Sergeant Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were members of the 369th Infantry Regiment (nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters"). On the night of May 14-15, 1918, the pair were on sentry duty when they were attacked by a unit of German soldiers. Roberts was wounded early in the engagement and lay in their trench, handing grenades to Johnson to throw at the Germans. When their grenades ran out, Johnson began firing his rifle. When his rifle jammed, Johnson used it as a club until its stock shattered, at which point he then began using his bolo knife. The Germans finally retreated when they heard French and American troops approaching.
|Image from "Our Colored Heroes," 1918. Thomas Perkins Henderson Papers. "The Volunteer State Goes to War: A Salute to Tennessee Veterans," online exhibit, Tennessee State Library and Archives.|
Johnson was wounded 21 times during the fierce hand-to-hand fighting, but he had killed four Germans and wounded another 10-20. As a result of their heroic actions, Johnson and Roberts were the first American soldiers to be awarded France’s prestigious Croix de Guerre medal during World War I. Johnson died in 1929, most likely due to complications from his wounds, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Roughly 350,000 African Americans served on the Western Front during World War I. Because the U.S. military was still segregated at the time, many of the African Americans who served were relegated to labor and stevedore units instead of combat units. One notable exception was the 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters." The regiment arrived in France in January 1918 but was given only labor service duties until April, when it was assigned to the French Army. The regiment spent 191 days in combat, more than any other American unit, participating in the Champagne-Marne and Meuse-Argonne campaigns. It was also the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine River in November 1918. All told, 171 of the regiment's officers and men received awards for bravery. The regimental band, led by James Reese Europe, is credited with introducing jazz music to Europe. Other notable members of the 369th were Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the tap dancer and actor, and Vertner Woodson Tandy, one of the founders (or "Seven Jewels") of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African American fraternity.
The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.