The all-Black Army regiment nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters battled both the German forces and racism during World War I. Now, more than a century after their service, the unit has been honored with a “long overdue” Congressional Gold Medal, reports NBC BLK.
President Joe Biden signed the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act into law last week. Replicas of the prestigious medal will be awarded to families of members of the 369th Infantry Regiment in recognition of the unit’s lengthy service, which included front-line combat and hundreds of lives lost or affected by injuries.
“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.
“Yet the Hellfighters helped liberate Western Europe and secure victory for the Allied Forces,” she said. “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.”
The U.S. entered the conflict in 1917, three years into the war. While the U.S. military was segregated and would remain so until after World War II, Black Americans contributed to the war effort.
Black men served in the war both at home and abroad in four segregated regiments. Black troops were usually relegated to tasks that were vital to the effort yet undervalued, such as digging trenches, cooking, loading ships, maintaining equipment or burying fellow soldiers.
Under criticism from civic organizations and civil rights groups, the military formed two Black combat units in 1917. Initially assigned to unloading ships and other logistic tasks, the 369th was assigned to fight with the French and British armies, engaging on the front lines before the American Expeditionary Forces entered their first major battle.
The U.S. military refused to issue them weapons. Instead, the Hellfighters used French weapons, helmets, belts and pouches while wearing their U.S. uniforms.
Dubbed “Hommes de Bronze” (Men of Bronze) by the French, the regiment’s members spent 191 days in combat, reportedly more than any other Americans, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Alongside the French, the regiment also fought in the Second Battle of the Marne, one of the last major efforts by the Germans. Among the Hellfighters, 144 soldiers died and nearly 1,000 were wounded in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
They later collectively earned 11 French citations, and 170 soldiers were awarded the Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration typically bestowed on foreign allies.