The Harlem Hellfighters

I will do an article for ‘Black History Month’ and may include it in the April issue (March has already been written about Bass Reeves) of the magazine I write for (www.albemarletradewinds.com). Occasionally I come across people that I have long ago forgotten, and today’s youth do not know about, this is one of those times. I will give you a little insight into THE HARLEM HELLFIGHTERS.

               The 369th infantry regiment, originally formed as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment before being reorganized as the 369th upon federalization and commonly referred to as the Harlem Hellfighters, was as infantry regiment of the New York National Guard during WWI and WWII. The regiment consisted mainly of African Americans, though it also included men from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guyana, Liberia, Portugal, Canada, the West Indies, as well as American White officers. With the 369th Infantry Regiment, it was known for being one of the first African American regiments to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces during WWI.

               In April 1917 the United States declared war on Germany, and the following month the 15th New York reported to Camp Peekskill, New York, for a short course of rifle training. The regiment was officially mustered into federal service in July and ordered to Camp Whitman, outside of Poughkeepsie, New York, for basic training. It soon became clear that the 15th would be held apart from the rest of the army. The men of the 15th would face even worse treatment where they were ordered to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and harassment and verbal abuse became a matter of routine.

               The regiment was named the ‘BLACK RATTLERS’ after arriving in France by its commander Col. William Hayward. The nickname ‘MEN OF BRONZE’ was given to the regiment by the French after they witnessed the gallantry of the Americans fighting in the trenches. Legend has it that they were called the ‘HELLFIGHTERS’ by the German enemy. During WWI, the 369th spent 191 days in frontline trenches, more than any other American unit. They also suffered the most losses of any American regiment, with 1500 casualties. The regiment was also the first of the Allied Forces to cross the Rhine into Germany.

               The 369th bought their music to Europe. The 369th ‘Hellfighters Band’ was relied upon not only in battle but also for morale. By the end of their tour, they became one of the most famous military bands throughout Europe. While overseas the 369th Regiment made up less than 1% of the soldiers deployed but was responsible for over 20% of the territory of all the assigned to the United States. During the war the 369th band introduced the until-then unknown music called ‘JAZZ’ to British, French, and other European audiences.

               All African American US Army units were renamed as ‘Colored’, and the 369th served in WWII as the 369th Artillery Regiment (Antiaircraft) (Colored), with its successor being the 369th Infantry Regiment (Colored). At some time, postwar, the 369th was re-formed into the present-day 369th SUSTAINMENT BRIGADE.

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