I had heard of the Harlem Hellfighters and their First World War exploits but it was more just in passing, like a bit of trivia that barely registers at the time but stays lodged in some deep recess of the brain. So when I came upon this book at a local used bookseller's a few weeks ago and saw the subtitle “The Harlem Hellfighters Struggle…” I grabbed it. And I’m glad I did.
This is the story of one of the black American regiments that was pulled together to fight during The Great War. Established in 1916, the Fifteenth New York National Guard’s first battles were at home with the overtly racist policies of the US military of the time. Fortunately they had an officer cadre (all white, of course) that believed in their men and helped them deal with a lack of proper equipment, substandard training, and a blatant disrespect by many of their military peers.
In December 1917 they were placed on active service and shipped overseas as the 369th Infantry Regiment, but even then the US command was reluctant to use them in any capacity other than as cooks, porters, waiters, and ditch diggers. Eventually a combination of wartime pressures from the European powers for extra fighting troops and pleas from the regiment itself resulted in them being assigned to the French where they became the Trois Cente Soixante Neuvieme RIUS, part of the French Fourth Army.
Fully embraced by the French Army as equals, the unit went through a 3-week training period preparing them for the front where they first experienced direct action in April 1918 fighting alongside their French counterparts (the 369th never fought under US command). Known as the Harlem Hellfighters, a name given to them by their German foes who both feared and respected the unit’s bravery and fearlessness in battle, the unit distinguished itself earning many individual commendations for heroism as well as a unit citation for the French Croix de guerre.
By war’s end the 369th had spent a total of 191 days at the front – more than any other American regiment – and had taken significant losses – 1300 dead or wounded from an initial complement of 2000 men – the highest casualty rate of any American regiment. By any measure these men were heroes, and this is their story.
If you have an interest in WW I or military history you will enjoy this book. Recommended.
P.S. Coincidentally, just as I was about to post this entry, this link came up on my Facebook feed. Interesting how that works sometimes. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/featured/the-harlemhellfighters.html