11 Nov 2022

We Return Fighting: A Veterans Day Black History Moment, The Harlem Hellfighters, Honor Long Overdue

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: American Empire, Black History, Bobby's World, Books, Culture
The 369th, Harlem Hellfighters, in French helmets and French weapons.

A Veteran’s Day Moment: The Harlem Hellfighters, Honor Long Overdue (Veterans Day comes from Armistice Day, the first anniversary of the end of World War I, so have chosen to write about a unit from World War I).

I have written on the Harlem Hellfighters on Facebook during Black History Month, but I do so again today. The unrequited love of many veterans of color is all the more reason to honor them. They fought for freedom not only in Europe but the tyranny that prevailed right here in the USA. We cannot ignore their experiences because to do so dishonors them even more.

Brief Background of African Americans in the US Military

Most Americans have heard of elite units like the Navy Seals, the Army’s Green Berets, and the 101st Airborne Division and there is nothing wrong with that. They are justly famous.

But if we have heard of those units, the question is why most Americans have no clue who the 369th Infantry Regiment, aka, The Harlem Hellfighters were. Chances are we do not know … this is why we need black history precisely because that history has been systematically repressed.

Prior to World War I, African Americans had fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, used throughout the “Indian Wars,” the War with Spain in 1898. Each time they distinguished themselves. Each time there was the hope that respect, dignity and some sort of equality in American society would emerge. Each time those hopes were dashed.

In fact, prior to the Civil War Southern slave owners worked hard to ban black participation in the United States Military. A black solider was a direct challenge to the ideology of white supremacy and could not be tolerated. As early as 1792, though thousands of blacks and native Americans served in the Continental Army, the Federal Militia Act banned blacks from service in the US Army. The Navy remained open to blacks and they comprised approximately 15 to 20 percent of the Navy in the War of 1812.

February 17, 1919, the 369th, Harlem Hellfighters, paraded into Harlem to a heroes welcome. W. E. B. DuBois believed it was a significant moment. And many date the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance to this moment. Sadly, the return of Black veterans saw the rise of massive racial violence throughout the “Red Summer” of 1919.

But during the Civil War, the United States needed men to fight the slave enemy the Confederate States (a nation established for the sole purpose of white supremacy). The United States ended up arming over 200,000 black men to fight for the freedoms specified for all people in our founding documents like the Declaration of Independence. After the War, many once again tried to squeeze African Americans out of the United States armed forces. Jim Crow hit the Army and Navy with a vengeance and black soldiers with Old Glory flying above them were often treated worse than black civilians precisely because they were a threat to the hegemony of white supremacy.

By the time World War I came, there was only a small number of black men in the Army or Navy being forced out by numerous methods. Woodrow Wilson, a rabid racist, and the War Department was extremely reluctant to arm and employ African Americans and did so only after considerable pressure. However, by the end of the war 220,000 black men had been sent to Europe. Most were relegated to labor battalions but 30,000 were sent to the trenches.

The Harlem Hellfighters

The 369th was created and then shipped to France on December 17, 1917. General Pershing had insisted that American troops would never be under British or French command. Apparently this did not include black American soldiers. So the US Army assigned the 369th to the French government on April 8, 1918. They were trained on French weapons and even wore French helmets. Then the War Department instructed the French not to praise the men or to let them mingle with French citizenry too much. The French were to practice segregation toward black American solders as in the United States (which did not exist in France).

By the end of the War, the 369th had spent more days in combat (191 days in the trenches) than any other American unit, at the same time suffered more casualties than any other unit (1,500). They fought in the Battle of Chateau-Thierry and the Battle of Belleau Wood during the Aisne-Marne Campaign (27 May – 5 June 1918). They were chosen to lead Allied forces across the Rhine into Germany.

These black soliders impressed both the French and the Germans beyond measure. It was the Germans who dubbed the 369th, Harlem Hellfighters because they were the “fighters from hell.” The French awarded the Croix de Guerre to 170 individual members of the 369th and awarded to the unit as a whole with unit citation was awarded to the entire regiment. It was pinned to the unit’s colors.

Henry Johnson (1892-1929). Interestingly enough, Johnson’s story is told in the song Don’t Tread on Me (Harlem Hellfighters) by the Ukrainian rock band, 1914.

Henry Johnson of the 369th (why do we not know his name!?) became one of the most famous soldiers of the day. Johnson was a forward lookout and came under attack by a German unit. He ran out of ammunition but had killed four of the enemy. Then he engaged in hand to hand combat with a bolo knife and single-handedly captured 22 Germans! He was the first American to be awarded the Croix de Guerre. (The Croix de Guerre is France’s highest military honor equivalent to the Congressional Medal of Honor).

One of the many indignities endured by these brave men because of their skin color was that the U. S. War Department insisted that black soldiers not be depicted in the heroic frieze displayed in France’s Pantheon de la Guerre. They were treated far better in France than by their own country both the government and the people.

Following the war, the Harlem Hellfighters returned victoriously to Harlem. They were the stuff of legend, even as black men their deeds had become famous. W. E. B. DuBois understood the revolutionary significance of black soldiers in America. He wrote after the parade into Harlem, reflecting on the irony of making the world “safe for democracy.”

The 402 foot Pantheon de la Guerre, the US War Department forbade the French government from depicting black soldiers in this post World War I memorial to the victors of that conflict.

“The faults of OUR country are OUR faults. Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.




Make way for democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.” [his emphasis].

Post War

The period following the War saw a massive surge in racial violence in the United States. Two hundred and twenty thousand blacks in Europe had seen a radically different society. They had been tested and found triumphant. As DuBois stated “the Negroes will come back feeling like men.”

Newspapers across the USA published warnings that trouble would come if a black veteran decided to parade his medals. The New Orleans paper stated, [this quote has an offensive word in it, I quote it as written] “You niggers 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.”

Harris’s Harlem Hellfighters is a great read, wonderfully documented. I highly recommend it.

The exploits of the Harlem Hellfighters, the most famous American unit of World War I, were relegated to the sideline. They were as if “nothing.” Eventually they were simply forgotten. They were honored more by the French, and ironically the Germans, than by the United States. Theirs is a story we ought to know. We ought to celebrate them.

But what they endured for us, and by us, is a travesty and a national shame. Which makes their valor that much more impressive. They loved the United States far more than the United States loved them.

Did you/Do you know the Harlem Hellfighters? Why not? This is why we need Black History Month and Black History in general. We should know them as much as we do the 101st Airborne.

Among the good reads see Stephen Harris’s Harlem’s Hellfighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I. (I make not one cent from recommending this book).

Suggested Links for More Learning:

Black History Month: For the Love of Christ Compels Me

Black History Month: Where did it Come from? And Why?

The Harlem Renaissance

2 Responses to “We Return Fighting: A Veterans Day Black History Moment, The Harlem Hellfighters, Honor Long Overdue”

  1. JT Says:

    Excellent, interesting post, Bobby. Thank you. And for the book referral too!


  2. A. Ruth Miller Says:

    Having nothing else to wear when they came home oftentimes, these heroes met resentment that manifested itself in violence from many members of the white communities from which they came.


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