Soldiers of the 369th, otherwise known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” were awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919. Left to right, front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Storms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, Cpl. T. W. Taylor. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
On Monday, Aug. 9, Congress agreed to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Harlem Hellfighters, the legendary all-Black World War I National Guard unit.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honor alongside the Presidential Medal of Freedom and has been bestowed fewer than 200 times. The most recent recipients are the police officers involved in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
The Harlem Hellfighters received a heroes’ welcome returning from World War I. Later on, however, their combat service wasn’t properly recognized due to racial inequities within the United States. Even though all Harlem Hellfighter members are now dead, family members pushed representatives from New York to immortalize their legacy with Congress’ top civilian award.
“Reps. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) sponsored the bill, which passed the House in June and the Senate on Monday night,” the New York Post reported.
The Harlem Hellfighters were organized in New York City to form the US Army’s 369th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division, formerly the 15th New York National Guard Regiment. When the unit first arrived in Europe on the first day of 1918, it was largely shunned by other American troops. It was the soldiers of the 16th Division of the French Army who taught “The Men of Bronze” how to fight trench warfare and how to survive the front lines. The Harlem Hellfighters spent 191 days in combat, more than any other American outfit. During that time, about 1,400 soldiers were killed or wounded.
Henry Johnson, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015, was one of the Harlem Hellfighters’ finest warriors.
On May 15, 1918, Johnson and another soldier, Pvt. Needham Roberts, were on night watch overlooking a bridge on the Aisne River at a small forward outpost in the Argonne Forest. The pair received a surprise attack by a German raiding party of at least 12 soldiers. As the Germans attempted to overrun their position, the two Harlem Hellfighters engaged the Germans with rifle fire and grenades. When Roberts was wounded in the attack, the Germans attempted to take him prisoner. Equipped a bolo knife, Johnson engaged his enemies in hand-to-hand combat to rescue his friend.
They both survived and were awarded one of France’s highest awards for valor — the Croix de Guerre.
Notably, the Harlem Hellfighters also helped bring jazz to Europe. Following the armistice that ended World War I in 1918, the unit laid down its arms in exchange for musical instruments. Lt. James Reese Europe, the famous jazz band leader with the 369th Regiment, led concerts in France. During an August 1918 performance in Paris, American Expeditionary Forces Gen. Tasker Bliss rose to his feet in appreciation at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
“The Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act honors these brave men, who, even as they faced segregation and prejudice, risked their lives to defend our freedoms,” Gillibrand said, according to the New York Post.
President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill to make the award official. The medal will be publicly displayed at the Smithsonian Museums in Washington.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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