Who Were The Harlem Hellfighters?

The famous 369th arrive in New York City. (HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Harlem Hellfighters, known officially as the 369th Infantry Regiment, were some of the most fearsome fighters of World War I, serving 191 days in battle, more than any other American regiment in the war. The regiment was originally formed as a part of the New York Army National Guard in 1913, a time when black Americans were often denied entry into the military. However, at the outbreak of World War I, the United States needed as many soldiers as they could get, and many black men saw service as an opportunity to not only protect democracy but also gain respect within their own country.

Still, the United States military was deeply segregated, and so the 369th Infantry became one of America's first all-black fighting units sent into the American Expeditionary Forces. Rather than stay within the American forces, however, they were dispatched to the French after many white soldiers refused to fight alongside them. A colonel of the American Expeditionary Forces even sent a warning about their so-called "inferiority," but the French welcomed the help with open arms, and the soldiers of the 369th were relieved to finally be treated as equals. They were also credited with bringing jazz to France with their regiment band. The 369th fought ferociously alongside the French allies, and their "take no prisoners" approach earned them the nickname "Harlem Hellfighters" from their German adversaries.