Remembering The Courageous Harlem Hellfighters Of World War I

At the onset of World War I, any African American that wished to fight had to enlist in the French or Canadian armies. This all changed with the 369th Infantry Regiment.

First constituted as the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard on June 2, 1913, the 369th Infantry was organized on June 29, 1916, called into Federal service on July 25, 1917 at Camp Whitman, New York. At Camp Whitman, the 369th learned basics such as military courtesy, how to address officers, and how to salute along with how to stay low and out of sight during attacks and how to march in formation. After training, the 369th was split into three battalions that guarded rail lines, construction sites and other camps throughout New York.

On October 8, 1917, the 369th traveled to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to receive training in actual combat. The men of the 369th encountered hostility and racism from local shopkeepers in Spartanburg throughout training, although fellow soldiers often came to their defense. On December 27, the 369th arrived in France.

The 369th encountered more racism from their fellow soldiers in France, who never treated them as equals. The US Army assigned the 369th to the French Army on April 8, 1918, because many white American soldiers refused to fight with black soldiers. Although they continued to wear US uniforms, the men of the 369th were issued French weapons, helmets, and brown leather belts and pouches.

The French treated the men of the 369th as equals and the following month, the “Harlem Hellfighters” were fighting in the trenches on the Western Front. By the end of their infantry campaign, they were present in the Champagne – Marne Offensive, Meuse – Argonne Offensive, Champagne 1918 and Alsace 1918 campaigns and distinguished battles such as Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry. Serving nearly six months on the front lines, they earned many distinguished awards including France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre.

The Harlem Hellfighters returned to New York City as heroes at the end of the war. On February 17, 1919, thousands lined the streets and cheered as the 369th marched from 61st Street up into Harlem as they forever changed the white American public’s opinion of black soldiers.

Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor.

The US Army on the Western Front, 1918
Troops of the American 369th Infantry Regiment (the Harlem Hellfighters/Black Rattlers), 93rd Infantry Division, Maffrecourt.

Hell Fighters from Harlem, painting by H. Charles McBarron, Jr.

World War I poster of the US 369th fighting German soldiers

part of the 15th Regiment Infantry New York National Guard organized by Colonel Haywood

New York’s famous 369th (old 15th) Infantry troops arrive at Hoboken, New Jersey

The Famous 369th Arrive in New York City

The famous 369th Infantry of fighters marching in New York City in honor of their return to this country.

Colors of The Famous 369th Infantry in Parade in New York City.

Crowds waiting for the parade of the famous 369th

Parade of Famous 369th Infantry on Fifth Avenue New York City. Colonel “Bill” Hayward’s famous “Hell Fighters” of the 369th Infantry march by crowds at the New York Public Library 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.