Reliving WWI with the Harlem Hellfighters this Black History Month

Feb 3, 2017

Although records are sparse, New York State's museum archives can document at least six Erie County residents who served in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed by the Germans of WWI as the "Harlem Hellfighters." On Friday, their story will be told by some of the soldiers themselves, in a free showing of the film "Men of Bronze: The Black American Heroes of World War I" at the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library in Buffalo.

Credit "Men of Bronze" / YouTube

Film Director William Miles was a member of a National Guard unit in Harlem, he came across on a storage room with flags, helmets, photos, and other relics of the 369th Regiment. He searched the National Archives, finding well-preserved film footage, and tracked down living members of the unit by walking down the streets of Harlem and asking elderly residents if they knew anyone who served in the regiment.

Miles' 1977 documentary includes one-on-one interviews with members of the 369th, who had to serve under French command because American soldiers would not fight alongside men of color.

"The biggest issue continued to be racism and intransigence, particularly amongst the Southern interests of the War Department that refused to fight alongside African Americans," New York State Museum Senior Historian Aaron Noble said. "There was this, kind of, false impression that African Americans would not fight, could not be trained to fight and could not grasp the concepts of modern warfare."

"They weren't even allowed to have weaponry, so they did their training with things like brooms and sticks, taking the place of rifles, although they always saw themselves as combat soldiers," State Museum Historian Devin Lander said about the documentary. "They did not see themselves as porters or laborers, which is what, unfortunately, what the Army saw them as. So there was immediately this sense of pride that comes out from the veterans."   

Noble says the regiment got its nickname because of its "tenacity in combat" and the Hellfighters have one of the proudest service records in U.S. military history.

"The 369th is the first African American combat unit to arrive in France and served in combat under the French Army," Noble said. "They served 191 days in combat - more than any other American unit. The first two Americans of any race to receive the French War Cross were members of the regiment, for valor and meritorious service."

Noble said perhaps the most famous of the Hellfighters was Henry Johnson, who survived 21 wounds in a battle with the Germans and was widely praised in France and the United States.

Credit "Men of Bronze" / YouTube

"There's an interview with a French veteran who very eloquently speaks about how important the 369th were to the French and helping them move toward victory and how indebted the French felt themselves to be to the 369th and calling them brothers and really just a sense of camaraderie that took part that was, unfortunately, not always a case among the American military forces," said Lander.

Because of the racism of the time, Johnson never received any medals for his combat service until 1996, posthumously. In 2015, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Johnson the nation's top military honor - the Medal of Honor.

The Merriweather Library is showing the film at 1 p.m. as part of its Black History Month celebration.