The Harlem Hellfighters and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team

April 20, 2021

Michael Ellmer

The Harlem Hellfighters and the 442nd RCT



World War I and World War II culminated with entire libraries filled with stories of heroism and achievements earned by prestigious units. The Harlem Hellfighters and 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) are two of those units, although their story to fame is not as conventional as you may think.



World War


In both World War I and World War II, units fought units in Europe with sheer kinetic energy and professional violence at a scale unseen in human history. These two conventional wars, acting in a massive geospatial theater, had a unique way of cultivating patriotism, energizing industry and technological advancement in belligerent nations, and bonding citizen populations under the banner of a cause bigger than self. Battalions became borderline sports teams with their own domestic fandom, and they celebrated their battlefield exploits at home like a game-winning touchdown.


In the United States, both World Wars had that energizing effect in the public sphere. Unfortunately, however, both World Wars were also during some of the darker periods in American history, specifically the historic racial tensions left over from the long period of chattel slavery in WWI, and the heightened public fear and government internment of US-Japanese citizens in WWII.   


To put it bluntly, Caucasian men fought the nation’s wars, save a small percentage of African Americans (around 2.5 million) who could enlist, yet limited to menial support roles and not afforded leadership opportunities to the same degree as their white counterparts.


Unique to WWII, Japanese Americans were far from desirable within the ranks of the armed forces. Following the Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, sending thousands of Japanese citizens into internment camps as a “way to prevent domestic espionage”. Despite the segregation and racial tensions, members of marginalized populations still helped the war effort, and some became legendary in the process.



“Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go”


“Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go” – the colourful motto of New York’s 369th National Guard Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”. was not your average unit. Not because of some sort of advanced tactics or capability, but since African Americans primarily manned it, the bulk of which hailing from Harlem.


After its formation in 1913, the unit had a long period of training, but no deployment taskings. That changed in 1917, in which case they were activated to support WWI. The 369th’s original mission was to support the Services of Supply, who handled logistical support for the American Expeditionary Forces. Even though the men were ready to fight in combat, they could not because of their race.


Cleaning latrines and unloading cargo ended abruptly, however. The battlefields were claiming substantial European lives, and there was a desperate need for reinforcements. A proposal was submitted to higher command, for the 369th to re-orient their mission to a combat focus, which was approved from the top.


The white commander of the regiment, Colonel William Hayward, had profound thoughts about his commands decision to grant the entry of the unit into the war. In a letter, Hayward wrote: “A fairy tale has materialized… We are now a combat unit… Our great American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away.”


What the 369th did in combat was profound. Their actions showed a reoccurring spirit amongst the black community in the US, throughout the periods of slavery, Jim Crow (which was relevant at the time), and the 1960s civil rights movement: the spirit of strength.


A unit devoid of inter-service support or acceptance turned into the premier infantry force in WWI, and France was the arena where they were baptized by fire. The command embedded the 369th with the Fourth French Army, where they received a short period of tactical training. Coincidentally, it is said they received a warmer welcome from the foreign troops than their US counterparts.  


In April of 1918, the 369th entered the war front in the Champagne region. By the end of it all, they were the unit who served the longest period in the front lines in the war from the US side; 191 days, to be exact. The Germans gave the term Hellfighters to them, referring to their fierce battlefield presence. By the end of the war, the Harlem Hellfighters were national heroes back at home, making headlines in newspapers, and winning over the hearts and minds of the people.


Henry Johnson was a soldier from the unit that was eventually awarded the sacred Croix de Guerre from the French military for bravery, and recently in 2015 posthumously the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery demonstrated in combat. He reached celebrity status in the US and was nicknamed “The Black Death”.


Upon returning home, the Harlem Hellfighters were met with parades and fanfare. It was apparent how much of an impact they had on the public, who up to that point, in the age of print media, had to rely on journalism and written storytelling to learn what was going on overseas.


Not long after their homecoming, the unit faded out of the spotlight. The public they came home to was under the dark spell of Jim Crow, segregation in the South, and general racial animus towards the black community. Outside of the legend of Henry Johnson, the Hellfighters became a forgotten piece of common history.



Go for Broke”


The Harlem Hellfighters and the 442nd RCT


Nisei are second-generation Japanese Americans, who at the time could freely work and live in the United States, despite the ongoing conflict with the Japanese homeland. In the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks on the 7th of December 1941, the acceptance of them within the US population drastically shifted.


Not only did the attacks launch American off the sidelines and straight into WWII, but it exposed an unforeseen vulnerability in the nation’s defence. Not only was the US not untouchable from a foreign adversary, but a realistic domestic threat was identified—the threat of espionage—conducted by Nisei citizens who were loyal to Japan.


President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 placed Nisei into internment camps and stoked fear and prejudice of and towards them within the American public. Likewise, Nisei were banned from serving in the armed forces, and were designated as “enemy aliens”.


In Hawaii, home of the largest Nisei population in the US, a group of Nisei college students, including ROTC cadets, petitioned to the Hawaii governor for the right to support the Army, as a gesture of kindness. They wanted to show that they loved the US, and were loyal to it, and despite the racism and persecution they faced, they would still be willing to serve and prove it.


Those students were formed into the “Varsity Victory Volunteers” and assisted the Army in infrastructure projects on the island of Oahu, and much to their benefit caught the eye of local military leaders. According to the Go For Broke National Education Center:


“Their dedication and willingness to serve their country in whatever way possible made a significant impression on military officials. The Varsity Victory Volunteers finally got their chance to fight. On January 28, 1943, the War Department announced that it was forming an all-Nisei combat team and called for 1,500 volunteers from Hawaii. An overwhelming 10,000 men volunteered, including many men from the VVV.”


On the 1st of February 1943, President Roosevelt activated this newly formed unit of Nisei, who were designated to be the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The 442nd trained for about a year which resulted in strong unit cohesion and showed proficiency in training scenarios. On the 22nd of April 1944, they departed for enemy lands, destination Europe.


In theatre, the 442nd dominated. From France to Italy, the latter of which being where they helped support the 92nd Infantry Division, another segregated unit of African Americans. According to the National WWII Museum: “Today, the 442nd is remembered as the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the US military. The unit, totalling about 18,000 men, over 4,000 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 560 Silver Star Medals, 21 Medals of Honor, and seven Presidential Unit Citations.”


The unit motto “Go For Broke” is a gambling term derived from Hawaiian slang. In translation, it means to “risk it all in one effort to win big”. One honest look at the valour and achievements demonstrated by the 442nd, and it would be impossible to say they did not.



The Big Picture


The 369th Harlem Hellfighters and 442nd RCT have a selection of shared experiences. Both were a part of a world war, both were distinguished, and both found on the European front.


What makes them special, however, is the fact that each force was made of segregated people, who had every reason to resent the very nation that caused their ethnic groups so much damage. The brave men on both units went into the heat of battle and fought with the same, if not at times more intensity than their white brethren. The records of service and awards show the pedigree found amongst those ranks, yet they had to face the enemy of racism every step of the way back home in the US before they could ever reach the line of departure.


The United States prides itself on being the land of the free, and the home of the brave. The Harlem Hellfighters and 442nd show that that freedom was earned partially on the backs of those who did not even have it, to begin with.



Image: National Archive / Britannica (link)


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