How Harlem’s ‘Hellfighters’ gained their name — and helped win the Great War

At the end of World War I, the 369th United States Infantry Regiment, the all-black National Guard unit composed mostly of citizen-soldiers from New York City, had been in combat longer than any other American regiment — 191 days. Their casualties in the Champagne region of France from April 8 to Oct. 1, 1918, were among the highest of any American regiment in the sector. Trained in storefronts and on street corners in New York’s borough of Harlem, laughed at and ridiculed, and even perceived as childlike and inferior by the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, they had never given up a foot of ground in battle.

On the morning of Nov. 17, 1918, six days after the armistice that ended almost five years of war, they marched out of the Vosges Mountains, leading the Allies to the Rhine River, an honor bestowed on them by the respectful French army.

Because of the fierceness of their fighting, these proud doughboys had earned the nickname “Hellfighters,” the nom de guerre that defines them still to this day.

Their inspiring story begins in the quarter-century leading up to World War I. For years, Manhattan’s African American community had petitioned New York state legislators for a National Guard regiment of its own. Every petition was rebuffed. Then Harlem businessman Charles Fillmore, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, raised a “provisionary” regiment of 1,000 citizens. The show of force convinced the state in 1913 to pass legislation establishing New York’s first all-black National Guard regiment. Yet the newly enacted law was lost, forgotten or simply neglected, and for three years no regiment was formed.

But in 1916, when New York’s National Guard “Empire” Division, along with divisions and regiments from other states, had been rushed to the Mexican border to protect United States citizens threatened by Pancho Villa and his army that had crossed into New Mexico and murdered 17 Americans, William Hayward, an aide to New York’s governor, discovered the long lost law that called for a regiment of color. Because the state was literally unprotected with all its National Guard troops 2,000 miles away, Hayward, an influential attorney, realized the time was ripe to organize a new regiment — manned by African Americans. Hayward would command the regiment as its colonel.

At last the 15th New York, first known as the “Rattlers,” slowly stirred to life.

As it turned out, not every able-bodied Harlem male wanted to enlist. One reason was that throughout the South and Midwest blacks were being lynched in staggering numbers, and President Woodrow Wilson, a southerner, had yet to speak out against this scourge. Also, a cigar store served as the new regiment’s headquarters — hardly an inviting place to draw in potential soldiers. Early recruits trained with broomsticks. Whites derided them as Hayward’s “tin soldiers.” No wonder filling the ranks of the 15th was a difficult task. Hayward, who thought blacks would join up in troves, was frustrated.

Finding ways to lure men into the regiment posed a problem — until a legend of American jazz showed up. Jim Reese Europe enlisted in September 1916, wanting to be a gun-toting soldier rather than a musician. At the age of 36 he was among America’s foremost composers. In 1912, he conducted the largest African American orchestra yet to play at Carnegie Hall.

With Europe signed up, including Noble Sissle, another outstanding musician, Hayward sensed he had a golden opportunity to swell the ranks of his regiment by creating a military band like no other, a band with a ragtime jazz beat. So, in December 1916, to get the kind of band he envisioned, Hayward turned to his famous recruit.

Advertisements soon appeared in African American newspapers, offering “An Opportunity for Musicians-Crack Colored Musicians.” It wasn’t long before Hayward had a 75-member band, almost twice the regulation size of other regimental bands. Performing on the streets of Harlem, its jazz music did more for recruiting than Hayward had hoped and, within weeks — and with America on the verge of war with Germany — the 15th reached full regimental strength of 2,002 men and 56 officers, making it the country’s first National Guard regiment to hit wartime strength.

After the United States declared war on Germany, it had to furiously build up its military strength. Guard units soon bulged with men. Among the first of the citizen-soldier regiments to head for France was the 15th. Before it sailed, however, it had to deal with racists at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, S.C.

Obviously, the United States War Department used poor judgment when it ordered the 15th to South Carolina to train. The order came soon after whites in East St. Louis slaughtered more than 100 blacks. Southerners feared Yankees of color, and threatened to harm them. Hayward’s men swore that if they were menaced or beaten up they would not raise a hand in retaliation. They endured taunts. They were thrown off sidewalks. After less than two weeks at Camp Wadsworth, the 15th was sent back to New York. The moment a troopship became available, the regiment was off to France.

On the way over, Noble Sissle brooded: “We were the Baby National Guard Regiment of New York, had no armory, no previous military experience — just a bunch of much-made-over boys under the leadership of a politician colonel. Before any of us were aware of it, we found ourselves in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, going to fight. Only half-equipped and no training in modern warfare — not even a part of any division. Just a single little regiment. Even the colonel did not know what we were going to do after we got to France.”

