An all-Black unit of World War I fighters who fought German soldiers and American racism as part of a segregated U.S. Army more than a century ago will receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
The Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Aug. 25.
The men of New York National Guard’s 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, will now be honored for their accomplishments with Congress’ highest award. The act acknowledges the soldiers’ “bravery and outstanding service during World War I.”
Both chambers of Congress approved the measure over the summer through a bipartisan effort. Family members of the soldiers will receive replicas of the medal.
“The Harlem Hellfighters risked life and limb in defense of an America that discriminated against them,” said a sponsor of the bill, Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Col. Reginald Sanders, a former commander of the 369th Sustainment Brigade, explained to NPR in 2014 that the name Harlem Hellfighters was given to the group by the Germans during WWI, after the U.S. entered the conflict in 1917.
“We did not give ourselves our name [the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’],” Sanders said in 2014. “Our enemies gave us our name, [which] is an honor.”
The Germans called the men Hollenkampfer. “They are devils,” a Prussian officer told his American captors during the war. “They smile while they kill and they won’t be taken alive.”
The French called the fighters “Hommes de Bronze” or Men of Bronze, and the members of the 369th called themselves the “Black Rattlers.” The unit crest still features a rattlesnake coiled to strike.
Earlier this year, the unit received official special designation to be called the Harlem Hellfighters. There are 13 New York Army National Guard units with Army Special Designations.
During the war, the unit spent more time in continuous combat than any other American unit of its size, and also suffered more casualties than any other American regiment. The soldiers often fought alongside the French Army because white American soldiers refused to go into battle with Black soldiers. Black members were also assigned manual labor service tasks initially for the same reason.
About 170 soldiers from the unit were later awarded the Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration usually used to recognize foreign allies.
But even when the soldiers returned home to New York, they were not permitted to participate in the military parade and a separate parade was organized on Fifth Avenue.
Beatty also said, of the bill’s passage, “More than 100 years after these brave men fought so valiantly, I am proud to see my congressional colleagues and President Biden honoring them for their exemplary service on behalf of a very grateful nation.”