Today, the U.S. Senate passed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the 369th Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the Harlem Hellfighters, a Black infantry regiment of the New York National Guard that fought in WWI. The House companion bill, led by Congressmen Tom Suozzi and Adriano Espaillat, passed in June. During World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters spent more time in continuous combat than any other American unit of its size – 191 days in the front-line trenches – and took more casualties (1,400) than any other U.S. regiment during the war.
“The Harlem Hellfighters served our nation with distinction, spending 191 days in the front-line trenches, all while displaying the American values of courage, dedication and sacrifice,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act honors these brave men, who, even as they faced segregation and prejudice, risked their lives to defend our freedoms. I want to thank my House colleagues Representatives Suozzi and Espaillat for their outstanding partnership on this legislation and I look forward to President Biden signing this bill into law.”
The Harlem Hellfighters were a Black infantry regiment in WWI who spent 191 days in combat, more than any other similarly sized American regiment. In 1918, the U.S. Army assigned the Hellfighters to the French army because many white American soldiers refused to go into combat alongside Black Americans. The Hellfighters earned the nicknames “Hommes de Bronze” (Men of Bronze) from the French and “Hollenkampfer” (Hellfighters) from the Germans due to their doggedness and strength. The Hellfighters earned 11 French citations and a unit Croix de Guerre, and 170 soldiers were individually awarded the French Croix de Guerre. However, despite their courage and devotion, the Hellfighters faced prejudice and racism upon their return to the United States.
The United States Congress gives the Congressional Gold Medal to those who have “performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field, long after the achievement.” The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. The Congressional Gold Medal will be designed and struck by the United States Mint and displayed at the Smithsonian Institution and at events associated with the Harlem Hellfighters. There have been only two other Congressional Gold Medals awarded to distinguished African American military groups: the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007 and the Montford Point Marines in 2011, both from World War II.