They helped their country fight for freedom, even though they were deprived of it at home and served in a segregated army unit. But the black men of the 369th Infantry Regiment, widely known as the Harlem Hellfighters, fought with bravery and skill – and their achievement has now been recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal.
Their reputation on the battlefield
“We didn’t give each other our name [the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’]”Colonel Reginald Sanders, former commander of the 369th Support Brigade, which descended from the WWI unit, told NPR in 2014.” Our enemies gave us our name, [which] is an honor. “
The Germans called them Hollenkampfer, triggering the nickname which became official earlier this year.
“They are devils,” said a captured Prussian officer, according to a US military report. “They smile as they kill and they won’t be taken alive.”
Black Americans have amassed a series of legendary achievements. They saw 191 days of combat – the most of any US military unit of similar size. They fought fiercely and moved quickly, becoming the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine.
How they fought and were celebrated, despite racism
The Hellfighters fought with distinction – not alongside fellow Americans but with the French military, “because many white American soldiers refused to go into battle alongside black Americans,” according to a press release. from the office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Their exploits made them famous in France and the United States. Two members of the regiment, Cpl. Henry Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts, became the first American to receive the Croix de Guerre after repelling a German advance, according to the National Archives. The entire unit was later awarded a Croix de Guerre for taking the French town of Séchault. Over 170 officers and men also received individual medals.
When the Hellfighters left New York City, they were prohibited from participating in a military parade. Upon their return, their white commander, Col. William Hayward, helped organize a welcome parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
Both houses of Congress approved the commendation this summer, in a bipartisan effort that has attracted dozens of co-sponsors.
Major sponsors for the measure include Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus; with Senator Gillibrand and other members of the New York delegation.
This story originally published in the Morning edition live blog.