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, 2020, 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. These range from the 3rd Infantry Division’s “Marne Division” nickname earned in World War I, to the 179th Aviation Company of the Vietnam War which called itself “Shrimp Boats.”
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. This is the same entity that provides the lineage and honors for Army units. Units can also request special designations without any historical basis, by written request and if no other unit is using it, according to center officials.
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. The men of the 369th fought in combat for 191 days. The unit took 1500 killed and wounded, while receiving only 900 replacements. In one offensive, the 369th outpaced French units on either side by seven miles. 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.
When a unit needs its lineage and honors updated, or they want to add information, Seymour is the person who checks the information and make sure it is accurate. “If a unit feels they are entitled to a distinctive designation, we research the merits of the claim,” Seymour said. “The case of the Harlem Hellfighters is a particularly interesting claim,” Seymour said. “It was not what they called themselves. It is what the enemy called them. That is a particular distinction.” 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. “It was a surprise,” he added. For a National Guard unit to request that their traditional nickname be noted as an official Army Distinctive Designation, a request in writing has to go the National Guard Bureau, Seymour explained. Battalions and brigades seeking to make a traditional designation official must show that the designation has been used for at least 30 years, Seymour explained.
But because National Guard units are often reorganized and realigned, it is possible for a company of a battalion to have a different historical lineage and have their own traditional nickname, he said. In that case a company has to prove the nickname has been around for 50 years, Seymour said. These designations can be changed.
The 283rd Army Band, for example, used to be the “United States Army Infantry Center Band” but changed the name to the “United States Army Maneuver Center of Excellence Band” when the Infantry and Armor school merged. There are 13 New York Army National Guard units with Army Special Designations. Some of them are well known; like the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry’s “Fighting Sixty-Ninth; and the 42nd Infantry Division’s “Rainbow”. Others aren’t heard about too much.
The 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, for example, is entitled to call itself Empire, because New York is known as the Empire State, and that was the nickname picked by the 27th Armored Division in the 1950s.
The 501st Ordnance Battalion owns the lineage of the 105th Infantry, so it also owns their designation of “Apple Knockers”; a term for upstate New York residents in the early 20th Century. And although it is now headquartered in Kingston, the official nickname for the 104th Military Police Battalion is Poughkeepsie Invincibles. The battalion gets that name because it traces its history back to a Poughkeepsie militia company organized in 1775 by Captain Jacobus Frear called the Poughkeepsie Invincibles.
“Some of these nicknames are so old and obscure that nobody knows what or why they are,” Burns said.