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The Brave Combat Regiment Faced Racism at Home
World War I marked the dawn of combat unlike anything seen before. Airplanes and Zeppelins dominated the sky. Poisonous gas filled the trenches. Soldiers with mounted machine guns constantly monitored no-man’s land, waiting for the enemy to appear above the trench line. Battleships unleashed a new kind of fury on the seas.
While the Civil War had introduced some of these concepts in a more primitive form, it was the First World War that truly experienced them on a full scale. American involvement in World War I began in 1917, following the interception of the Zimmerman Telegram.
Some of the largest battles in American military history occurred in the hostilities, one of which included the Battle of Belleau Wood. It is rumored that this is where German troops gave US Marines their “Devil Dogs” nickname. The Germans also came up with a nickname for another prominent group of soldiers.
The Hellfighters witnessed more action than any other American regiment during World War I.
Our Enemies Gave Us Our Name
In the early 1900s, the Civil War still lingered in the minds of many Americans. The 369th Infantry Regiment consisted of a primarily black regiment from New York. With the American military segregated by race, many detested the thought of sending black troops to fight on the front lines in Europe. This form of discrimination persisted despite the fact that, just 50 years earlier, black soldiers gave their lives to ensure freedom for their brothers and sisters, knowing that many of their white countrymen would not love them back.
The US Army originally sent the 369th to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the soldiers encountered brutal racism, resulting in a riot. In his illustrative novel The Harlem Hellfighters, Max Brooks notes that “I don’t think any soldier, short of a samurai, has shown more restraint than the Hellfighters at Spartanburg.”
It was not the Hellfighters, however, who gave themselves their nickname. The Germans did. As Colonel Reginald Sanders of the 369th Sustainment Brigade stated, “We did not give ourselves our name. Our enemies gave us our name, (which) is an honor.”
In December 1917, the Hellfighters were deployed to France, where General John J. Pershing assigned them to a French division. When finally given the chance to fight, the Hellfighters displayed ferocity that was rarely seen on the battlefield. In fact, they witnessed more action than any other American regiment during World War I.
Following the conflict, France awarded the Croix de Guerre to the unit. This prestigious military decoration honors soldiers who display heroic actions in battle.
The Hellfighters’ Legacy
Following the war, the Hellfighters would return to American soil. Here, they would encounter a populace unappreciative of their gallant efforts in the largest conflict known to humanity at the time. In the summer of 1919, known as “the Red Summer,” 26 different cities across the country experienced race riots. Not until nearly 50 years later would African-Americans finally be accepted and integrated into American society.
The Hellfighters would also see some combat in World War II. Several years following the largest conflict in history, the American military de-segregated. Today, the Harlem Hellfighters deserve recognition and appreciation. Particularly during Black History Month, may we always honor their legacy and love their heroism.