138: The 15th New York/369th or The Harlem Hellfighters

History That Doesn’t Suck

“My men never retire. They go forward, or they die!”

This is the story of the 15th New York, a.k.a, the 369th, or the Harlem Hellfighters.

James “Big Jim” Europe is one of the most talented musicians in the world. His ragtime and early jazz sounds electrify New York City. That’s exactly why Colonel William “Big Bill” Hayward, who’s just been named commander of New York’s newly established Black regiment (the 15th) wants the young machine gun officer to step into his rightly earned celebrity status and lead the regimental band. Unofficially, Jim accepts, and his swinging sounds soon win more recruits.

But nothing comes easy for the old 15th. Training in the South, they encounter Jim Crow hostility. Making it to France, they are despondent to find they’re designated for manual labor. But as Jim’s band rocks concert halls across France, they finally get a chance to go to the front as a part of the French military.

These New Yorkers never lose an inch of ground. They win or they die, becoming heroes on both sides of the Atlantic and earning the Croix de Guerre for the entire unit. But it’s a tale of heroism that ends on a low note, as the men of the 15th find Jim Crow a tougher foe than the German Kaiser.


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“The Clef Club March” by James Reese Europe. From the sound recording Paragon Ragtime Orchestra: Black Manhattan. New World Records #80611-2 (p) & © 2003 Anthology of Recorded Music, Inc. Used by permission.

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