WWI’s Harlem Hellfighters Fought For Equality With Their Very Lives

They fought in both world wars, a unit of mostly black but some Puerto Rican American soldiers. The unit was so feared by the Germans they gave them the name hellfighters.

The 369th infantry regiment, otherwise known as the Harlem Hellfighters was the first unit to cross into Germany in WWI. They were an accomplished regiment, leading the war effort, but they also shifted public opinion about black soldiers.

Mixed in with the triumphant story of a fearless group of fighters, the story of the 369th is demonstrative of how fast the winds of social ignorance can shift, and how fast we can forget the past. It begins with their return from the war.

A Soldier’s Welcome

However the men from the 369th left home, when they returned, it was to a rainfall of ticker tape and candy. On February 18th, 1919, New York hosted a parade for the boys.

It was like nobody remembered the state of affairs.

Perhaps it was because the 369th parade was not only the return of the first black regiment from WWI, they were the first full regiment to return (even though they lost 1,500 men in the war). The whole of the 369th was home, not a few wounded soldiers.

For six months these men had served well under the French Army. They fought so well, the French awarded them the Croix de Guerre or Military Cross, a prestigious honor as awesome as the epithet given to them by the Germans.

For a day at least, they were more than our black soldiers, they represented all American soldiers. It was like they were the whole war come home.

For about 70% of the men, they were home: Harlem, New York.

Telling Their Story

Although most of us study history, especially the history of war, especially the recent wars, few history classes spend time on the 369th.

There are too many military units to cover them all, but the 369th was something special. One would think they’d get a paragraph or two in our history books.

Don’t feel bad if this is the first you’ve heard of them. When Max Brooks, author of the graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters, asked his history professor about them, the man (who was black) replied, “There were no black soldiers in World War I.”

He wasn’t being sarcastic. The odd hole in our military strategy where blacks were not accepted begs us to ask why not?

The fact that it is a unique feature of history, makes it even more of a story, one that most history students won’t learn until college or later.

Black Soldiers

As a history teacher, Brooks’ professor had to know that we did, in fact, enlist black soldiers during the Great War. What he probably meant was there were few.

The marines did not enlist blacks at the time, but the navy enlisted a few and the army enlisted more than them.

What’s even odder to note is that prior to the great war, we had black soldiers in previous wars. Both the U.S. Civil War and to a lesser extent the American Revolutionary War enlisted black soldiers.

One of the most famous was the 54th Infantry, the subject of the movie Glory. How did the United States go from what looked like a pathway to equality, albeit a bloody one, to a misguided tromp through the forest?

The answer is a complicated one, beyond the scope of this blog, but comes down to mathematics…

In the Civil War, we needed every able body to fight. In 1861, at the onset of that war, we had a population of 32,091,309, about half of whom were fighting for the other guys, so more like 16-million people. Cut out the women and children, and you have a pool of a few million possibilities. The list gets short fast.

For the Great War, when it started in 1914 we had a population of 99,111,000 people. That’s 84-million more people than we had in the Civil War. Somewhere around 40-million were men. Even if you cut out aging adults, children, disabled men, and minorities, it’s still a large pool of potential fighters

The people in control didn’t see a need to enlist anyone they didn’t want to enlist, which meant minorities at the time.

Adding to that, there was a rise in racial tension as the nation struggled to recover from the backlash from the civil war. Americans were scared and acting foolishly.

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After WWI, military enlistment philosophies changed. We enlisted more black soldiers in WWII, more units, but the 369th fought again. Of course, it was all new soldiers by then, but they were still the Harlem Hellfighters.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed executive order 9981, desegregating the military. There were many voices contributing to that order, but the Harlem Hellfighters get some of the credit.

Sources: PBS, Black Past