupted. There were many other shops that refused to sell goods to the members of the 15th Regiment, so members of the 27th and 71st Divisions told the shop owners that if they did not serve black soldiers that they could close their stores and leave town. The white soldiers stated, "They're our buddies and we won't buy from men who treat them unfairly."

Before to the 369th’s assignment to work directly under the French, General Pershing issued a warning to the French military in a pamphlet entitled: “Secret Information Concerning the Black American Troops.”  The directive essentially warns the French that if they work too closely or too well with the members of the 369th, then white Americans would hold it against them.  “The increasing number of Negroes in the United States (about 15,000,000) would create for the white race in the Republic a menace of degeneracy were it not that an impassable gulf has been made between them…” Later the booklet stated: “Although a citizen of the United States, the black man is regarded by the white American as an inferior being …” Pershing booklet was ignored by the French who were used to fighting alongside colonists of other colors from other countries), the men of the 369th were out dedicating themselves to doing their part to win the war. They became known not only for their fearsome fighting, but they also proved their endurance: They fought from the trenches for 191 days longer than any other American unit.  None of their soldiers were ever captured though they did eventually lose about half the regiment (1500 losses) toward the end of the war. Ultimately, their war record showed a unit that consistently went above and beyond to fight for the Allies. After the war, the French Army acknowledged their fine work. The regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the highest honor given by the French. There were also 171 individual medals awarded to members of the 369th. The units Regiment Marching Band was commanded by Lieutenant Europe, one of the best known jazz bandleaders in the U.S. He and the military band are said to have introduced jazz to the Allies.

The 369th was the first full regiment to return to the United States so they were first to be honored by a parade. The festivities began early on the morning of February 17, 1919.  The Harlem Hell fighters paraded up Fifth Avenue from 23rd Street to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue.  The schools in Harlem were dismissed for the day so students could be on hand to welcome the soldiers home. At the parade’s conclusion, the men, followed by family and friends, loaded up subway car after subway car to travel to the 34th Street Armory where the celebration continued. But this parade was to be the only one in which they were included. When a Victory Parade was held in later months for the entire military, the Harlem Hell fighters were not permitted to participate.

After WWI they were absorbed into the National Guard. The 15th Infantry Regiment NYARNG was assigned on December 1st 1917 to the 185th Infantry Brigade. It was commanded by Col. William Hayward, a member of the Union League Club of New York, which sponsored the 369th in the tradition of the 20th U.S. Colored Infantry, which the club had sponsored in the Civil War. The 15th Infantry Regiment shipped out from the New York Port of Embarkation on December 27th 1917, and joined its brigade upon arrival in France. The unit was relegated to labor service duties instead of combat training. The 185th Infantry Brigade was assigned on January 5th 1918 to the 93rd Division. The 15th Infantry Regiment, NYARNG was reorganized and re-designated on March 1st 1918 as the 369th Infantry Regiment, but the unit continued labor service duties while it awaited a decision as to its future.

The unit survives today as the 369th Support Battalion of the New York Army National Guard.

Reference:
PBS