The Harlem Hellfighters: A Legacy of Lasting Impact

Published: 7 March 2024

By Staff Sgt. Sebastian Rothwyn, 369th Sustainment Brigade
via the National Guard (DMA) website

Harlem Hellfighters mural

The granddaughters of legendary Harlem Hellfighter James Reese Europe — Patricia Europe Pearson, Lynn Europe Cotter, and Theresa Europe — pose with senior officers of the 369th Sustainment Brigade for a photo in front of a mural during a visit to the Harlem Regiment Armory in New York Feb. 24, 2024. They were given a tour of the armory by New York Army National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Leyland Jones, Col. Patrick Clare, and Lt. Cols. David Myones and Peter Fish.

NEW YORK – In the past few years, the name Harlem Hellfighters evoked confusion for some, intrigue for others and great pride for those who know the stories of valor and triumph. Lesser known are the stories of tragedy and lives cut short.

Since they gained recognition in 1918, when a journalist wrote about the warrior spirit of Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts battling two dozen German soldiers in the fields of France, the Harlem Hellfighters went from a determined group of “Colored” Soldiers to the premier sustainment brigade of the New York Army National Guard, with service at home and abroad leaving an indelible mark wherever they went.

In an era when segregation and racial barriers were commonplace, the 369th Infantry Regiment’s Soldiers demonstrated that those limitations meant very little on battlefields, where legends such as James Reese Europe would go on raids and return to compose music based on his exploits. The French would also disregard the U.S. Army’s message not to treat them as equals.

The 191 days they spent in combat were a testament to their resilience as they earned their name. According to a U.S. Army report, a Prussian officer said, “They are devils.” The German word Hollenkampfer, for devils, when directly translated, is Hellfighter. “They smile when they kill and won’t be taken alive,” he said.

As a result of their meritorious acts of valor and gallantry, they earned one of France’s highest awards, the Croix de Guerre.

Although New Yorkers lauded their initial return home, several would meet tragedy or eventually die in poverty due to lack of opportunity stemming from segregation, racial discrimination, lynching, and medical malpractice, to name a few of the problems they faced.

The story lived on for those who survived, their descendants, and others who overcame adversity and oppression.

On Feb. 24, three granddaughters of James Reese Europe visited the Harlem Armory and received their first tour from the command team there. They also visited the black granite obelisk monument, a replica of a 1997 memorial in Sechault, France.

The granddaughters said that on their last visit to France, the French were most welcoming, as the Hellfighters’ contribution to the liberation of France from the Germans is the story of legend.

Read the entire article on the National Guard website.
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