By Lt. Colonel Gerald Torrence, Army Heritage & Education CenterApril 21, 2008
The famed 369th Infantry Regiment, formerly the 15th New York, was assigned by the American high command to the 161st French Infantry Division. Equipped with French weapons and accoutrements, this Black regiment distinguished itself as an effective combat unit, earning its gallant moniker: the Aca,!A"Harlem Hell Fighters.Aca,!A? It logged some 191 days at the front Aca,!" one of the longest tours of any American unit in the war. The entire Regiment was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, and some 171 individual awards for valor were earned.
The first soldier in that regiment - and in the entire American Expeditionary Force Aca,!" to be awarded the Croix de Guerre with gold palm was Private Henry Johnson, a red-cap from Albany. Many consider him to be AmericaAca,!a,,cs first true hero of the war. At 5Aca,!a,,c4Aca,!A?in height and barely 130 pounds soaking wet, Bill, as he was nicknamed, was hardly a giant warrior. Indeed, his wife once declared, Aca,!A"Bill aint big, nor nothinAca,!a,,c like that, but oh boy, can he go someAca,!A? --- and Aca,!A"go someAca,!A? he did one night in no-manAca,!a,,cs land.
On May 14, 1918, Johnson and his battle buddy Needham Roberts were detailed to a remote listening post out in no-manAca,!a,,cs land. Listening posts were often targets for German raiding parties. This reputation was well known among the Soldiers, so they often sought to enhance their chances with additional armaments. Besides a crate of grenades and their French Lebel rifles, Johnson also carried a 14Aca,!A? bolo knife that he would soon introduce to the enemy in a spectacular manner.
In the stillness of the night, some 20 to 32 Germans launched their attack on the American position. Jumping off with alarming speed and accuracy, the enemy was quickly through the barbed wire and upon the Yanks. Emptying their Mausers and pitching stick grenades, they quickly overwhelmed and surrounded them. The onslaught took the two men off their feet, penetrating their arms and legs with shrapnel. Needham Roberts, violently hurled against the duck boards lining their trench, exclaimed, Aca,!A"IAca,!a,,cm hit!Aca,!A? Johnson regained his footing and emptied his rifle into the attacking the Germans. His last shot found its mark point blank in the chest of one of his foe. Another German leaped over his downed comrade and aimed his pistol at JohnsonAca,!a,,cs face. The butt of JohnsonAca,!a,,cs rifle, applied with sufficient force to crack his skull, promptly interrupted the GermanAca,!a,,cs advance.
Not able to stand, Roberts still hurled grenades at his attackers until three of them actually closed with him. As one attempted to strangle Needham, the other two lifted him up, attempting to take him prisoner. Bill would have none of this, and he launched himself into their midst, swinging away with his rifle until the butt end broke. He then unsheathed his bolo knife and introduced his foe to its razor sharp effectiveness. The nearest German was the first to meet the blade. He howled, and Johnson finished him by burying the bolo knife into his skull. Another German, who had been dazed by a stroke from HenryAca,!a,,cs rifle butt, regained his senses, drew his pistol, and engaged Private Johnson. Several blows brought Bill to his knees. The German moved in for the kill. With one last mighty stroke of his bolo knife, Johnson dispatched his intended executioner by liberating his enemyAca,!a,,cs entrails.
The fierce resistance and the spectacle of this last act overwhelmed the remaining foes. Gathering their dead and wounded, they beat a hasty retreat. Johnson encouraged their leaving by pitching a grenade at them. It was later discovered he had scored a direct hit, as clear evidence showed one of the Germans had been blown into fragments along the escape route. The story of this extraordinary fight quickly spread, becoming a source of pride and encouragement for the Black troops and the folks back home.
Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts survived the attack and were awarded the Croix de Guerre, JohnsonAca,!a,,cs with the coveted gold palm. Their actions spoke volumes about the bravery, tenacity and fighting spirit not just of colored combat troops but of American combat troops overall. This same American fighting spirit hastened an Allied victory and an end to the Great World War.