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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Famous HARLEM HELL FIGHTERS, 369th Infantry Regiment, Commemoration by Black Caucus; Era of "Separate but Equal"

US Archives: public domain photograph
Soldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919.
Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Storms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor
     "Some of the colored men of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action." 1998 print. Records of the War Department General and Special. Staffs. (165-WW-127-8)

In the era of "Separate but equal" law in the United States, those black men and women who volunteered to serve in the US Army were trained, slept, ate and fought in separate units from Caucasians.

One of the most famous of those Army units was the 369th Infantry Regiment from New York City, or as they came to be known for their gallantry and for their extreme heroism in World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters.

The subject of many historical books and now of a best-selling graphic novel and soon to be a movie starring Will Smith, members of this infantry group distinguished themselves in France fighting with the French and alongside other US Army units. They were a significant force during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, uniquely never losing one foot of ground they gained and never losing a man as a prisoner of war.

369th Band aboard ship!
When they first landed in France, they were designated (as other African-American units were) as laborers. Most black American Doughboys worked the docks, unloading supplies from ships in the ports of St. Nazaire and Bordeaux. (Please read HEROIC MEASURES for a fuller description of their work.) But at that time the French experienced a number of mutinies in their ranks and French General Staff asked our American General Pershing to help shore up their very thin front line. Pershing, never interested in weaving in any American soldiers into any foreign military force, assigned the 369th to the French command. The French, who had given their colonists in Africa French citizenship in the 1880s, readily accepted the black Americans alongside their fighting forces. The 369th fought "like hell" and they were noted among the French as fearless fighters. Weeks later, once French General Command thought their lines more secure, Pershing took the 369th back and put them on the front lines with other Doughboys in the Meuse-Argonne area.
369th Band Marching in NYC Parade, Feb 17, 1919

In the 369th were many musicians.This group played often in camp and became renowned among the French for playing a new kind of music. This is, of course, jazz.

One monument to them stands in the Meuse-Argonne and another, a replica, in Harlem itself. The 369th has fought in other wars, including World War II and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Recently, the Congressional Black Caucus honored the descendants of these heroic men at the opening of their recent conference.

     US Archives: Harlem Hellfighters return home to parade in New York City February 17, 1919.  School children got the day off and if you examine this picture closely you will see a wonderful mix of black and white Americans applauding the 369th.

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