The Harlem Hellfighters

By Conner Levitt

Most Americans today know about famous African-American soldiers like the Tuskegee Airmen or the black Union soldiers during the American Civil War. Today we view these groups as important milestones of the struggle for equality in the United States. Yet, there is another group of soldiers who deserve the same amount of remembrance and respect, but have been forgotten: the 369th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters were one of the first African-American units that fought in World War I1 and through their bravery they became one of the most famous and well-known units in the US during the war. 

The Harlem Hellfighters got their start as a part of the New York State national guard in 1916.Civic leaders from Harlem convinced the governor of New York to create the Hellfighters (then called the 15th New York Guard Regiment) as the very first all-black unit in the guard. They were led by a man named William Hayward.3 Hayward was white, but unlike other white officers who might have been in his place, he respected his men and hired both white and black officers to lead the unit. He is quoted as telling white officers to “meet men according to their rank as soldiers” and that if “[they] intended to take a narrower attitude, [they] had better stay out.”4 

After the US joined WWI in 1917, the Hellfighters had to be trained into a proper unit before being shipped off to France. They were forced to train in Spartanburg, South Carolina. By  the early 1900s, Jim Crow was already in full swing, and the black soldiers of the regiment were constantly harassed and insulted by townspeople. The same people they were going off to fight for. White Americans’ animosity toward the African-American troops continued even after they left the US and sailed to France. Once the Hellfighters arrived in France, they were denied the opportunity to do the one thing they were trained to do: fight instead they were relegated to more menial duties like guarding rail-lines or digging latrine lines. While many American units had this duty, the Hellfighters had this duty for a unique reason: white American soldiers refused to fight alongside any black soldiers.To allow the Hellfighters to serve in combat, the US Army made an unfortunate but necessary decision: they transferred the unit over to the French Army. 

Once the Hellfighters were transferred over to the French Army they had a very different experience than in the US Army. While the US shunned them, the French welcomed the Hellfighters into their country’s army.  The French did not segregate units or treat them any differently than white units. With US uniforms and French weapons and helmets equipped, the Hellfighters were sent by the French army to their first frontline posting on April 15th, 1918, three months before any other American unit saw any combat.They stayed on the front for 3 months. During this time the unit’s most famous and enduring story of the war occurred. 

On the night of May 14th, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, two privates in the Harlem Hellfighters, were on sentry duty when Johnson heard the snipping of wire cutters in the darkness. The two men tried to get word back to their commanders but were forced to fight for their lives against a group of 24 German soldiers. Both soldiers were severely injured with Roberts being hurt by a grenade explosion and Johnson? being shot several times by the German attackers.7 However, in the end the two men were able to stop the German attack, killing 4 and wounding 10. Due to their efforts, the two men became the first Americans to be awarded the Croix de Guerre8, a prestigious 

award given to soldiers who distinguish themselves by performing heroic deeds. Henry Johnson was known as “the Black Death” after the attack.9 The Harlem Hellfighters fought in many campaigns in France and had the single longest tour of duty of any unit of the war: they were on tour once for over six months!10  After the war they returned to New York, demobilized, and returned to being a national guard unit. Through their service they showed the US that they, and by extension other African-Americans, were worthy of respect and being first class citizens. They fought and died for a country that restricted their rights but that they nonetheless believed in. In the end, the Harlem Hellfighters were a group of African-American soldiers who put their lives on the line for a country that didn’t want them in continuation of the fight for equality in the US, and should be remembered and honored as such.

[1] France-Amerique. “The Harlem Hellfighters: American Fighters in French Uniforms.” Accessed 12/12/2021 

[2] Smithsonian Magazine. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death.” Accessed 12/11/2021. 180968977/ 

[3] Smithsonian Magazine. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death.” Accessed 12/11/2021. 180968977/ 

[4] Smithsonian Magazine. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death.” Accessed 12/11/2021. 180968977/ 

[5] New York Daily News. “For Henry Johnson.” Accessed 12/14/2021

[6] 180968977/ 

[7] Smithsonian Magazine. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death.” Accessed 12/11/2021. 386701/?no-ist 

[8] Smithsonian Magazine. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death.” Accessed 12/11/2021. 386701/?no-ist


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