Harlem's Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I by Stephen L. Harris

Brassey's Inc., Washington, DC 2003

301pp, photos, maps, bibliography, index

Foreword by Rod Paschall

ISBN 1 57488 386 0

This Great War history by Stephen L. Harris is quite different from other writings about this famous unit as it takes a twenty-first century perspective reflecting feelings of anger and outrage, shared by most Americans today, toward the long history of racial injustice in America. The ’Harlem Hell Fighters' story recounts and reminds us of racial horrors of the early 20th Century while simultaneously demonstrating the humanity and courage of the black soldiers who volunteered to serve their nation and defend freedom, which they did not themselves enjoy.

Harlem's Hell Fighters is the second in a trilogy by Harris about three of New York's regiments. It is the story of New York's black regiment, which became famous internationally as the 'Harlem Hell Fighters.' It served longer in combat than any other American unit and was greatly respected by the Germans. Harris' first history book, 'Duty, Honor, Privilege', told the Great War tale of New York's all white 'silk stocking' regiment, the 107th Infantry, 27th Division. He is currently working on the final book in the trilogy about the old Fighting 69th of Father Duffy and Joyce Kilmer.

Throughout the early 1900s, the establishment of a black New York national guard regiment was pursued unsuccessfully by Negro leaders. Even with the help of influential white patrons, political leaders failed to act. Only after the March 1916 attack on the United States by the Mexican bandit, Pancho Villa, when New York's white regiments were sent to the Mexican border, was there the will to act. Even then, half-hearted support almost caused it to abort.

The formation of the regiment in June 1916 reveals much about black history, New York politics and society, and jazz. A masterstroke by Colonel William Hayward, who formed and led the regiment throughout the war, was the recruitment of a leading black musician of the day, James Reese Europe. Music and celebrity was the lure that attracted the Hayward's volunteers. The army band they formed brought jazz to France and made them famous. 

When the National Guard was activated for federal service in 1917, the Army was at a loss as to how to handle this black regiment. The segregated Army bungled and stumbled by sending the troops to the deep South for training and hastily had to withdraw them and ship them off to France to be trained. General Pershing then shipped them off again to serve with the French Army instead of with the American army. Harris' chronicle vividly portrays the battlefield success of the 'Hell Fighters', the national pride it engendered, and the bitter disappointments black Americans continued to suffer despite their sacrifices.

Mr. Harris' book is a well-researched and carefully annotated social history.

His use of personal memoirs of white officers and black officers and soldiers of New York's 15th National Guard Regiment (later designated the 369th Infantry of the Provisional 93rd Division) allows us to see these men as they were: flawed and heroic. The inclusion of home street addresses with the names of soldiers about whom he writes became a bit tedious but will probably be welcomed by readers familiar with local New York addresses. His writing style is very readable and reminds this reviewer of authors Stephen Ambrose and the late Pulitzer-Prize winner, John Toland, who is quoted saying, "I have tried to present living history, human history, with subjective objectivity, in my obsessive search for reality".

Book review by Douglas Fisher 

[This review first appeared in our journal Stand To! No.70 April 2004. Members receive Stand To! three times a year along with three copies of our in-house magazine Bulletin. The entire archive of Stand To! is available to members via their Member Login].