President Biden signed legislation last week awarding the famed 369th Infantry Regiment known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” with the Congressional Gold Medal, a century after proving themselves the bravest combatants in the European theater.
Two thousand Black soldiers, including Afro-Puerto Ricans, voluntarily enlisted in the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, which became known as the (U.S.) 369th Infantry. The regiment was commanded by Col. William Hayward, who gave the captaincy of Company K to a young Hudson Valley politician named Hamilton Fish. Many years later, in 1979, Fish would co-found the Desmond-Fish Public Library.
Born in Garrison, New York in 1888, Fish graduated from Harvard in 1910. When the US entered WW I, he was a practicing attorney and state legislator, anxious to participate in combat overseas. Hayward’s offer gave him the opportunity, but early on during stateside training, the regiment encountered racial tensions with other units billeted nearby.
The regiment was shipped to France in December 1917, where the Black troops and their officers were assigned to manual labor. With the French desperate for soldiers, the 369th – a unit of the 9th Division – was placed under the command of the French 4th Army and immediately engaged in combat. Their bravery earned them the name of “Hellfighters” from their German opponents, although the soldiers preferred “Harlem’s Rattlers.” On September 29, 1918, the regiment participated in the critical victory over German forces in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, in which one-third of the 369th suffered casualties.
The French recognized the supreme heroism of the men of the 369th. Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were the first American soldiers to be awarded the coveted Croix de Guerre for valor, and this medal was also awarded to the regiment. Hamilton Fish was awarded the U.S. Silver Star Medal and the French War Cross 1914–1918. In addition, Fish and his sister Janet, who had been a nurse near the front lines, were both inducted into the French Legion of Honor for their wartime service.
The Congressional Gold Medal at long last recognizes the bravery of the men under the command of Fish and his fellow officers. The medal legislation was sponsored by the New York Congressional Delegation, approved by both houses of Congress, and signed by the President on August 26, 2021.
In his 1991 memoir, Fish wrote: “The record that we, the men of the 369th, compiled on the field of battle was an outstanding one. We spent 191 days in the frontline trenches, longer than any other American regiment. We were the first Allied regiment to reach the Rhine.… I will always remember the brave black men who served with me in the trenches of France.… Nor will I forget the bravery of my loyal sergeants.… At the end of World War I, I told my men, ‘You have fought and died for freedom and democracy. Now, you should go back home to the United States and continue to fight for your own freedom and democracy.’”
Hamilton Fish was a founder of the American Legion and served as a member of Congress from 1920 to 1945. He worked constantly to improve civil rights for Black Americans, three times sponsoring anti-lynching bills that were defeated by Southern congressmen. He is also credited with proposing the bill to create the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, though his efforts in that regard to include the remains of a Black soldier were rejected by senior command.
A strong anti-Communist, he was an isolationist in the years before World War II. After a long and distinguished career, he and his wife Alice Curtis Desmond founded the Desmond-Fish Library in Garrison, New York in 1979; he died in 1991. His grandson, Hamilton Fish, a past president of the Library Board of Trustees, continues his service as a Trustee and is currently the Co-Chair with Erik Brown of the Library’s Racial Equity and Social Justice Committee.
The library plans an exhibit and book talk about the famed Black regiment and its young captain.