The Harlem Hellfighters: The Incredible Story Behind the Most Decorated US Regiment in WWI

February 15, 2021 Updated: February 15, 2021

In his commencement address at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University in June 1924, almost six years after World War I ended, President Calvin Coolidge paid tribute to African Americans who had fought in it:

“The colored people have repeatedly proved their devotion to the high ideals of our country. They gave their services in the war with the same patriotism and readiness that other citizens did. The records of the selective draft show that somewhat more than 2,250,000 colored men were registered. The records further prove that, far from seeking to avoid participation in the national defense, they showed that they wished to enlist before the selective service act was put into operation, and they did not attempt to evade that act afterwards.”

American involvement in that European calamity remains controversial to this day. Personally, I regard it as one of the two greatest foreign policy blunders since the dawn of the 20th century (the other being the Iraq War of 2003). However, one can oppose the decisions of politicians and still admire the battlefield valor of those who carried them out.

When Woodrow Wilson and the Congress committed America to the war in April 1917, the country’s black citizens could rightfully ask (and some did), “What’s in it for us?” Wilson said America must “make the world safe for democracy” but right here at home, democracy was all too often denied to blacks. Wilson himself regarded them as second-class citizens. He promoted segregation throughout the federal government and turned a blind eye to discrimination by state and local governments.

Nonetheless, African Americans went to war, many of them hoping they might defeat both Germans abroad and racism at home if they proved themselves in battle. Coolidge’s high praise was richly earned, and no contingent of African Americans deserved it more than the US Army’s 369th Infantry, a volunteer regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

Where did their nickname come from? Harlem (in New York City) was home to many of the enlistees. No one seems sure, but it was either the French or the Germans who first referred to them as Hellfighters because of the fierceness with which they fought. And none fought more ferociously than Henry Johnson. On one night in the Argonne Forest, Johnson endured 21 wounds as he killed four Germans in hand-to-hand combat and rescued a fellow American—all in a matter of minutes. An entire platoon of 28 German soldiers scattered and fled at the sight of Johnson’s prowess.

Formed from a New York National Guard unit, the men of the 369th learned basic military practices at Camp Whitman, New York, before being sent to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for combat training. They weren’t welcomed by many of the locals there, and some were subjected to discrimination and vile epithets for no more reason than their color. In December 1917, they were shipped to France where they expected to see action on the front lines.

Their high spirits were quickly dashed when it became apparent the Army didn’t want to deploy them for anything other than manual labor, far from the fighting. Even the rifles they brought with them were confiscated by U.S. Army officials.

The commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Gen. John J. Pershing, was reluctant to commit any U.S. troops to the front until he felt he had assembled them in sufficient numbers to ensure victory. The French, meanwhile, were desperate for manpower. Finally bowing to French pressure, Pershing gave them the 369th. While some regarded black troops as expendable, they ultimately proved themselves indispensable.

Consider this amazing record of the Harlem Hellfighters: No American unit experienced more time in combat than they did—no less than 191 days under fire. They never lost an inch of ground. The enemy never captured a single of their number. They suffered the highest casualty rate of any U.S. regiment. None deserted. The grateful French bestowed their highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre, upon the entire regiment. Many individuals of the regiment received the U.S. Army’s second-highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross. Posthumously, Henry Johnson received America’s Medal of Honor in 2015. The 369th ended up as the most decorated U.S. regiment of the war.

Another distinguishing feature of the Harlem Hellfighters was their band, the largest and best-known of any regiment. Its leader was James Reese Europe, whose enlistment in 1917 proved to be a boon for recruitment. He was one of America’s best-known black musicians and others such as Noble Sissle, who became Europe’s lieutenant and lead vocalist, were eager to serve with him.

369th regiment
The 369th Infantry Regiment band played jazz for American wounded in the courtyard of a Paris hospital in 1918. (Library of Congress)

Europe’s band was extremely popular with the French, even when Europe introduced his own arrangement of “La Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem. The Hellfighters’ band brought both jazz and ragtime music to France, where nobody had heard either before.

James Reese Europe was tragically murdered in May 1919 by a disgruntled band member. Sissle went on to great fame in music and stage. He formed a life-long partnership with black musician Eubie Blake. The musical that the two of them produced in 1921, “Shuffle Along,” ran for more than 500 performances on Broadway and is credited with igniting the magnificent flowering of culture we know as the Harlem Renaissance.

No story of the Harlem Hellfighters, which I encourage readers to explore through the links provided below, would be complete without a mention of a white man, Col. William Hayward, a native of Nebraska. Hayward served as the regiment’s commander from its inception. He was a champion of black soldiers and loved by his men, in whom Hayward never lost faith. He was an unwavering defender of equal rights for all colors. When the 369th returned to New York in 1919, it was Hayward (not Wilson or Pershing) who ensured there would be a massive parade to welcome them. That reception by cheering throngs in the streets of New York was a glorious moment of racial harmony.

No matter what you think about America entering World War I, and no matter what color your skin, you can celebrate the heroic Harlem Hellfighters. They were among the best.

For Additional Information, See:

“James Reece Europe and the Hellfighters” (video) from part 2 of Ken Burns’ “Jazz”

“The Harlem Hellfighters” (video) from the History Channel

“The Harlem Hellfighters’ Great War” (video) from IMDb TV

“Harlem Hellfighters 369th Infantry” from A&E (video)

“The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage” by Walter Dean Myers and Bill Miles

“The Hellfighters of Harlem” by Bill Harris

“Harlem’s Hellifighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I” by Stephen L. Harris

“The Harlem Hellfighters” (novel) by Max Brooks

“One Hundred Years Ago, the Harlem Hellfighters Bravely Led the U.S. Into World War I” by Erick Trickey

Lawrence W. Reed is FEE’s President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty, having served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is the author of the 2020 book, “Was Jesus a Socialist?” as well as “Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction” and “Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism.” Follow on LinkedIn and Twitter and Like his public figure page on Facebook. His website is LawrenceWReed.com
This article was originally published on FEE.org.