On Monday, August 9, Congress announced the passage of a bill that awards the Congressional Gold Medal — Congress’ highest civilian award — to the Harlem Hellfighters, one of the most renowned Black combat units during World War I.
Highly decorated, the 369th Infantry Regiment was initially nicknamed the “Black Rattlers” for the rattlesnake insignia that adorned their uniforms. The French called the unit “Men of Bronze,” while it is believed that they gained their “Hellfighter” nickname from their German foes owing to their courage and ferocity in combat, according to the National Museum of American History and Culture.
Shunned from fighting alongside their fellow Americans, the Harlem Hellfighters learned how to survive the slog of trench warfare from the 16th Division of the French Army.
The all-Black unit spent 191 days in continuous combat, more than any other American unit of its size. During that time, about 1,400 soldiers were killed or wounded — suffering more losses than any other American regiment during the war.
According to the bill, the “369th never lost a foot of ground nor had a man taken prisoner, despite suffering a high number of casualties.”
“After the war,” according to the NMAHC, “the French government awarded the coveted Croix de Guerre medal to 171 members of the regiment, as well as a Croix de Guerre citation to the unit as a whole.” Among those men was Henry Johnson, whose bravery on May 15, 1918, led to him being awarded posthumously in 2015 the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military honor.
Johnson suffered 21 injuries, including bullet and stab wounds to his head, torso, right arm and left leg, and his left foot had been shattered after repulsing a night attack by a German raiding party. It was later determined by observers that the soldier — engaging in hand-to-hand combat with a bolo knife — killed four of the enemy and wounded upwards of a dozen more.
Of his feat, the self-effacing private later recalled, “there wasn’t anything so fine about it. Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.”
While the unit initially received a hero’s welcome at war’s end, their fame quickly faded into a small coda of WWI history largely due to the nation’s virulent racism.
And while more than a century has passed since their heroic deeds, Congress hopes to finally give recognition where it is due.
“They fought in more combat in WWI than any other unit but the American white soldiers wouldn’t fight with them, they had to fight under France, this is a long overdue honor and they deserve it and we must remember that bigotry cannot be fostered in the military or anywhere else,” said Senator Charles Schumer.
The bill is now sitting on President Joe Biden’s desk and is expected to be made official in the coming weeks.