Valor Friday

| February 5, 2021

The 369th Infantry Regiment

Many outside the US Army, and probably a good number within the Army, don’t know that unit nicknames are actually regulated. Apparently if the Army wanted you to have a nickname, they really would issue you one.

These officially Army-recognized nicknames are called “special designations.” Many of these are commonly used by those within the unit and without to describe them. They are usually earned in battle and are a source of great pride for the soldiers who serve in them.

A complete list can be found here Some of the better known are the 1st Armored Division (Old Ironsides), 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One), 7th Infantry Regiment (Cottonbalers), 10th Cavalry Regiment (Buffalo Soldiers), 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Night Stalkers), 101st Infantry Division (Screaming Eagles), and 82nd Airborne Division (All American).

One unit with a storied history of valor in combat had a spectacular nickname given to them by the enemy during World War I. The unit has long since been deactivated, but the Army has finally officially recognized that nickname this past week. Which is why I decided to highlight this amazing unit in this week’s article.

The US Army would segregate units until after the Second World War. So it was during World War I that when the US Army mobilized to join the war in Europe, they organized all-black units. One of those was the former 15th New York National Guard Regiment. When mobilized into federal service they were redesignated the 369th Infantry Regiment.

The 396th Infantry was assigned to the 92nd Infantry Division and headed for France. The unit was made up of mostly black soldiers (and some Puerto Ricans) and mostly white officers. When federalized there were some black officers in the regiment and division. As the war progressed, more black men were commissioned.

The story goes that white American soldiers refused to perform combat duty with the black soldiers. They were therefore seconded to the French Army for the duration. Once in France in December 1917 the 396th Infantry was sent to the front with French gear. They retained US uniforms and chain of command however. The eager men of the regiment were finally headed to combat, April 1918.

The French Army by the spring of 1918 had been at war for almost four years. By war’s end just a few months later, the French Army would end the war with nearly 1.5 million men dead, wounded, or missing in action. To say that the Americans joining the war was a relief is an understatement.

The French, who had long fought side-by-side with colonial soldiers of various colors and creeds, treated their black American counterparts as if they were any other soldiers.

Participating in the Champagne–Marne and Meuse–Argonne campaigns, the 369th Infantry began getting their nicknames. They called themselves the “Black Rattlers”, which came from the Gadsden-like rattlesnake on their coat of arms. The French called them “Hommes de Bronze” or “Men of Bronze” in English.

Until the Armistice in November, 1918, the 369th Infantry would spend most of their time in the trenches. At one point, they were at the front for a continuous six months, the longest of any Allied unit in the war.

The Germany enemy noticed the new darker complected American Doughboys. They targeted them with propaganda. The Germans said that they had never done anything wrong to blacks and that they should instead be fighting with them against the US. The messages had the opposite of their intended effect.

In fact, the Germans noted the 369th Infantry as such a strong and capable fighting force that they too nicknamed the unit. They called these men of bronze “Höllenkämpfer”. When the English translation was paired with their home borough of Harlem in New York City, the 369th Infantry Regiment became known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

During their 191 days in the trenches fighting, the 369th Infantry had 1,500 casualties. Those are higher losses than any American regiment during the war. The unit as a whole was awarded the Croix de Guerre by France.

Among the men who served in the 369th Infantry there were many jazz musicians and band leaders. Including Lieutenant James Reese Europe, Private Rafael Hernández Marín, and Sergeant Noble Sissle.

Other notable Hellfighters were Lieutenant Vertner Woodson Tandy, the first black man to pass the New York State National Guard’s commissioning exams and a noted architect. Artist Horace Pippin also served with the unit, the war inspiring some of his most famous paintings. Negro League outfielder Spottswood Poles took leave from his professional baseball career to serve, returning to the league after the war.

Hamilton Fish III was a captain in the Hellfighters at its formation, earned a Silver Star during the war, was made a major just before they were demobilized, and rose to the rank of colonel in the reserves in the coming decades while also serving as a Republican Congressman from NY for many years.

Among the many personal stories of valor, two men received the Medal of Honor. One of them not for nearly 100 years.

First Lieutenant George Robb was awarded the medal in 1919 for actions in September, 1918. His award citation reads;

While leading his platoon in the assault First Lieutenant Robb was severely wounded by machinegun fire, but rather than go to the rear for proper treatment he remained with his platoon until ordered to the dressing station by his commanding officer. Returning within 45 minutes, he remained on duty throughout the entire night, inspecting his lines and establishing outposts. Early the next morning he was again wounded, once again displaying his remarkable devotion to duty by remaining in command of his platoon. Later the same day a bursting shell added two more wounds, the same shell killing his commanding officer and two officers of his company. He then assumed command of the company and organized its position in the trenches. Displaying wonderful courage and tenacity at the critical times, he was the only officer of his battalion who advanced beyond the town, and by clearing machinegun and sniping posts contributed largely to the aid of his battalion in holding their objective. His example of bravery and fortitude and his eagerness to continue with his mission despite severe wounds set before the enlisted men of his command a most wonderful standard of morale and self-sacrifice.

