Harlem Hellfighters Bravely Led the U.S. Into WWI
One Hundred Years Ago, the Harlem Hellfighters Bravely Led the U.S. Into WWI
Their courage made headlines across the country, hailing the African-American regiment as heroes even as they faced discrimination at home.
Private Henry Johnson of Albany, New York, held tight his French Lebel rifle and stared into the darkness of no-man’s-land, listening for German raiders. Beyond the parapet, he could make out shapes and shadows under the waning moon.
Johnson was a 25-year-old railroad baggage porter, the son of North Carolina tobacco farmers. Under French command, he manned the front line of the Great War about 115 miles east of Paris on the early morning of May 15, 1918.
He heard a sound and turned to his partner in their tiny observation post, Needham Roberts, who gestured toward the direction of the noise. They heard it again: the snip of barbed wire being cut.
Johnson fired an illumination rocket into the sky, then ducked as German grenades flew toward him. The grenades exploded behind him, and pain struck his left leg and side. Roberts, bleeding from his head, threw grenades of his own back over the parapet.
The German forces rushed into the Americans’ dugout. Johnson shot one German in the chest, point-blank, then swung his rifle to club another. Two enemy soldiers tried to haul Roberts away, until Johnson drove his nine-inch knife into one of their skulls. Another German shot Johnson in the shoulder and thigh; Johnson lunged with his knife and slashed him down. The enemy soldiers ran. Johnson chucked grenades as they fled.
Reviewing the carnage the next day, a U.S. Army captain estimated that Johnson had killed four of at least 24 German soldiers. Days later, Johnson and Roberts became the first Americans to receive the French Croix de Guerre – the first of many honors awarded to the 369th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters.
The Hellfighters, the most celebrated African-American regiment in World War I, confronted racism even as they trained for war, helped bring jazz to France, then battled Germany longer than almost any other American doughboys. (Their nickname’s origin is unclear: it was possibly coined by enemy soldiers, the American press, or both.) Like their predecessors in the Civil War and successors in the wars that followed, these African-American troops fought a war for a country that refused them basic rights – and their bravery stood as a rebuke to racism, a moral claim to first-class citizenship.