The Harlem Hellfighters: African American Fighters in French Uniforms

Some 4,500 Black American soldiers, victims of segregation laws in force in the U.S. military, fought in French uniforms during World War I. Nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters," these soldiers displayed exceptional valor in combat. This is their incredible yet little-known story.
Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment – the “Harlem Hellfighters” – on their return to the United States on February 12, 1919. Several wear the French Croix de Guerre on their chest. © National Archives

“Up the wide avenue they swung. Their smiles outshone the golden sunlight […]. New York turned out to tender its dark-skinned heroes a New York welcome.” This was written by a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune in 1919, describing the triumphant parade down Fifth Avenue of 3,000 African American soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 369th Infantry Regiment. Thousands of people watched the procession, crowding onto the sidewalks. “Never have White Americans accorded so heartfelt and hearty a reception to a contingent of their Black countrymen […]. Racial lines were for the time displaced. The color of their skin had nothing to do with the occasion. The blood they had shed in France was as red as any other.”

Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment parade in New York on February 17, 1919. © FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This post-war passion contrasted strikingly with how the all-Black 369th Regiment were welcomed by the U.S. Army. Two years before, in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson announced that all able American men – White and Black — had to take part in the conflict in Europe. The African American population saw the war as a chance to prove its patriotism and bravery to the White elite, and advance their civil rights on American soil. Among the 2.3 million African Americans apt for military service, almost 375,000 were recruited, despite the fact that segregation and racism were rife in the U.S. military. Before they even left for the war, several hundred Black soldiers were killed by White soldiers in training camps in the Southern States.

Some 200,000 American soldiers finally crossed the Atlantic, although few actually fought. Most of them were assigned to the crushing task of supplying the other troops. The first unit of Black soldiers was the 369th Infantry Regiment from New York. But these men never fought under the American flag. The United States refused to have Black and White soldiers fighting alongside each other, and they were forced to change their uniforms and fight with the French. As France was severely lacking soldiers to fight in the trenches, the government persuaded the United States to requisition some of their troops. A reluctant American general, John G. Pershing, head of U.S. military operations, finally accepted.

Bravery Recognized by France

Assigned to the French Army, the 369th Infantry Regiment was often placed on the frontline for the bloodiest battles, and was the American military unit that spent the most time in combat during World War I. Some 1,500 of them were killed in France. Those on the front – whose motto was “God Damn, Let’s Go” – fought with immense bravery.

Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment on the Western Front, 1918. © Interim Archives/Getty Images

Stories from German soldiers show how frightened they were by the Black soldiers – to the point that they didn’t dare capture them! During the war, they nicknamed the 369th Regiment the “Bloodthirsty Black Men,” then the “Hellfighters,” which later became the “Harlem Hellfighters.” After 191 days of fighting for the Allied offensive in the Champagne and Marne regions, the African American troops were the first to cross the Rhine and enter Germany. Five hundred Harlem Hellfighters went on to receive the French Croix de Guerre in recognition of their acts of bravery and fighting spirit, including the two first Americans to be decorated by the French government – Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts.

The Exemplary Sergeant Johnson

Henry Lincoln Johnson is without a doubt the most famous of the Harlem Hellfighters. He can be seen smiling in photos taken at the time, but was renowned for being a fearsome fighter. After arriving in France on January 1, 1918, the soldier became a legend within the French Army, particularly for his heroic acts during a German raid on May 14 of the same year.

On that day, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, accompanied by three other soldiers, were sent on a reconnaissance mission to identify the German positions. The two soldiers suddenly came under fire from some 20 German soldiers armed with rifles and grenades. Johnson and Roberts were both hit, but managed to return fire and injure a number of enemy soldiers. Roberts was lying on the ground and was in the process of being captured when Johnson, finding himself out of ammunition, knocked out one soldier with his rifle and stabbed two others. After retrieving the Germans’ grenades, Johnson went on to attack the remaining troops and rescue his friend Roberts. The pair of them managed to kill four enemy soldiers and injure 28 others. An act of valor that led General Pershing to praise the “bravery and devotion of two soldiers of color,” in a report.

In 2015, Johnson became the second African American to receive the Medal of Honor – the highest U.S. military distinction – awarded by Barack Obama at a posthumous ceremony at the White House. The Harlem Hellfighters are one of the most decorated units of World War I, but their influence goes beyond the battlefield. The orchestra of the 369th Infantry Regiment actually introduced the French to a new kind of music: jazz.

Article published in the March 2014 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.