2/12/2001 - WWI `Harlem Hellfighter' Posthumously Nominated For Medal
By Bob Rosenburgh
4th ROTC Region

Artistic Rendition of the 396th
Pvt. Henry Johnson (not pictured above) is being considered for his heroic actions during WWI.
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• "Harlem Hellfighters"
• 369th Infantry

Fort Lewis, WashingtonA 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.

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 York.

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.

The 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.

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 patrol.

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 grenades.

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.
1914 photo of the 369th Infantry Regiment training in French combat
1914 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.

The 369th Infantry's 'Welcome Home' Parade in downtown New York
New York welcomes home the 369th Infantry as WWI heroes.
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.

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 Lewis, Wash.)