Centennial: Harlem Hell Fighters Of World War I

Harlem Hell Fighters
Harlem Hell Fighters

USA – -(AmmoLand.com)- One hundred years ago, on February 17, 1919, the African-American 369th Infantry Regiment, popularly known as the Harlem Hell Fighters, marched up Fifth Avenue into Harlem in a massive victory parade in their honor.

This year marks the centennial of the United States’ entrance into World War I — a conflict that claimed millions of lives, redrew the world map, and changed war forever. Countless stories of heroism and hardship emerged from the fight in Western Europe, and many of them involve the 369th Infantry Regiment. Members of the 369th who were awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry. Though their actions didn’t immediately alter the fight for equal rights at home, the regiment’s wartime service heightened a sense that sending African-Americans to fight for democracy abroad — while racial segregation and inequality went unchecked at home — smacked of hypocrisy

By the time the United States joined the war, its allies were in desperate need of reinforcement. The men of the 369th were sent to assist the French Army’s 16th Division on the Western Front in spring 1918. It was a strategic necessity — the Western Front desperately needed reinforcement — but it was also motivated by racial bias: Many white American soldiers refused to fight alongside their black counterparts. Even the Harlem Hellfighters’ rifles were segregated. The decision to hand off command of the 369th to the French started with some small-arms complications. After the regiment’s limited combat training stateside, they were issued Springfield rifles, which they had to give back after being assigned to the French, along with “almost every bit of American gear” they had — including helmets, Army greens, and food rations.

In place of their Springfields, the 369th received the French Lebel rifle — which had a reputation for reliability, but was temperamental and annoying to load.

Harlem Hell Fighters Private Henry Johnson
Harlem Hell Fighters Private Henry Johnson

While standing watch in the Argonne Forest in May 1918, two 369th soldiers, Pvt. Henry Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts, were attacked by a 12-man German raiding party. Outnumbered and under fire, the two men fought off the initial attack, but after Roberts was badly wounded. Johnson remained with the injured soldier to keep him from being taken prisoner by the Germans.

Wounded, advancing on the enemy with only a bolo knife, Johnson killed one German soldier by stabbing him in the head and forced the survivors to retreat. Johnson’s actions earned him national acclaim, as well as the incredibly metal nickname “Black Death.” Johnson and Roberts were among the first Americans to be presented the Croix de Guerre for valor by the French military.

And in 2015, Johnson became the second African-American to receive the Medal of Honor for actions during World War I, presented by President Barack Obama during a posthumous award ceremony at the White House.

Among the Hellfighters’ many distinguished members was James Reese Europe, a renowned ragtime and jazz musician who served as both an infantry officer and the regiment’s bandleader. Europe had a hard time finding enough trained recruits to play in the regimental band in New York, so he traveled to Puerto Rico and enlisted more than a dozen black instrumentalists from the island to round out his band, according to the New York Folklore Society . “The band, which recruited up to a third of their members from Puerto Rico, introduced European audiences, particularly in France, to live jazz music and influenced the careers of notable musicians” on both sides of the Atlantic, according to the Society.

Musicians like Europe continued to play while serving abroad, touring thousands of miles to perform, according to Rod Paschall, director of the U.S. Army’s Military History Institute. This exposure to a deeply American style of music — jazz — had a profound and lasting impact in France. It also produced a corps of Latin and black musicians who found themselves in demand in New York after their service.

“While concrete proof is impossible to produce in these sorts of social movements,” Paschall writes. “It is likely that the regiment’s band performances in 1917 and 1918 had much to do with creating or accelerating the French tastes for American jazz — a phenomenon that has persisted until this day.”

Jazz Musicians from Harlem Hell Fighters
Jazz Musicians from Harlem Hell Fighters

By the time the 369th made its way into the trenches, each member of the regiment was paired off with a French counterpart — a stab at forced harmony that would have been unthinkable in the American military at the time. The pairs then trained intensely for three weeks, near the front and amid sporadic attacks by German aircraft and artillery.

The Hellfighters quickly learned the tricks of trench warfare from their French counterparts. Those tricks included cutting off the tails of their overcoats so they wouldn’t get weighed down with mud and water; carving grooves in the mud wall with shovels to make it easier to climb out of the trenches; or curling up balls of barbed wire during the day, so that at night they could be carried with ease and then quickly unfurled to reinforce the defenses.

Knowing when to take cover, or when to be wary of a gas attack — i.e., when the wind was blowing toward your lines — all had to become second nature for the men who survived half a year in the trenches.