At the time of his award he was one of only 44 men to have received the Medal of Honor for the First World War. He also received three Purple Hearts, the French Croix de Guerre, the French Legion of Honor (the country’s highest award), the Italian War Merit Cross, and the Montenegrin Order of Prince Danilo I (that country’s second highest award and the highest honor bestowed on members outside the royal family).

The only black soldier of the 369th Infantry to receive the Medal of Honor was known as “Black Death” for his incredible bravery on the battlefield. Denied American valor awards, he was finally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously in 2002. That was upgraded in 2015 to the Medal of Honor.

Private Johnson and another soldier were on sentry duty [on May 15, 1918] at a forward outpost when they received a surprise attack from a German raiding party consisting of at least 12 soldiers [and as many as 36]. While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Private Johnson mounted a brave retaliation, resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier was badly wounded, Private Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces. Private Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and gravely wounded himself, Private Johnson continued fighting and took his Bolo knife and stabbed it through an enemy soldier’s head. Displaying great courage, Private Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated. Private Johnson’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.

1918 lithograph recounting Private Johnson’s exploits

“Black death” indeed. He was wounded 21 times in that fight, wounds that would haunt him for the rest of a tragically short life. While he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, he received minimal recognition from the US Army. He spoke publicly of the racism he and his fellow black soldiers faced, drawing the ire of the Army (who went so far as to have him arrested for wearing his uniform past his enlistment while giving said speeches). Due to his war injuries (including contracting tuberculosis), he was given a permanent and total Veteran’s Bureau disability rating. Two years later he would die poor and in obscurity. He was only 36.

The Harlem Hellfighters were retained as a permanent unit in light of their combat record. They were reorganized as a Coast Artillery (Antiaircraft) Regiment in 1924. By World War Two though, the 369th was again an Infantry Regiment. Still part of the segregated military, the black troops of the Hellfighters served in the South Pacific during the war. They saw limited combat action in Dutch New Guinea and the Philippines.

After World War II the 369th Infantry was demobilized and inactivated. The unit’s lineage has yet to be reactivated, but if or when it does, they will officially be known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

Category: Army, Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

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Lt Robb and Private Johnson I salute you.



I knew a little about this before thanks for filling in some holes. I can understand Harlem Hellfighter a lot more than Rakkasans.


The “Devils in baggy pants” of the 82nd was given by the enemy in WWW2. It turned up in a German officers diary.


-1 W


BZ and a Gun Salute to the Warriors of the 369th.

They would be ashamed of how some members of their race act today.

Great Story Mason…Thanks!


Think that’s true of any race. Rotten apples in every barrel.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman Domestic Violent Extremist

Many unit nicknames are internal only to that unit, and not recognized officially. Example:
25th Infantry Division = 25th Dimension, Electric Banana Leaf (unit patch)
Any memorable ones from TAH readership?

The old 30th Engineer Brigade (a castle above three X’s) was known as “the porn castle”.
30th infantry brigade is “the volleyball net”.

32nd AADCOM – “Pine Tree Farmers”

The 3BN 66th Armored Regiment is affectionately known as “Burt’s Knights” named after WWII MOH recipient Cpt James Burt. It was common to salute and say “Burt’s Knights”.
One day a solder saluted and said “Burt’s Wife!”. I dressed him down and said that I had met Cpt Burt and didn’t think he would appreciate it. I never heard that again.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman Domestic Violent Extremist

Oh, yeah, almost forgot. The Division motto was “Service to the Line”, which, because Hawaii, morphed into “Service to the Lanai” (lanai = back porch or patio)

On Okinawa, there was the 30th Arty Brigade with the motto “Always on Target” and amended by the members to “But Never on Time” and even some of the officers just snickered when they heard it. Unit patch was a circle with three arrows. We said it designated three shafts up the ass.
Another nickname was Old Reliables for the 9th Infantry Division.

Slick Goodlin

“white American soldiers refused to perform combat duty with the black soldiers.”

U.S. Army veteran here.
Would be curious as to the exact mechanics of how that worked.
U.S soldiers had an option to refuse certain duty they did not like?
Was a poll taken? A show of hands? Assumptions made by High Command?
Implication is all U.S soldiers were racist and prejudiced.


The French demanded American soldiers, as individual replacements and under French leaders, to fill their depleted ranks.

Pershing said “no”.

Political pressure led to some troops being assigned to French formations, with the intent they at least remain together. The above story is a result.

There was much pressure after Armistice to get certain units promptly home (guess from who) before the French further “spoiled” them or gave them more “uppity ideas”.

The same sheet-heads were insisting in 1942 that blacks couldn’t and or wouldn’t fight, or couldn’t fly fighters, etc, etc, etc.

Prior Service

Harlem Hellfighters. DAPoster 21-49. Center of Military History.

Haywire Angel

Amazing history here! They deserved better than what they got for support from the Army.


369th STILL exists in the New York national guard. Was in Iraq in 2004


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