Harlem Hellfighters


Maybe they could see a better future than others around them. Maybe they held more hope for humanity in their home country even amongst the ravages of war-torn Europe. Before the Tuskegee Airmen there was the Harlem Hellfighters, the most renowned black regiment in World War I.

The origin of the nickname is not entirely clear, but as the name indicates these men were mostly from New York, specifically Harlem, and were the first black troops in New York’s National Guard and the first all black unit originally known as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment. From teenagers to middle aged men and all manner of employment, to be a member of this regiment was prestigious. However prestige in Harlem did not translate into regard when the Hellfighters trained in Spartanburg, South Carolina when the country was still in the thick of the Jim Crow Era. The commander of the regiment asked the men to stand strong against any racial slurs and intimidation and not retaliate, but to report any such events to military authorities.

The 15th arrived in France in January of 1918, and they made an immediate impression. While the French may have heard jazz before, they had not heard jazz this up close and personal. Many of Harlem’s first class musicians enlisted and were part of the top notch marching band for the 15th. Upon arriving in France, military and citizens alike were treated to a jazz rendition of “La Marseillaise”. Every French sailor and soldier there saluted them.

Now named the U.S 369th Infantry Division they were assigned to the Army’s Services of Supply. They did not stay there long. The French and British were insisting on American reinforcements and the 369th was sent up. It was in the trenches on the front lines the Harlem Hellfighters earned their name in blood, sweat, tears, and the ultimate sacrifice. The Hellfighters were on the front more than any other Americans during World War I. The French government awarded the Croix de Guerre medal to 171 members of the regiment, and a Croix de Guerre citation to the unit. The Croix de Guerre, is France’s best-known Great War military decoration given, for distinguished service during World War I.

The issues the Hellfighters faced when they left the U.S. did not magically disappear while they were gone. When they came home they still had to fight battles of racism and discrimination on their own shores. However, it can never be said that the Harlem Hellfighters were not willing to give everything for a country where so many did not appreciate it. They laid another piece of the foundation alongside their predecessors for those who would come after to fight for equality for black Americans.