The 369th Infantry Regiment:
Harlem Hellfighters, byname of 369th Infantry Regiment, originally 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, nickname given to the 369th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army during World War I. The French government decorated the entire unit with the Croix de Guerre, its highest award for bravery, as well as 170 additional individual medals for valour. The 369th’s battlefield prowess was almost overshadowed by its contribution to music, however, as the Hellfighters’ regimental band was credited with bringing jazz to Europe.
The Hellfighters originated as the 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, a National Guard unit. Members of the African American community in New York City’s Harlem district had long advocated for the creation of a homegrown military unit, but white politicians blocked several attempts at establishing such a body. On June 2, 1913, a bill authorizing an African American National Guard regiment finally passed the New York state legislature, and Gov. William Sulzer signed it into law. However, the 15th New York existed in name only until June 1916, when Gov. Charles Whitman appointed William Hayward, his former campaign manager, to serve as its commanding officer. Hayward had been a colonel in the Nebraska National Guard, and he, like most of the field-grade officers in the unit, was white.
Hayward proved to be an adept organizer, and he recognized the importance of incorporating African American soldiers into the unit’s officer corps. An early addition was Charles Fillmore, a Spanish-American War veteran who had been instrumental in the campaign to establish an African American regiment. Fillmore was commissioned a captain and made a company commander. However, despite an endorsement from the New York Age, arguably the most influential African American newspaper of its era, the 15th New York had trouble meeting its recruiting targets. At full strength, the regiment would field several thousand men, but by the end of the summer of 1916, only a fraction of that number had enlisted.