Documentary to tell story of all-black Army unit that protected Hawaii in WWII

Documentary to tell story of all-black Army unit that protected Hawaii in WWII
A documentary film project tells the story of the Harlem Rattlers, an all-black Army regiment formed to fight in World War I and II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor the unit was stationed in Hawaii. (Image: John Bond Collection) (John Bond Collection)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - During World War II, the 369th Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment made up entirely of African-American soldiers was stationed in Hawaii.

Documentary to tell story of all-black Army unit that protected Hawaii in WWII
Members of the 369th Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment man an anti-aircraft gun at Ewa Field in 1942. The Harlem Rattlers were brought in to guard Hawaii's coastlines.
Members of the 369th Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment man an anti-aircraft gun at Ewa Field in 1942. The Harlem Rattlers were brought in to guard Hawaii's coastlines.

The troops hailed from New York and were known as the Harlem Rattlers.

"I think it is a human interest story," Monmouth University professor Nancy Mezey said.

Mezey is part of a team researching and documenting the story of the segregated unit, and the little-known fact that it helped guard Hawaii in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"Why we want to tell the story is because we don't want it to be lost from history," she said.

Organized to fight as an infantry unit in World War I then as an artillery unit in World War II, the regiment’s rattlesnake insignia earned it the nickname Harlem Rattlers.

“They had pride in that name,” Michelle DeFossett ssaid.

DeFossett’s father and uncle served with the 369th at Ewa Field.

“They lived in segregated housing regardless of where they were, but I think probably they spoke more about the fact that it was not segregated in terms of when they went out into Hawaii,” she said.

The men mingled with locals, playing baseball and jazz music in night clubs.

“They had musical ability. They had athletic ability. They also were very skilled, one of the very skilled black units in World War II,” Mezey said.

One of the unit's officers, Benjamin Oliver Davis, became the first black-American to earn the rank of Brigadier General.

“A lot of them then became the first or one of the first of many things in many different areas of society, whether it was in politics or business. My uncle was one of the first black Secret Service Agents,” DeFossett said.

The unit was deactivated after World War II. Many of the Rattlers returned to Harlem and formed a veterans association. They took pride in their service to the country..

"They were my idea of what a black American man was, could be and would be," DeFossett said.

Mezey hopes to have the documentary ready in a year or two. In the meantime she’s searching for more sources to shed light on the regiment’s time in Hawaii.

“We would really, really love to know if there are descendants of members of the 369th who remained in Hawaii after the war,” she said.

For more information on the documentary project, click here.

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