The 369th Infantry Regiment – The Most Decorated Combat Unit of WWI

Considered one of the most decorated combat units of World War I, the “Harlem Hell Fighters” solidified the strength American military power and fighting skill.  Americans were generally considered weak by Europeans during the time and had little respect in regards to fighting wars.  That perception changed when the all  black unit  joined the French army in the trenches.  They spent 191 days on the front lines, longer than any other American unit in WWI.  The 369th Infantry Regiment was responsible for starting a reputation of the United States military that persist throughout the world today.  

WWI Intro

In the summer of 1914 European empires began a war that would last more than four years, and include belligerents from all corners of the globe. The assassination of the Archduke of Austria was the tipping point for animosities that had been brewing for years. Many factors would lead the world to war, including personal beefs amongst cousins and mind-boggling greed.

President Woodrow Wilson refused to join the European war for several years. Eventually the United States would enter the fray by declaring war on Germany in April of 1917; thrusting a war wary country into the global conflict. Many African-Americans decided to join the military to fight in Europe for various reason, and discovered they weren’t welcome.  Some men volunteered to fight to prove they were capable of doing anything a white man could do.  Others joined because they loved their country and had ancestors that had stained the dirt with the very blood that flowed through his veins.

Black men were considered worthless to American military leaders, thinking them to be only good for labor.  The United States Marines didn’t accept black recruits into its ranks, but the Army did. While the U.S. Army did accept African Americans, it was completely segregated and black officers were no allowed to fight with or have command over white soldiers.  So the New York National Guard created a new regiment called the 369th Regiment, composed of black men living in Harlem, NY.

Call it irony if you want, but African-American men were joining the military to protect a country that openly lynched black folks and discriminated against them in ways people cant comprehend in 2018.  I assure you it happened.   Even while being lynched by the hundreds every year with no one being punished for the mob murders, black men continue to volunteer to fight for America.  Before being deployed to Europe there was a parade that celebrated the white soldiers who made up the rainbow division of the New York National Guards 42nd Infantry was given a parade, but the 369th Infantry was not invited to the march.  The commander was told that “black is not a color of the rainbow”.

WWI marked a new industrial scale style of waging war, claiming the lives of millions. The U.S. did not have a big enough military to fight effectively in the European war. With a standing army of only 126,000 men, Wilson and military leaders knew this would not be enough to ensure victory in Europe. The American military needed at least a year to build up its forces and adequately train fighting regiments.

Trench Warfare

Trench Warfare

General Pershing and his military force of more than 4 million troops were deployed to France in 1917. When the U.S. Military arrived France, the allied forces wanted reinforcements to be sent to the front lines immediately. Pershing refused, wanting to first build up his army, train pilots for an air war, and introduce a new war doctrine he called “open warfare”. The current method of “trench warfare” was essentially the cause of prolonged battles and million of deaths. He held the position that he would not send his young American men in as “cannon fodder by European generals”.

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General Pershing was clear in saying that American troops would not be separated and added little by little into the French and British armies. History notes that Pershing told the allies that when American forces joined the war; they would fight as an American force, under an American flag, lead by an American General…

Well everyone except the black guys.

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African American Soldiers Began Combat Operations Along Side the French

Of the 4 million troops sent to Europe during WWI 380,000 of the soldiers were black, 42,000 of those were in combats units. None were expected to fight along side white American troops. Thus the black soldiers were regulated to labor at the start of their deployment, they were never intended to fight.  They were not properly trained by the U.S. National Guard, so this would fall to the French army they would eventually be assigned to.

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One of those combat units was the New York National Guard. Based out of Harlem and renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment, these soldiers are considered by intellectually honest historians as one of the greatest fighting forces in American military history.  The Germans called them the “Harlem Hell Fighters”, because of their prowess on the battlefield. And the French called them “Men of Bronze” out of respect.

Upon arrival in France, the all black 369th Infantry Regiment was shocked by how well they were treated by the French in comparison to how they were treated in their own country.

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While General Pershing and his fellow officers assumed their African-American counterparts would be inferior in combat because of their race. The French was less concerned with this and simply needed reinforcements.

Pershing decided to employ a method he considered would rid himself of his all African-American infantry unit, and simultaneously appease the allies. Although he had every intention of keeping the U.S. Army autonomous during the war, he “lent” the 369th to the French army.

General Pershing and the U.S. government could not stop the 369th Infantry Regiment from not only surviving but thriving in battle. During their six months in combat (perhaps the longest of any American unit), the 369th quickly became one of the most effective and decorated combat units to fight during World War I (black or white). Not one soldier from the unit was captured by enemy troops. They also had low casualties in comparison to other regiments actively fighting. Approximately 750 would die in combat and around 5,000 African-American troops were wounded.

369th

The common European perception of Americans was that we were pacifist who could not engage in war. The 369th played a major part in convincing Europeans that Americans could indeed fight and fight well. Just one of the many exceptional contributions black Americans added to the United States sudden rise to super power status in the 20th century.  It has never been in the nature of African-Americans to stand by idly as the world changes around them. Quite the opposite in fact.  We dive in head first.  Even without support within our own country, black Americans have consistently played significant roles in American military power.  Military power that in this case helped tipped the scales in WWI and cause the eventual acceptance of defeat by Germany.

One night in May of 1918 Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts came across a 24 man German patrol.  Even though both soldiers were wounded, they managed to fight them off causing the patrol to retreat because they were sure they were up against “the men from hell”.

The 369th returned home as war heroes within their own communities.

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4 responses to “The 369th Infantry Regiment – The Most Decorated Combat Unit of WWI

  1. I have to say I always skip over WWI and WWII in my history searches, but now I am encourage to actually research and learn of black troops within these wars.

    • If just one person finds value in this, it makes my day! Remember Christina, black people have been in America since its first days, our history is deep and rich in this great country.

  2. I found my great-uncle’s service card. He was a member of this unit. I already had known that he fought, and was temporarily MIA, in France. He was later found, and was discharged in Feb ’19.

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