Plenty of history buffs think they know all there is to know about WWI, but it’s rare to meet someone who can tell you much about the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard. Despite facing racism at every turn, they still fought for their country.
They called themselves the “Black Rattlers.” Even the French had a nickname for these brave heroes – the “Men of Bronze.”
Interestingly, it was the name the enemy forces in Germany gave them that stuck – the “Harlem Hellfighters.” They fought in the most hellish places on earth – down in the trenches – and they fought there longer than any American fighters.
And while stories of their heroism spread throughout the world, they were never genuinely rewarded for it. They came home to the same racism they left.
All-Black regiments were rare at the time – the military needed men but was hesitant to work alongside Black men. But New York’s governor at the time, Charles Whitman, agreed to form a unit, something Black political leaders had to fight for! Whitman put them under the command of his former campaign manager and former Nebraska National Guard colonel, William Hayward.
First known as the 5th New York National Guard Regiment, the youngest member was just 16. Hayward recruited both black and white officers to the unit, ensuring the white soldiers were ready to act as teammates, despite the potential for racial tension.
But in the eyes of the larger National Guard, they were not equal. They were given no resources to train with – no uniforms and no weapons. They practiced in their street clothes and with broomsticks.
Then, their real training began at a training ground in the Deep South – the most unfriendly place for Black soldiers, even if they were helping to fight for democracy in the same country as the white soldiers by their sides.
In Spartanburg, South Carolina, they were asked to deal with racism without regard or retaliation as they trained to potentially give their lives. At the same time, the mayor of Spartanburg declared:
“If any of those colored soldiers go in any of our soda stores and the like and ask to be served, they’ll be knocked down. We have our customs down here, and we aren’t going to alter them.”
The unit was forged in the fire of those racist taunts and threats in the Deep South. When they set for Europe in January 1918, they became the 369th Infantry Regiment.
At first, they were given no combat duties, only menial tasks. But the French needed more soldiers. The “Black Rattlers,” as they had named themselves, went into battle under French command and before any white unit, on April 15, 1918. Their heroics earned them accolades in France, including the Croix de Guerre.
There are dozens of stories of their bravery, and more are coming out as historians begin to focus on the evidence of what they ensured. The “Harlem Hellfighters,” as the Germans named them, spent 191 days in combat, which is longer than any other American unit.
But they didn’t all come back alive – over half of them were killed or wounded defending their country. – WTF Fun Facts