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The Color Line; Afro-Puerto Ricans and The Harlem Hellfighters

The Puerto Rican Experience In The U.S. Military: A Century Of Unheralded Service

written by Dr. Harry Franqui-Rivera; Senior Digital Aide, Monique Aviles

 

369th Infantry band en route to France

During World War I, many Puerto Ricans were drafted, recruited or volunteered while residing in the continental United States. They were sent to either black or white units depending on their skin color. A curious case is that of James Reese Europe, a distinguished African-American jazz musician who obtained an officer (lieutenant) commission with the New York National Guard and served with the 369th Colored Infantry Regiment. The 369th would be known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” for their distinguished role in France.

Europe visited Puerto Rico and recruited some two dozen Puerto Ricans for his band. Among them were brothers Rafael and Jesús Hernández. Rafael Hernandez is considered by many as Puerto Rico’s greatest composer.

Besides the 18 Puerto Ricans recruited for the regimental band, about a dozen Afro-Puerto Ricans from New York joined or were drafted into this regiment.

Unlike most black units, the 369th saw combat because it was placed under French command. Due to the high casualties suffered by the French Army since 1914, losing a whole generation of men by the end of the war, and because they were fighting in their own country, the French command was no longer squeamish about who they allowed to fight to save France from defeat.

James Reese Europe and The Hell Fighters Band fliers
James Reese Europe and The Harlem Hell Fighters band promotional fliers

Europe visited Puerto Rico and recruited some two dozen Puerto Ricans for his band. Among them were brothers Rafael and Jesús Hernández. Rafael Hernandez is considered by many as Puerto Rico’s greatest composer.

Rafael Hernández with brother Jesús Hernández
Rafael Hernández with brother Jesús Hernández

Besides the roughly 18 Puerto Ricans recruited for the regimental band, about a dozen Afro-Puerto Ricans from New York joined or were drafted into this regiment.

369th Infantry back from France marches up to Harlem in full battle gear
369th Infantry back from France marches up to Harlem in full battle gear

Unlike most Black units, the 369th saw combat because it was placed under French command. Due to the high casualties suffered by the French Army since 1914, losing a whole generation of men by the end of the war, and because they were fighting in their own country, the French command was no longer squeamish about who they allowed to fight to save France from defeat.


Puerto Rican Members of the 369th Regiment During World War I

List of Puerto Ricans who served in the 369th
Compiled by Dr. Basilio Serrano

Special thanks to Richie Blondet for facilitating materials on the 369th.


Continue to Aftermath: The Post World War I Years


Photo caption: 369th Infantry band en route to France