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Feature Stories

NEWS | June 17, 2017

The Harlem Hellfighters: A 104 Year Retrospective

By Maj. Bryon Linnehan

June marks the 104 Year Anniversary of the 15th Infantry Regiment, the forbearers of today’s 369th Sustainment Brigade. This storied unit, that was given the famous nickname “The Harlem Hellfighters,” by their German adversaries, has earned a distinguished place in history as a result of the tenacity they displayed both on and off the battlefield.
“As the first and only all-black New York National Guard unit, the story of the 369th Infantry in World War I, is a heroic tale of the struggle of African-Americans to prove their worth as soldiers on the battlefield as well as assert their rights as citizens at home,” said Courtney Burns, the Director of Military History, New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs.
On June 2nd, 1913 the 15th Infantry Regiment, was constituted as a part of the New York National Guard. The men that formed the initial ranks of the unit faced a society at the time that was highly fragmented along racial lines, enduring prejudice and unjust treatment in the segregated Army of the time. They were forced to fight under the command of the French Army, as many white American Soldiers refused to fight alongside the black Soldiers.
The unit’s fortitude would soon be put to the ultimate test on the ground in war-torn France, where the Hellfighters did not merely survive, but thrived on the battlefield. Their resilience resulted directly in a proud heritage as those men from Harlem never lost a man through capture, lost a trench, or a foot of ground to the enemy.
“With 191 days in continuous combat, the first American unit to cross the Rhine, and the only American unit awarded the French Croix de Guerre, the 369th was one of the most successful units in the US Army, black or white. Their deeds earned them widespread respect and acknowledgement and helped to lay the groundwork for the 20th century civil rights movement,” said Burns.
Sgt. (then Pvt.) Henry Johnson earned the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme (France’s highest award for valor) and was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996, the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002, and in June 2015 received the American military’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor. While on sentry duty, Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts were attacked by a German raiding party of at least a dozen Soldiers. Johnson managed to fight off the German forces while also preventing the wounded Needham from being captured by the enemy, even though he himself had also suffered significant injuries.
1st Lt. George S. Robb would also earn the Medal of Honor for his valor displayed in the fields of France. Despite being severely wounded several time while leading his platoon near Sechault, France, Robb displayed courage and tenacity by remaining with his platoon. When his commanding officer was killed, he assumed command of the entire company and continued to take out machine gun nests and sniping posts, greatly contributing to his battalion completing their objective.
During World War I, the unit was credited with campaign participation in Champagne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Champagne 1918, Alsace 1918, and Lorraine 1918, earning a regimental French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star and Streamer, and more than 170 individual Croix de Guerre medals.
Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the unit underwent extensive reorganization. The unit transitioned from the 15th Infantry to the 369th Infantry, prior to being converted and re-designated on August 30th, 1940 as the 369th Coastal Artillery. Despite all these organizational changes, the Hellfighters did not lose their fighting spirit. By the end of World War II, the various units that trace their lineage back to the 15th Infantry are credited with campaign participation in Ryukyus, Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno, Eastern Mandates, Western Pacific, North Apennines, Luzon and Po Valley.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Hellfighters were ordered into active Federal service as the 369th Transportation Battalion, having made the transition from Artillery to Transportation in February, 1968. The Hellfighters would be credited with campaign participation in the Defense of Saudi Arabia, the Liberation and Defense of Kuwait, and the Cease-Fire.
During peacetime, the Hellfighters maintain their ability to operate in a joint environment, and build upon their operational effectiveness and deployment capability by conducting numerous partner nation exercises on the African continent as well as mobilizing for state civil-support missions in the case of a natural disaster or other state emergency. When Hurricane Sandy ripped up the Eastern Coast and caused extensive destruction in the New York metropolitan area, the unit was called upon by the Governor of New York to help mitigate the suffering of their neighbors and fellow New Yorkers.
Today, 104 years since the original Hellfighters first fought for equality and against naked aggression in Western Europe, the Brigade Headquarters, Battalion Headquarters, and Headquarters Company are deployed to the Middle East fighting The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The unit continues to build upon the strong foundation laid over a century ago despite facing seemingly insurmountable odds at times. The unit, first commanded by Colonel William Hayward, a former U.S., is now commanded by Col. Stephen Bousquet, a native of Buffalo, N.Y. Bousquet, a Supervisory Health Physicist with the US Army Corps of Engineers, commands a high degree of respect from his Hellfighters as a master logistician who leads several thousand Hellfighters in the US Army Central Command’s Area of Operations.

“The professionalism and expertise the 369th possesses is second to none. Senior leaders, both here in theater and back in New York, have remarked upon the outstanding job we have done and offered their gratitude for our continuing efforts,” said Bousquet. “We are the best sustainment brigade in the Army and it is important that we continue to earn that reputation and our place in the Hellfighter legacy every day.”

The 369th Sustainment Brigade is made up of several Combat Sustainment Support Battalions (CSSB) and a Special Troops Battalion command by Lt. Col. Seth Morgulas, a resident of Scarsdale, N.Y. While the CSSBs build partner nation capacity working to combat ISIS by moving thousands of tons of bullets, fuel, vehicles and spare parts on a daily basis, the Special Troops Battalion provides critical customs, postal, personnel accountability, finance, and mortuary affairs support both internal and external to the Brigade to the tens of thousands of service-members distributed throughout more than 10 countries in the Middle East.
"The Special Troops Battalion ‘Rattlers’ have accomplished a tremendous amount while spread across 11 countries throughout the Middle East. Their discipline and professionalism resulted directly in the effective processing of more than 4.5 million pounds of mail, accounting for more than 40,000 personnel transiting theatre, providing pre-customs clearance for tens of thousands of personnel and hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment worth more than $1 billion,” said Morgulas. “They worked tirelessly to ensure fiscal oversight of more than 100 billion in U.S. funds, and made countless other contributions to the fight."
The Brigade and Battalion Command Sergeants Major, Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Mclean and Command Sgt. Maj. Andrew Lampkins, with a combined 12 deployments between them, provide invaluable experience to their respective commands, who are faced with daunting mission command and operational oversight challenges presented by a non-linear and fluid modern combat environment across more than twenty remote locations that span five imminent danger areas.
“The Hellfighters continued accomplishments as citizen-soldiers are a direct result of two things: Firstly, the Soldiers on the front lines and their first line leaders – the junior Non-Commissioned Officer’s that bear the heaviest burdens. Secondly, the incredible support those Soldiers receive from their Families and employers that they had to temporarily leave behind on their way to today’s battlefields,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Lampkins.