‘Harlem Hellfighters’ Receive Congressional Gold Medal

‘Harlem Hellfighters’ Receive Congressional Gold Medal

Harlem Hellfighters
Photo by: U.S. National Archives

More than a century after they fought in World War I, the Army’s famed “Harlem Hellfighters” will receive the Congressional Gold Medal. 

The “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act” was signed into law Aug. 25 by President Joe Biden after the legislation was passed by the Senate and the House. The act acknowledges the soldiers’ “bravery and outstanding service during World War I,” according to Congress.gov. 

The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress’ highest award, representing “national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.”  

The act recognizes members of the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African American unit that later became known as the Harlem Hellfighters because most of the enlistees hailed from Harlem, New York, and the soldiers were known for their bravery in battle. 

“The Harlem Hellfighters of the 369th Infantry Regiment … helped change the white American public’s opinion on African American soldiers,” according to an American Forces Network video. “The Germans named them Hellfighters due to their toughness and that they’d never lost a man through capture, lost a trench or foot of ground to the enemy in the war over there.”  

The Harlem Hellfighters persevered even though they experienced racial discrimination while serving in a segregated military.

After reporting to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the regiment “experienced many incidents of racial discrimination,” the bill’s text says. African American soldiers, including the Harlem Hellfighters, “were initially assigned manual labor tasks.” This was “partly because many white soldiers within the American Expeditionary Forces … refused to perform combat duty with Black soldiers,” the bill says. 

Despite the challenges they faced, the Harlem Hellfighters would go on to be the most celebrated African American regiment of World War I. 

As a direct result of such repeated confrontations (not despite them),” Peter Nelson wrote in A More Unbending Battle, a history of the Hellfighters, “a bond was forged among the men … a fighting spirit they hoped would serve them well when they got to France.”

One of the unit’s soldiers, Sgt. Henry Johnson, was one of the first Americans to receive France’s Croix de Guerre avec Palme, that country’s highest award for valor. 

Outnumbered sixfold by Germans while on outpost duty with Pvt. Neadom Roberts, Johnson was undaunted and returned fire, causing several enemy casualties. When German soldiers tried to carry Roberts away after he was knocked unconscious, Johnson fended them off with a bolo knife. 

Though he was gravely wounded, he held back enemy forces until they retreated. Johnson was posthumously and belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor on June 2, 2015. 

On Sept. 21, 2020, the Harlem Hellfighters nickname was officially recognized as a traditional, historical designation for the unit by the Army Center of Military History, according to the Army. 

“The 369th never lost a foot of ground nor had a man taken prisoner, despite suffering a high number of casualties,” the bill honoring the soldiers says. “The 369th was the first regiment of African Americans to deploy overseas during World War I and spent 191 days on the front line in World War I, more than any other American regimental sized unit.”