`Harlem Hellfighter' Posthumously Nominated For
4th ROTC Region
Lewis, Washington – A
World War I soldier of the all-black 369th
Infantry Regiment has been nominated posthumously
for the nation’s highest military award, the
Medal of Honor.
369th, like the rest of the A.E.F., was untried in
battle. Gen. John J. Pershing had stubbornly
refused to allow American forces to come under
foreign commanders, but appeased their insistence
for more soldiers by lending the 369th to the
French. The French welcomed the “soldats noirs
de l’Amerique” and even billeted them in
French homes while they trained for the trench
warfare that lay ahead.
Pvt. Henry Johnson
is being considered for the award based on his
actions to repel a German attack on a forward
listening post in France during May 1918,
according to Army officials.
Prior to World War
I, Johnson was a station porter in Albany, N.Y. He
signed up with the 369th Infantry Regiment when it
was formed from the National Guard’s 15th New
Sent to France with
the American Expeditionary Force in World War I,
the unit was lent to the French Army to help fill
out depleted ranks from four long years of
struggle. As a result, the Guard soldiers entered
combat within a month of their arrival in France.
In time, the bond
between the French peasants and the 369th grew.
Stories of their daring patrols into German lines
to capture prisoners and destroy machine guns
quickly grew into legends and the soldiers boasted
that they were natural night-fighters who didn’t
need to smear lampblack on their faces before a
Germans, too, told many a tale of the “French
Moroccans” who would emerge through hails of
artillery and machine gun fire to drop into the
trenches and scour them clean with bayonets and
In fact, it was a virtual secret for months that
the black Americans even existed, since they were
under French command and prejudiced white
commanders made little mention of them. But with
each battle, they learned more and got tougher,
earning the unbridled respect of their comrades in
the French 161st Division.
One night in mid-May, Privates Johnson and Needham
Roberts were part of a five-man patrol on duty in
an advance listening post along the front line.
The other three soldiers were off-watch and
sleeping in a dugout to the rear when a 24-man
German raiding party caught the post by surprise
with a violent grenade attack. Both Johnson and
Roberts fought back with a withering barrage of
rifle fire and were seriously wounded, but managed
to fight off the first attack and crawl to their
own supply of grenades.
Throwing grenades one after the other like
baseballs at batting practice, they peppered the
next attack with explosives as Johnson shouted out
“Turn out the Guard,” over and over. Grabbing
his rifle, he shot down a German and then clubbed
the next one to death with its buttstock. Turning,
he spotted Roberts surrounded by three “Boche”
who were choking him into submission.
photo of the 369th
Infantry Regiment training
in French combat.
Out of grenades and with his rifle jammed and
broken, Johnson pulled out his hefty bolo knife
and cleft the skull of one German in a single
stroke. Roberts broke free and continued fighting
against fierce odds.
Another shot rang out and Johnson fell wounded and
dazed, but not so stricken he couldn’t grab a
grenade off a dead German and throw it at his
attackers. The blast was devastating and Johnson
later remarked the Germans were probably returned
to their families wrapped in a newspaper.
The other three soldiers had been knocked out in a
dugout by the first grenade attack, but by the
time they finally emerged to reinforce the two
scouts, the Germans had enough and ran away,
leaving dead, weapons, wire cutters, grenades and
a number of rifles and automatic weapons. When
reinforcements arrived, they found the two black
soldiers laughing and singing surrounded by a
scene of gore and mangled Huns.
Johnson and Roberts were both peppered with
shrapnel and shot several times, but remained in
good humor and reportedly saw the experience as a
great adventure. The story quickly spread like
wildfire among the French units, especially the
part about the bolo knife, and well wishers from
all along the front stopped by the hospital with
gifts and kind words.
Upon reading a brief and bland American report on
the incident, the French commanding general
conducted his own investigation and learned the
full story from eyewitness accounts.
“The American report is too modest,” he
exclaimed in a letter to Pershing. “As a result
of oral information furnished me, it appears the
blacks were extremely brave. This little combat
does honor to all Americans!” To underscore his
respect for Johnson and Roberts, they were awarded
the Croix de Guerre with palm leaf for Valor,
France’s highest medal for bravery in combat and
among the first given to Americans in the war.
Actions like that of Johnson and Roberts earned
the regiment its nickname of “Harlem
Hellfighters,” alluding to the black district in
New York where many of its soldiers were raised.
Through the course of the war, they not only
proved themselves the equal of other regiments,
they exceeded all expectations by never having a
single man captured and never losing a trench or a
single foot of ground.
The unit’s finest hour came in the battle of the
Meuse-Argonne when the 369th succeeded in taking
and holding the town of Sechault against massed
artillery, extensive fields of machine gun fire
and heavily entrenched German defenders. The price
was high, with fully a third of the “Noirs
Americains” lying dead on the battlefield, and
the French presented the entire regiment with the
Croix de Guerre. Theirs was a record worthy of
pride to any regiment.
Upon his return, Johnson was hailed as a hero in
New York City, riding in an open-top car in front
of the 369th as they marched in the Victory
Parade. Ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, the hero
of San Jaun Hill, referred to him as one of the
nation’s five bravest Americans.
After the war, Johnson was unable to return to his
old job as a railroad porter because of his
injuries. Some surmise that perhaps out of
physical pain, emotional frustration, or perhaps
from the trauma of combat, he turned to alcohol.
His wife eventually left him and, only 40 years
old, he died penniless in 1937. An umarked grave
somewhere in Albany holds his remains.
York welcomes home the
369th Infantry as WWI
His son, Herman Johnson, went on to serve with the
famed Tuskeegee Airmen in World War II. As a
fighter pilot, he too demonstrated the courage and
patriotism of black Americans.
A street in Albany was named after Henry Johnson
in 1991 near a memorial constituted the same year
in his name. It was topped with a bronze bust of
Johnson in 1996.
In 1999, on behalf of Johnson’s supporters, Gov.
George Pataki and other New York officials
petitioned the Department of Defense to consider
Johnson for a Medal of Honor. Johnson’s record
is currently being reviewed, personnel officials
said. They point out the final decision on the
award will be made by the president.
(Editor’s note: Bob Rosenburgh is a public
affairs specialist for the 4th ROTC Region at Fort