More than a century after World War I, the U.S. Senate passed the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act this week to commemorate the Black infantry regiment that fought during WWI.
During World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters spent more time in continuous combat than any other American unit of its size, totaling 191 days in the front-line trenches and suffering more casualties, 1,400, than any other U.S. regiment during the war.
In 1918, the U.S. Army assigned the Hellfighters to the French army since many white American soldiers refused to go into combat alongside Black Americans.
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) sponsored the bill. The House companion bill, which U.S. Reps. Tom Suozzi (D-Long Island/Queens) and Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan/Bronx) sponsored, passed in June.
“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 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.”
The Hellfighters earned the nickname “Hommes de Bronze” from the French which translates to “Men of Bronze”. They also earned the nickname “Hollenkampfer” from the Germans, which translates to “Hellfighters” due to their doggedness and strength.
The Hellfighters earned 11 French citations and a unit Croix de Guerre, with 170 soldiers 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 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 Montfort Point Marines in 2011, both from World War II.