By Debbie Gregory.
The 369th Infantry Regiment, formed from the National Guard’s 15th Regiment in New York, was known for being the first African American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. They served 191 days under enemy fire in Europe, and returned home one of the most decorated American units of that war.
“The French called them the ‘Men of Bronze’ out of respect, and the Germans called them the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ out of fear,” explains Max Brooks, author of The Harlem Hellfighters, a new graphic novel about the first African-American infantry unit to fight in World War I.
Their training prepared them for combat, but racial segregation in the U.S. Army kept them from marching to the front lines in France. Instead, they, and other African-American soldiers, were put to work unloading ships.
The French army absorbed the Hellfighters to help replenish their own ranks. In France, the 369th was treated as if they were no different from any other French unit. The French did not show prejudice towards them and did not racially segregate them. The French accepted the all black 369th Regiment with open arms and welcomed them to their country
While fighting in Europe, the Hellfighters saw propaganda intended for them. It claimed that the Germans had done nothing wrong to blacks, and that they should instead be fighting against the Americans who had oppressed them for years. These statements only made the Hellfighters more loyal to the U.S.
In 1933 the 369th Regiment Armory was created to honor the 369th regiment for their service. This armory stands at 142nd and Fifth Avenue, in the heart of Harlem.
Today’s Hellfighters specialize in combat logistics in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Mali.