A century ago, President Wilson sent U.S. forces overseas to make the world safe for democracy. Despite deep domestic divisions — including extreme economic inequality and terrible racial injustice — people of all colors rallied to the cause.
W.E.B. Du Bois and other prominent black leaders urged African Americans to serve. Black valor during the Civil War had helped win emancipation and ephemeral legal equality during Reconstruction; perhaps, then, heroic sacrifice in the Great War could make a case for full citizenship in the 20th century.
African American soldiers earned equal pay, but had to serve in segregated units commanded by white officers. In 1917, a unit of black and Puerto Rican volunteers in the New York National Guard became the 369th (Colored) Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army. They trained for combat and expressed eagerness to fight upon arrival in Europe, but for the first few months, the high command — lacking confidence in the courage and competence of nonwhites on the battle field — relegated the regiment to ditch digging and other menial tasks behind the lines.
When the French begged for reinforcements, General Pershing lent them the 369th. Having already lost a million men to trench warfare against Germany, France could ill afford the luxury of racial discrimination; its shorthanded Armée literally needed all the help it could get.
After midnight on May 14, 1918, two black privates warily kept watch from a trench at the edge of the Argonne Forest. They stayed low, as snipers had targeted them sporadically all night.
Private Henry Johnson remembered, “Somewhere ’round two o’clock I heard the Germans snipping” on the nearby barbed wire perimeter.
Convinced that “pretty near all the Germans in the world was creepin’ over our way,” Johnson resolved to defend their position while his partner summoned backup.
After firing an alarm flare skyward, Needham Roberts — a hulking 17-year-old — set out to rouse their comrades back at the outpost.
Johnson recalled, “Roberts had just started off when the snippin’ and clippin’ of the wires sounds closer and I let a hand grenade fly. There’s a yell from a lot of sure surprised [Germans] and then they start firing. I hollered to Needham to come back. Right offen the reel he got shot through the arm and hip and I saw the best thing he could do would be to lay down in the trench and hand me up them grenades.”
German rifle fire continued to pepper their position. “Keep your nerve,” Johnson told Roberts, “and give me them grenades just as fast as you can pass ’em up, ’cause I’m gonna need them in a hurry.”
Despite getting grazed and shot several times — including in the chest — Johnson kept lobbing grenades. Roberts “kept handing ’em to me and I kept throwing them and the [Germans] kept squealin’, but just the same they kept coming on, too! When the grenades was all gone I started in with my rifle. That was all right till I shoved an American cartridge clip in it. It was a French gun and it jammed, so it wasn’t no more use thataway.”
Encouraged by the cessation of fire, the Germans swarmed into the trench. Riddled with bullets, Johnson — 5' 4" and wiry, a former rail station porter — grabbed his rifle by the barrel and swung it like a baseball bat. “There was nothin’ to do but jump into them Germans an’ club ’em. I guess I cracked four or five of their heads with the butt of my gun when it busted” into splinters.
At that point, a blow to the head knocked Johnson unconscious.
When he came around moments later, he saw two Germans carrying off Roberts, his wounded comrade.
Johnson drew his bolo knife — a wicked short sword borrowed by the US Army from the Moros of the Philippines — “and sailed into ’em, rippin’ away just as hard as I could.”
He took his first opponent by surprise: “Knees bent, he landed on the shoulders of the crouching German and drove the machete-like blade through the man’s skull.”
Meanwhile, a German officer — previously felled by a rifle butt blow — rose nearby, drew his Luger, and strode toward Johnson while firing several rounds at him.
One bullet struck the American in the arm, dropping him to his hands and knees.
By now the officer was standing over him, so Johnson sprang up and disemboweled him.
When another German grabbed him from behind, the American stabbed him through the ribs.
Finally, the Germans retreated.
Having sustained 21 wounds, Johnson nevertheless managed to drag Roberts back into the trench. Then he passed out.
Relief soon arrived, but both privates hovered near death. With help, they sat up and gulped rum to dull the pain. “I feared these men would die,” their captain wrote. “They were wounded in so many places.” He had Johnson and Roberts loaded onto a mule-drawn flatbed and hauled to the field hospital.
In the morning light, US and French officers tried to make sense of the scene. At the bottom of the trench, they found a pool of blood the size of a 5-gallon punch bowl that refused to drain into the chalky soil. They tracked the German retreat a half mile, following a trail of “blood-soaked bandages, pistols, wire cutters and 40 unexploded grenades.” They concluded that Johnson and Roberts repelled a platoon of at least two dozen Germans.
Both men survived. Newspapers heaped acclaim upon them — a rare instance of positive coverage of African Americans at the nadir of US race relations.
For their valor, Johnson and Roberts earned promotion to sergeant, and became the first Americans decorated with France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre. Likening Johnson’s lethality to the bubonic plague, the French nicknamed him “Black Death.”
The 369th (Colored) Infantry continued to fight so ferociously that terrified Germans took to calling them the Harlem Hellfighters.
However, Johnson’s extensive wounds precluded him from further fighting. Surgeons had to implant a metal plate in one foot to restore his ability to walk, albeit painfully.
But he was not done serving his country. The US Army capitalized on his fame by putting him him to work as a speaker at war bond rallies.
Despite all the accolades, Johnson remained modest about his astonishing feats of heroism. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said. “Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.”
For a few months after the war, he earned a good living on the lecture circuit, touring in uniform to promote “colored” contributions to the war effort. Unfortunately, that gig ended suddenly after an appearance in St. Louis in March 1919. That night, Johnson departed from official propaganda and dared tell the truth about the humiliating racism black soldiers endured from their Caucasian comrades and from white civilians, especially in the South. The US Army abruptly forbade him to make public appearances in uniform.
Ultimately, black valor in the Great War did little to improve race relations. White supremacy remained mainstream. Lynchings continued. As Jim Crow continued to strangle southern blacks, the Great Migration stoked racial tensions in northern cities. Birth of a Nation — a Hollywood blockbuster that lionized Ku Klux Klan terrorism against black people during Reconstruction — remained so popular that enterprising racists relaunched the secret society. Recruiting millions of members, the Klan dominated the Democratic Party and many state governments in several southern and some northern states for most of the ’20s.
Unable to hold a steady job, Johnson began drinking heavily. His wife took the children and left. Tuberculosis qualified him for a disability pension in 1927. After a heart condition killed him in 1929, the Army buried him with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
The US Army dusted off Johnson’s story for use as a recruiting tool during World War II. Fortunately, black contributions in that conflict helped sow the seeds of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 2015, President Obama posthumously decorated Sergeant Johnson with a Medal of Honor.