The Harlem Hellfighters returned from World War I as one of the most decorated units in the entire U.S. Army, but as the video above makes clear, this was far from expected of them from the at the war’s beginning.
An all-black regiment of New York National Guardsmen, they were essentially set up to fail by the US government. Instead, as Christopher P. Moore, Senior Researcher for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, points out in the video, the “Harlem Hellfighters were one of the most important regiments in American History” and “helped to establish to the entire world the power of black soldiers in the military.”
During this time in history, racial prejudices were so prevalent that many believed African American soldiers would not capable of doing well in battle. The Harlem Hellfighters found themselves bravely fighting for a country that had no faith in their ability to fight.
After being tasked with labor work, duties like building latrines and unloading ships that left the trained and eager-to-fight regiment frustrated, they were finally handed over to help the French army. As author Max Brooks highlights in the video, US Commanding Officer General Pershing was fairly insistent about not sending US troops to help other nations fight, making a point that American soldiers would fight only under the American flag. An exception was made for black soldiers, however, to get rid of, in the eyes of the US military, unfit soldiers.
They couldn’t have been more wrong, of course. The video singles out the rather remarkable story of Henry Johnson, which sounds like something out of a movie. While manning a listening post with another soldier, Needham Roberts, the two men are alerted to a potential German raid by the sound of wire being cut. While throwing grenades at the enemy, Roberts is injured, leaving Johnson to contend with the onslaught of German forces now crossing into their territory.
To make this story even more incredible, Johnson accidentally jams a French cartridge in an American gun, rendering his only weapon totally useless. For what Johnson claimed felt like an hour, he fought skilled German soldiers with nothing but the butt of his gun and a knife, suffering wounds but fighting for his and Roberts’ life. Dozens of German soldiers were involved in this fight against a single man, but that man was determined to survive and protect his comrade. In the aftermath, four Germans were found dead.
The French awarded Johnson the Croix de Guerre, a high French Military honor, but it would take over 75 years for Johnson to receive any recognition from the US government. As you’ll learn from the video, the country did a poor job of rewarding these military heroes upon their return, but we can hope that keeping their story alive will serve as a reminder of their incredible service. Please watch and share with others this amazing story.