One particular regiment, the 369th Infantry, later known as the "Harlem Hellfighters" heroically fought on the front lines and received the French Croix de Guerre. Their story is recounted in a 2014 novel by Max Brooks and a movie version of the novel to be produced by Will Smith.
Harlem Hellfighters Facts for kids: Fast Fact Sheet
Who were the Harlem Hellfighters? The Harlem Hellfighters were a regiment in the 369th Infantry who heroically fought on the front lines and the whole regiment received the French Croix de Guerre, a medal awarded to soldiers from Allied countries for bravery in combat.
Who were the most famous Harlem Hellfighters? The names of the most famous Harlem Hellfighters were Henry Lincoln Johnson, Needham Roberts and James Reese Europe.
Why were the Harlem Hellfighters important? Their bravery during WW1 changed the American public's opinion on African American soldiers and helped pave the way for future African American soldiers.
Where did the Harlem Hellfighters fight? They fought on the Western Front, notably in the Battle of Chateau-Thierry and the Battle of Belleau Wood during the Aisne-Marne Campaign (27 May - 5 June 1918).
Facts about Facts on Harlem Hellfighters
The "Harlem Hellfighters" was an all-black National Guard unit, the 369th Infantry, that was among the first American forces to arrive in Europe during World War I. The 369th Infantry was originally the 15th New York (Colored) Regiment.
The 369th regiment commenced basic training at Camp Whitman in July 1917 then reassigned to Spartanburg, South Carolina to complete their training. They were deployed to France and reached the Western Front in January 1918.
The "Harlem Hellfighters" received their nickname from the German enemy who referred to them as Hell Fighters - 70% of the 369th Infantry considered Harlem to be their home.
The 369th was under the command of mostly white officers including their commander, Colonel William Hayward. The 92d and 93d Divisions had some black officers, although white officers dominated the command structure.
The African Americans in WW1 served in racially segregated units and most were limited to serving in labor battalions - the Harlem Hellfighters were an exception.
General John J. Pershing assigned the 369th to the 16th Division of the French Army. The 369th were trained to use French weapons and they wore French helmets - the French helmet became the official patch of the unit.
The 369th bravely fought on the Western Front, the fighting zone in France and Flanders during WW1, notably in the Battle of Chateau-Thierry and the Battle of Belleau Wood during the Aisne-Marne Campaign (27 May - 5 June 1918)
The Hell Fighters served for more than 6 months on the front lines and suffered more than 1400 casualties
The Hell fighters" never lost a prisoner or gave up a foot of captured ground. Their motto was "God damn, let's go."
The Harlem Hellfighters spent 191 days in front line trenches, more than any other American unit. They were the first unit to cross the Rhine into Germany.
Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were famous Hell Fighter heroes. In May 1918 Johnson and Roberts were defending a lookout post on the Western Front when they were attacked by a German unit. Both were wounded but they refused to surrender. Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were the first Americans awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Hell Fighter, James Reese Europe, was the first African-American officer to lead troops into battle during WW1 and survived a poison gas attack. He became the regimental jazz band leader and famously introduced jazz music to the French and British.
The regiment was relieved on December 12, 1918 from assignment to the French 161st Division, and returned to the New York Port of Embarkation.
The 369th was the first New York unit to return to America, and was the first unit to march up Fifth Avenue from the Washington Square Park Arch to their armory in Harlem marching to the music of their regimental jazz band leader, James Reese Europe.
The 369th was demobilized on February 28, 1919 at Camp Upton at Yaphank, New York, and returned to the New York Army National Guard.
The whole regiment was awarded the French military honor, the Croix de Guerre, and 171 of the officers and troops received individual citations for bravery, more than any other American unit in WW1.
African American soldiers were originally nicknamed "Buffalo Soldiers". The original Buffalo Soldiers were members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army, and given the nickname by Native Americans. The nickname "Buffalo Soldiers" became synonymous with all of the African American regiments until the emergence of the Harlem Hell Fighters.
400,000 African Americans were drafted under the 1917 Selective Draft Act but only 42,000 African American soldiers, including the Harlem Hellfighters, served overseas as combat troops.
The Harlem Hellfighters continue to serve the nation at home and abroad. They returned home in January 2005 from a year long deployment overseas where they provided logistical support for the United States and allied forces in Southern and Central Iraq.
Author Max Brooks, the son of actress Anne Bancroft and actor Mel Brooks, wrote a novel called 'The Harlem Hellfighters' which was published in 2014 containing a fictionalized account of the experiences of the African American 369th Infantry Regiment.
Sony Pictures has purchased the rights to create a movie version of the novel to be produced by Will Smith via his production company Overbrook Entertainment
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