100 years after the New York National Guard’s 369th Infantry Regiment earned the nickname in World War I, the Army has recognized the right of 369th Sustainment Brigade Soldiers to call themselves Hellfighters.
The Army Center of Military History, which approved the official designation on Sept. 21, also made it clear that Hellfighters is one word and not two.
The 369th joins 717 other Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve units—some of which are no longer around- which have official special designations.
The 369th’s nickname was recognized as a traditional, historical designation for the unit; much like the 42nd Infantry Division’s “Rainbow” name, or the Regular Army’s 3nd Cavalry Regiment “Brave Rifles” nickname.
The special designation program is run by the Force Structure and Unit History Branch of the US Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair as part of the Army’s organizational history program.
The 369th’s quest to make their long-time nickname official began in 2019 when New York State Military Museum Director Courtney Burns was looking at the Army’s list of unit special designations.
He had been working on a 369th history display at the newly renovated Harlem Armory and went looking for the certificate noting the official designation of the 369th as the Harlem Hellfighters.
He was shocked to find that a unit as famous as the 369th was not on the list.
“That was such a glaring error,” he said.
Because the military history program is a unit commander’s program, Burns contacted Seth Morgulas, the commander of the 369th Sustainment Brigade to let him know that the long-treasured nickname was not officially recognized.
“I said, ‘That is crazy, how does it not have it,’” Morgulas recalled.
The New York State Department of Transportation had even ceremonially renamed Harlem River Drive, which runs by the armory on Manhattan’s west side, the Harlem Hellfighters Drive, he pointed out.
Morgulas tasked his personnel officer to work with Burns to put the right documents together and fix the issue. The entire process took about a year, he said.
The 369th Infantry began as the 15th Infantry Regiment headquartered in Harlem. It was a New York National Guard unit for African-Americans in a segregated Army and National Guard.
When the United States went to war in 1917, Black Americans traveled to New York City to enlist in the 15th Infantry Regiment.
The regiment’s commander, Col. William Hayward, lobbied hard for his Soldiers to be part of the American Expeditionary Force and they shipped out in 1917.
At first they worked unloading supply ships. But in March 1918 they were reorganized as the 369th Infantry and loaned to the French Army.
During their campaign in World War I the 369th Soldiers were present in the battles at Champagne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Champagne, Alsace and were in action for 191 days, the longest of any American unit. They suffered about 1,500 casualties, also the highest of any U.S. regiment, while receiving only 900 replacements. In one offensive, the 369th outpaced French units on either side by seven miles. The unit fought as part of a French Army division.
They were the first unit of the French, British or American Armies to reach the Rhine River at the end of the war. The unit earned 11 French citations and a unit Croix de Guerre and 170 Soldiers were awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
The Soldiers of the 369th called themselves the “Black Rattlers” and the unit crest still features a rattlesnake coiled to strike.
The French called them “Hommes de Bronze” or Men of Bronze.
But it was their German adversaries who gave them the name that stuck.
The Germans called the Black Americans “Hollenkampfer”: German for Hellfighters.
“They are devils,” a Prussian officer captured during the Meuse-Argonne offensive told his American captors about the 369th. “They smile while they kill and they won’t be taken alive.”
When the men of the 369th paraded through New York City in 1919, the New York Times headline read: “New York’s Hell-Fighters March up the Avenue.”
The 369th Sustainment Brigade staff put together historical references to the unit name, filled in the paperwork, and sent it to the National Guard Bureau historian.
That office, in turn, sent it to Joseph Seymour, a historian with 20 years of experience, at the Army Center of Military History in Fort McNair.
Seymour is the historian at the Center who deals with Army National Guard history.
Documenting the 369th’s claim to their historic name was not hard to do, Seymour said. There were plenty of books and articles linking the name Hellfighters to the 369th.
“They are a very famous unit. It is one of those things that everybody knew about. But because everybody knew about it, they never submitted a request for a distinctive designation,” Seymour said.