Harlem Hellfighters: African American Infantry Unit in World War I

These WWI heroes are being recognized again for their wartime service

Lt. James Reese Europe’s Band
Lt. James Reese Europe and members of his 369th Infantry Regiment (Harlem Hellfighters) jazz band upon their return to the United States from Europe.

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

 

The Harlem Hellfighters were an all-black combat unit whose heroic World War I service is once again earning recognition more than a century after the end of the war. About 200,000 African Americans served in Europe during WWI and, of those, about 42,000 were involved in combat. Those servicemen included the Harlem Hellfighters, whose bravery led the 369th Infantry Regiment, originally known as the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard. The Harlem Hellfighters became one of the most decorated regiments in the war. In addition, they saw more combat and suffered more losses than other American units.

Key Takeaways: Harlem Hellfighters

  • The Harlem Hellfighters were an all-black military regiment that fought in World War I, during which the armed forces were segregated.
  • The Hellfighters saw more continuous combat and suffered more casualties than any other U.S. military unit during World War I.
  • The Harlem Hellfighters won a number of awards for their service, including the Croix de Guerre medal from France and the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor from the United States.

Origins of the Harlem Hellfighters

When World War I broke out in Europe, racial segregation was omnipresent in the United States. African Americans faced a series of statutes known as Jim Crow laws that prevented from voting and codified discrimination in schools, housing, employment and other sectors. In Southern states, more than one lynching of an African American took place per week. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war against Germany and formally entered World War I. The first American troops arrived in Europe two months later.

The U.S. military did not offer blacks respite from the racism and inhumane treatment they faced elsewhere in society. African Americans servicemen were segregated from whites, who balked at the idea of fighting alongside them. For this reason, the 369th Infantry Regiment was comprised solely of African Americans.

Because of the persistent discrimination faced by black Americans, black newspapers and some black leaders thought it hypocritical for the U.S. government to ask blacks to enlist in the war. For example, President Woodrow Wilson had refused to sign an anti-lynching bill to protect African Americans.

Other black leaders, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, argued for black participation in the conflict. “Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy,” Du Bois wrote in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. (When it was revealed that Du Bois hoped to be named a military captain, readers questioned if his sentiments were really valid.)

The mistreatment of African Americans during this time was highlighted by the fact that not all military branches even want to include them. The Marines would not accept black servicemen, and the Navy enlisted a small number in menial roles. The Army stood out for accepting the bulk of African American servicemen during World War I. But when the troops departed for Europe in 1918, the Harlem Hellfighters weren’t allowed to take part in a farewell parade because of their skin color.

Harlem Hellfighters in Combat

In Europe, where they served for six months, the Hellfighters fought under the French Army’s 16th Division. While racism was a global problem in the early 1900s (and remains so today), Jim Crow was not the law of the land in European countries such as France. For the Hellfighters, this meant the chance to show the world what skilled fighters they were. The nickname of the regiment is a direct reflection of how their combat abilities were perceived by their foes.

Indeed, the Harlem Hellfighters proved masterful foes of the Germans. During one encounter with enemy forces, Private Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts, wounded and lacking ammunition, managed to thwart a German patrol. When Roberts could no longer fight, Johnson fought the Germans off with a knife.

The Germans began to refer to members of the Harlem unit as “the hellfighters” because they were such fierce fighters. The French, on the other hand, had called the regiment “Men of Bronze.” The 369th Infantry Regiment was also described as the “Black Rattlers” because of the rattlesnake insignia on their uniforms.

The Hellfighters stood out not only for their skin color and fighting prowess but also because of the sheer amount of time they spent fighting. They took part in more continuous combat, or combat without a break, than other U.S. unit of the same size. They saw 191 days on the front lines of battle.

Seeing more continuous combat meant that the Harlem Hellfighters also experienced more casualties than other units. The 369th Infantry Regiment had more than 1,400 total casualties. These men sacrificed their lives for an America that had not given them the full benefits of citizenship.

Hellfighters After the War

Newspapers reported on their heroic efforts, and the Harlem Hellfighters' bravery in combat resulted in international fame in the U.S. and abroad. When the Hellfighters returned to the U.S. in 1919, they were welcomed with a massive parade on February 17. Some estimates say up to five million spectators took part. New Yorkers from a variety of racial backgrounds greeted 3,000 Hellfighters as they walked in the parade on Fifth Avenue, marking the first time African-American servicemen had received such a reception. It marked a drastic difference from the year before, when the regiment was excluded from the farewell parade before traveling to Europe.

The parade wasn’t the only recognition the 369th Infantry Regiment received. When World War I ended, the French government presented 171 of the fighters with the prestigious Croix de Guerre medal. France honored the entire regiment with a Croix de Guerre citation. The United States gave some members of the Harlem Hellfighters a Distinguished Service Cross, among other honors.

Remembering the Hellfighters

Although the Hellfighters received praise for their service, they faced racism and segregation in a country in which racism and segregation was the law of the land. Moreover, their contributions to World War I largely faded from public memory in the years after the war. In recent years, however, these servicemen have been the subject of renewed interest. A famous photograph taken of nine Harlem Hellfighters before their 1919 homecoming parade intrigued National Archives archivist Barbara Lewis Burger, who decided to find out more about the men pictured. The following is a brief description of each man she researched.

Pvt. Daniel W. Storms Jr. won an individual Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action. He worked as a janitor and elevator operator after his service, but died of tuberculosis three years after the victory parade. 

Henry Davis Primas Sr. won an individual Croix de Guerre for bravery. He worked as a pharmacist and for the US Post Office after WWI.

Pvt. Ed Williams’s combat skills stood out while battling the Germans at Séchault, France. The Hellfighters endured machine gun fire, poison gas and hand-to-hand combat.

Cpl. T. W. Taylor won a personal Croix de Guerre for heroism in battle. He worked as a steamship cook, dying in 1983 at age 86.

Pvt. Alfred S. Manley worked as a driver for a laundry company after the war. He died in 1933.

Pvt. Ralph Hawkins earned a Croix de Guerre that included a Bronze Star for extraordinary heroism. Following WWI, he worked as for the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. He died in 1951.

Pvt. Leon E. Fraiter worked as a jewelry store salesman after the war. He died in 1974.

Pvt. Herbert Taylor worked as a laborer in New York City and reenlisted in the Army in 1941. He died in 1984.

The Harlem Hellfighters also included Corporal Horace Pippin, who became a well known painter after the war. His arm was disabled due to a battle wound, so he painted by using his left arm to hold up his right arm. He credited the war with inspiring him as an artist: “I can never forget suffering, and I will never forget sun set,” he wrote in a letter featured at the Smithsonian. “That is when you could see it. So I came home with all of it in my mind. And I paint from it to day.”

He painted his first oil painting, “The End of the War: Starting Home,” in 1930. It shows black soldiers storming German troops. Pippin died in 1946, but his letters have helped to describe what the war was like firsthand.

In addition to Pippin, Henry Johnson has received significant recognition for his service as a Harlem Hellfighter. In 2015, he posthumously received a U.S. Medal of Honor for fending off a group of German soldiers with just a knife and the butt of his rifle.

Legacy Today

Museums, veterans’ groups, and individual artists have paid tribute to the Harlem Hellfighters. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, has an exhibition called “Double Victory: The African American Military Experience,” which highlights the achievements of the Hellfighters and other black servicemen.

The 369th Veterans’ Association was established to honor members of the 369th infantry, and the Hellfighters were the subject of a graphic novel called the Harlem Hellfighters.

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