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Home : News : State Partnership Program
NEWS | March 7, 2024

The Harlem Hellfighters: A Legacy of Lasting Impact

By Staff Sgt. Sebastian Rothwyn, 369th Sustainment Brigade

NEW YORK - In the past few years, the name Harlem Hellfighters evoked confusion for some, intrigue for others and great pride for those who know the stories of valor and triumph. Lesser known are the stories of tragedy and lives cut short.

Since they gained recognition in 1918, when a journalist wrote about the warrior spirit of Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts battling two dozen German soldiers in the fields of France, the Harlem Hellfighters went from a determined group of “Colored” Soldiers to the premier sustainment brigade of the New York Army National Guard, with service at home and abroad leaving an indelible mark wherever they went.

In an era when segregation and racial barriers were commonplace, the 369th Infantry Regiment’s Soldiers demonstrated that those limitations meant very little on battlefields, where legends such as James Reese Europe would go on raids and return to compose music based on his exploits. The French would also disregard the U.S. Army’s message not to treat them as equals.

The 191 days they spent in combat were a testament to their resilience as they earned their name. According to a U.S. Army report, a Prussian officer said, “They are devils.” The German word Hollenkampfer, for devils, when directly translated, is Hellfighter. “They smile when they kill and won’t be taken alive,” he said.

As a result of their meritorious acts of valor and gallantry, they earned one of France’s highest awards, the Croix de Guerre.

Although New Yorkers lauded their initial return home, several would meet tragedy or eventually die in poverty due to lack of opportunity stemming from segregation, racial discrimination, lynching, and medical malpractice, to name a few of the problems they faced.

The story lived on for those who survived, their descendants, and others who overcame adversity and oppression.

On Feb. 24, three granddaughters of James Reese Europe visited the Harlem Armory and received their first tour from the command team there. They also visited the black granite obelisk monument, a replica of a 1997 memorial in Sechault, France.

The granddaughters said that on their last visit to France, the French were most welcoming, as the Hellfighters’ contribution to the liberation of France from the Germans is the story of legend.

Over 100 years later, that story is spreading across mass media, reaching those who never knew about it.

Twelve current Harlem Hellfighters attended a screening of a History Channel documentary, the second of its kind, featuring the Harlem Hellfighters, Jan. 31 at The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. It was produced by Robin Roberts, co-anchor with Good Morning America. Attendees included contributors to the documentary, author and New York University professor Jeffrey Sammons, and James Reese Europe III, grandson of the Hellfighters band leader during WWI who shares the same name.

The documentary, which explored the largely unknown story of “leadership, sacrifice and valor,” premiered Feb. 4 and is replayed periodically. 

Although the 369th experienced several reorganizations over the past 100 years, it exists today as the 369th Sustainment Brigade. The 369th now operates at the Harlem Regiment Armory in New York, which was also prominently displayed Feb. 22 during a Black History Month feature on CBS-New York, hosted by Maurice DuBois.

The legacy of the Harlem Hellfighters continues today through mass media, the brigade and organizations such as the 369th Experience, founded by Stephany Neal and dedicated to “acknowledging, educating and preserving the legacy of Lieutenant James Reese Europe, Second Lieutenant Noble Sissle, and the 369th Infantry Regiment.”

In 2024, they will play and march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Initiatives to have them rehearse in the armory a few days before the parade and have a Thanksgiving dinner with the band’s 65 members, current members of the brigade, and community leaders are in the early planning stages.

In World War II, the Hellfighters were reorganized as Anti-Aircraft Artillery under the command of then Col. Benjamin Davis, who would become the first black U.S. Army general in 1940. Monmouth University is working on a documentary on this period, “The 369th: Together, We Rose,” chronicling the untold story of “lifelong friendship and camaraderie among men who served in a segregated unit during WWII.”

With growing interest came partnerships such as Paramount Pictures' Adoption of the 369th as an honored military unit through their Paramount Veterans Network. Paramount has started a letter-writing campaign for volunteers to share words of encouragement with 369th Sustainment Brigade units deployed overseas.