American military leaders expected the troops of the 369th to be terrible soldiers. Like most black recruits in World War I, they weren’t intended to fight but to be manual laborers at the front. They were issued inferior uniforms and weapons, and then, in an emergency, they were transferred to the French army, whose officers were explicitly told to treat them as second-class soldiers.

Despite the discrimination and the disadvantages, the men of the 369th became one of the war’s most decorated and celebrated units. They fought for 191 days, longer than any other U.S. unit. In that time, they never lost a trench to the enemy or a man to capture. They earned the respect of both allies and enemies. The Germans they defeated were responsible for their signature name …Harlem Hell Fighters or Men of Bronze….

Modele 1886 Lebel Rifle
Modele 1886 Lebel Rifle


The Harlem Hell Fighters used the Rifle “Modele 1886 Lebel” which was the most modern rifle for its time when introduced.

It was the first “smokeless rifle made and had a much longer shooting range for soldiers.

National African American Gun Association

About National African American Gun Association (NAAGA):

The goal of the National African American Gun Association is to have every African American introduced to firearm use for home protection, competitive shooting, and outdoor recreational activities. We are a civil rights organization focused on self preservation of our community through armed protection and community building. The National African American Gun Association provides a network for all African American firearm owners, gun clubs and outdoor enthusiasts. We welcome people of all religious, social, and racial perspectives. We especially welcome African American members of law enforcement and active/retired military.

For more information, visit: www.naaga.co.

  • 20 thoughts on “Centennial: Harlem Hell Fighters Of World War I

    1. Good stuff, keepem’ coming. These guys EARNED the respect of their counterparts, French or American (not to mention the Germans). I sincerely hope young guys today, no matter of which race they’re born into learn something of the hardships, setbacks, or successes that their forebearers went through FOR THEM. The new ground has already been ploughed for you, young men! We, indeed owe it to the memory of our ancestors to appreciate them and all they went through and did to keep this land of opportunity going. For all they did for me, for my rights and liberties, to protect us ALL from enemies, both foreign OR DOMESTIC, I thank you, red, black, white, or yellow, I thank you.

    2. Makes you think, “What have I done for my county lately?”; doesn’t it! Well…at least I hope it does. See you the high ground, Hell Fighters!

    3. The Harlem Hellfighters…..The Tuskegee Airmen… Equal to any Americans who served their country in uniform. This is a great article.

    4. My paternal grandfather was there and spent two months in hospital for mustard gas exposure. He was also unable to eat anything that came out of a can afterwards due to an allergic reaction he acquired during his service.

    5. These “Black lives” not only mattered, but made a difference. Sadly, today they would be viewed by most of the young ghetto trash of today as “Uncle Toms” or sellouts.

        1. The trouble with JPM’s comment is that it’s an all too salient point in today’s toxic culture of political correctness and progressive madness.


      Psalm 91:1-16

      He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

      I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust.”

      Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler And from the perilous pestilence.

      He shall cover you with His feathers, And under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth shall be your shield and buckler.

      You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, Nor of the arrow that flies by day,

      Nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, Nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday.

      A thousand may fall at your side, And ten thousand at your right hand; But it shall not come near you.

      Only with your eyes shall you look, And see the reward of the wicked.

      Because you have made the LORD, who is my refuge, Even the Most High, your dwelling place,

      No evil shall befall you, Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling;

      For He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you in all your ways.

      In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.

      You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra, The young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.

      “Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him on high, because he has known My name.

      He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him.

      With long life I will satisfy him, And show him My salvation.”

      Thanks to all of you who have served honorably in our Countries service.

    7. Most likely someone had to move Heaven and Earth to get the Victory Parade for the 369th.

      At the time Woodrow Wilson took over the Presidency, Blacks were being integrated into all branches of the military and the government. Wilson, a racist to the core, changed that and re-introduced segregation into the US. It remained that way until Harry Truman, another Democrat, albeit completely different from Wilson, issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948 integrating the government and the military.

      OBTW, Wilson also had a showing of “Birth of A Nation” at the White House which reinvigorated the KKK.

      1. Most people today do not know of how wilson (a democrat) destroyed the integration that had been ongoing through all segments of society since the end of the Civil War, believing that there had been an unbroken history of segregation and discrimination.

    8. The life and career, however short, of jazz pioneer James Reece Europe, would make a fascinating subject for a Hollywood film.

    9. The United States declared war on Germany April 6, 1917 and the first troops entered combat in October 1917. The war ended November 11, 1918; hence the aformentioned victory parade in 1919. Other than that, a great article.

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