If Hayward and his men thought they’d be ordered to the Western Front, they were sorely disappointed. Instead of rifles, the regiment received picks and shovels and was assigned to perform common labor at the port of St. Nazaire. The colonel kept bombarding Gen. John J. Pershing for inclusion in the American Expeditionary Forces, but Pershing ignored his pleas. Hayward fumed. He called his troops orphans, claiming, “My regiment was left by Gen. Pershing on the doorstep of France.”

Meanwhile, James Reese Europe and his handpicked musicians brought jazz to France in a big way. In mid-February 1918, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) opened the first leave area for American soldiers in the famous resort village of Aix-les-Bains in the French Alps. One of its top acts was to be the 15th Regimental Band. To get there from the coast, the band traveled by train. It stopped at villages along the way and performed concerts in village squares and parks, introducing jazz throughout most of France. 

When the musicians arrived at Aix-les-Bains, canteen worker Marin Baldwin wrote in her diary[1] , “They are perfectly screaming, but a marvelous band, and when they came marching down the streets to meet the troops yesterday, the French people went perfectly wild over them.”

At Aix-les-Bains, the band was so popular it stayed for a month. At its last concert, doughboys went wild, waving flags in support of their African American comrades in arms. “On stage,” wrote an officer of the 15th, “the colored soldiers who had been spat upon in Spartanburg, South Carolina, rose and bowed — and grinned.”

While Europe, Sissle and the band had been wowing doughboys and French civilians alike in the Alps, Hayward at last got the orders he wanted. His regiment was to be posted to the front lines — but not with the American Expeditionary Forces. The 15th New York was redesignated the 369th United States Infantry Regiment, as part of the newly organized all-black 93rd Infantry Division, a division on paper only, and attached to the 16th Division of the French Fourth Army, commanded by the one-armed Gen. Henri Gouraud.

By mid-April, the Hellfighters were in the Champagne sector northeast of Chalons, protecting a swath of the west bank of the Aisne River. It marked the first time black American soldiers had entered the front line in the Great War.

On the night of May 13, Henry Johnson, a pint-sized redcap from Albany, N.Y., hunkered down in a listening post out in no man’s land. He shared the mudhole with Pvt. Needham Roberts from Trenton, N.J. Out of the darkness, pitching grenades and firing rifles, a German platoon attacked the two soldiers. Both Americans fell. Johnson suffered three gunshot wounds, but he struggled to his feet and singlehandedly met the rush. Using a bolo knife, he repelled the assault, certainly killing a half-dozen men. His fury forced the Germans to retreat. For his heroic stand, Johnson received France’s award for valor, the Croix de Guerre. Newspapers throughout the United States carried his story.

Because one of America’s first war heroes was a soldier of color, the black community renewed its efforts to convince President Wilson to repudiate lynching. Finally, Wilson publicly stated that anyone taking part in a mob action is “no true son of this great democracy, but its betrayer.”

(In 2015, the U.S. government posthumously awarded the country’s highest award for valor, the Congressional Medal of Honor, to Henry Johnson.)

The 369th was just getting warmed up. Transferred to the 161st French Division, the New Yorkers relieved a Moroccan battalion. In mid-July, they bravely helped repulse a massive German attack in the Second Battle of the Marne. By stopping the enemy, the Hellfighters, along with other American soldiers and French soldiers, turned the tide of the Great War. For the next two months they took part in the drive by the Allies that forced the German army to retreat to the Hindenburg Line.

Then, starting on Sept. 26, British, Belgian, French and American armies began their all-out strike against the Germans. On that day, the valiant men of the 369th pushed forward under heavy fire. They stormed the heights of Bellevue Ridge, to the village of Ripont, crossed the Dormois River — turning it red with their own blood — and then battled to the outskirts of Sechault, a strongly fortified town that French Gen. Henri Pétain swore could not be taken. The attack proved costly, yet the New Yorkers — in fierce street-to-street fighting — drove out the enemy and captured Sechault.

For its gallantry, the entire regiment received not only the Croix de Guerre from the French government but also the honorific, “Hellfighters.” The citation reads, in part: “Though engaging in an offensive for the first time, [the 369th Regiment] fought with great bravery, stormed powerful enemy positions energetically defended, captured many machine guns, large numbers of prisoners and six cannon and took, after heavy fighting, the Town of Sechault.”

The taking of Sechault ended the 369th’s major combat operations.

On Feb. 17, 1919, the 369th returned home to a tumultuous parade up Manhattan’s famed Fifth Avenue and then through the streets of Harlem. On crowded sidewalks, cheering New Yorkers embraced their newest heroes. In the years and decades that followed, the Hellfghters served during World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm. The Empire State had its black National Guard Regiment, and these men of color were orphans no more.

Stephen L. Harris is the author of an award-winning trilogy about New York City’s National Guard regiments in World War I. This article is adapted from “Harlem’s Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I.” He is also the author of “Rock of the Marne: The American Soldiers Who Turned the Tide Against the Kaiser in World War I.”

Copyright 2020 The Woodson Center