By Army Col. Richard Goldenberg
Did you know that before the African American National Guard soldiers of New York’s 15th Infantry Regiment became known as the famed “Black Rattlers,” “Men of Bronze” or, more famously, the “Hellfighters of Harlem,” they had to fight just to see combat in World War I?
When the unit arrived in France in December 1917, they expected to conduct combat training and enter the trenches of the Western Front right away.
They could not have been more wrong.
The Black troops were ordered to unload supply ships at the docks for their first months in France, joining the mass of supply troops known as “stevedores,” working long hours in the port at St. Nazaire.
More than 380,000 African Americans served in the Army during World War I, according to the National Archives. Approximately 200,000 of these were sent to Europe.
But more than half of those who deployed were assigned to labor and stevedore battalions, assigned to tasks that many Army leaders at the time saw as most appropriate.
These troops performed essential duties for the American Expeditionary Force, building roads, bridges and trenches in support of the front-line battles.
Preparing Docks, Railway Lines
In St. Nazaire, the New York National Guard soldiers learned they would work to prepare the docks and railway lines to be a major port of entry for the hundreds of thousands of forces yet to arrive in France. The Black regiment was considered a quick and easy source of labor, according to author Stephen Harris in his 2003 book “Harlem’s Hell Fighters.”
But the 15th Regiment’s soldiers had not signed up for labor. They were committed to fighting the Germans and winning the war.
“They had no place to put the regiment,” said infantry Capt. Hamilton Fish, according to the Harris book. “They weren’t going to put us in a white division, not in 1917, anyway; so our troops were sent in to the supply and services as laborers to lay railroad tracks. This naturally upset our men tremendously.”
Regimental Commander Fights for Troops
The regiment’s best advocate to get into the fight was their commander, Col. William Hayward.
“It was time for us to try to do something towards extricating ourselves from the dirty mess of pick-swinging and wheel barrel trundling that we were in,” Hayward had said to Capt. Arthur Little, commander of the regimental band, according to Jeffrey Sammons in his 2014 book “Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War.”
“We had come to France as combat troops, and, apparently, we were in danger of becoming labor troops,” Hayward said.
Hayward argued his case in a letter to Army Gen. John J. Pershing, outlining the regiment’s mobilization and training, and followed up immediately with a personal visit to Pershing’s headquarters.
369th Band Helps Sway Opinion and Bring Jazz to France
He would bring with him the regiment’s most formidable weapon in swaying opinion: the regimental band, lauded as one of the finest in the entire Expeditionary Force.
While the regiment literally laid the tracks for the arrival of the 2 million troops deploying to France, the regimental band toured the region, performing for French and American audiences at rest centers and hospitals. The 369th Band was unlike any other performance audiences had seen or heard before, Harris noted. In fact, the regimental band is credited with introducing jazz music to France during the war.
The military band would frequently perform a French march, followed by traditional band scores such as John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
“And then came the fireworks,” said Sgt. Noble Sissle, band vocalist and organizer, in the Harris account, as the 369th Band would play as if they were in a jazz club back in Harlem.
After some three months of labor constructing nearby railways to move supplies forward, the regiment’s soldiers learned that they had orders to join the French 16th Division for three weeks of combat training.
The “Black Rattlers” Head for the Front
They also learned they had a new regimental number as the now-renamed 369th Infantry Regiment. Not that it mattered much to the soldiers; they still carried their old nickname from New York, the Black Rattlers.
The Black troops would see combat, but alongside French forces, who were already accustomed to the many races and ethnicities already serving in the ranks of their colonial troops.
After learning valuable lessons in trench warfare from their French partners, the soldiers of the 369th finally had their chance to prove their worth as combat troops when they entered the front lines, holding their line against the last German spring offensive near Chateau-Thierry.
“The Hellfighters from Harlem” Leave a Legacy as Acclaimed Fighters
Their value was not lost on the French, and the regiment continued to fight alongside French forces.
The Hellfighters from Harlem had come into their own, despite their difficult start.
The regiment would go on to prove itself in combat operations throughout the rest of the war, receiving France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre, for its unit actions alongside some 171 individual decorations for heroism.
-This story originally appeared on defense.gov. It has been edited for USO.org in 2022.
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