The Harlem Hellfighters: The Most Storied African-American Combat Unit of World War I
On the Western Front of World War I, death did not discriminate. Artillery screaming towards the trenches treated men of all color the same. But the soldiers of the 92nd and 93rd divisions lived segregated lives both in and out of war. These all-black units, which served under mostly white officers, readily took up arms with their fellow Americans, hopeful that their patriotism and service would lead to better treatment at home.
Nearly 380,000 African-Americans served in the Great War. The majority were assigned to labor and stevedore battalions—digging ditches, building roads, and supplying the front lines. Throughout the course of the war, only about one in ten African-Americans in the U.S. military served in a combat role. The 369th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, was one of the exceptions. This unit, which was formerly the 15th New York National Guard regiment, fought on the front lines.
The 369th landed at Brest, France in December 1917. In March 1918 the regiment began training under French command due to their need for replacements. Despite the expectation that this arrangement would be temporary, members of the 369th never served under American command during the war. By summer they were fighting in the Champagne-Marne Defensive and the Aisne-Marne Offensive.
The Harlem Hellfighters saw grisly combat during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which began on September 26, 1918. On that first day the 369th captured the town of Ripont, and pushed forward one kilometer the following day. Despite stubborn resistance at the end of the month, the 369th advanced to a critical position near Séchault on September 30, capturing a key railroad junction. In a matter of days, these advances cost the regiment 851 men, and shortly after they were relieved from the front lines. In recognition of their bravery during the offensive, 171 officers and men received medals, and the regiment received the Croix de Guerre.
The 369th returned to a huge, victory parade in New York in February 1919. People crowded the streets, welcoming home these brave soldiers. But despite this celebration, little to nothing had changed in their day-to-day lives. And it would take another world war, and decades of civil rights activism before the hopes of these African-American doughboys would be realized. In fact, the inequalities experienced by these brave men is still being remedied today. Legislation passed Congress in December 2014 to pave the way for Sgt. Henry Johnson, who served with the 369th, to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions during World War I. While there was no official policy of discrimination regarding the Medal of Honor, during World War I prejudice in the Armed Services prevented African-Americans such as Johnson from receiving the honor.
But in death, the Harlem Hellfighters no longer faced segregation. There are 169 members of the 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division buried or memorialized at ABMC cemeteries–the majority at Meuse-Argonne, but also at Aisne-Marne, Oise-Aisne, St. Mihiel, and Suresnes. As in all ABMC sites, these cemeteries are integrated. Race or rank had no determination on burial location.