Military and Police

Sgt. Henry Johnson and the Harlem Hellfighters

Sgt. Henry Johnson won the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart, and the Medal of Honor.  President Teddy Roosevelt called him “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war.”  He and his fellow sentry drove off an entire German patrol who had attacked them.  He saved his comrade by hand-to-hand combat during which he stabbed a German soldier through the head with his Bolo knife.  That engagement helped set the reputation of the Harlem Hellfighters, the celebrated 39th Infantry Regiment.

President Teddy Roosevelt called him “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war.”

Many thanks to the U.S. Army’s Medal of Honor information center, from which this narrative is taken.

Sgt. Henry Johnson

William Henry Johnson was born in Winston Salem, North Carolina, but moved to New York as a teenager. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, June 5, 1917, and was assigned to Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment – an all-black National Guard unit that would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment.

The 369th Infantry Regiment was ordered into battle in 1918, and Johnson and his unit were brigaded with a French army colonial unit in front-line combat. Johnson served one tour of duty to the western edge of the Argonne Forest in France’s Champagne region, from 1918-1919. For his battlefield valor, Johnson became one of the first Americans to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest award for valor.

Sgt. Henry Johnson Harlem Hellfighters
Sgt. Henry Johnson, of the Harlem Hellfighters

Johnson returned home from his tour and was unable to return to his pre-war porter position due to the severity of his 21 combat injuries. Johnson died in July 1929. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996, the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002, and the Medal of Honor in 2015.

Click here for a slideshow about Sgt. Henry Johnson.


Then-Pvt. Henry Johnson served as a member of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, American Expeditionary Forces, during combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the Western Front in France.

While on night sentry duty, May 15, 1918, Johnson and a fellow Soldier, Pvt. Needham Roberts, received a surprise attack by a German raiding party consisting of at least 12 soldiers.

Sg.t Henry Johnson Harlem Hellfighters
The “Our Colored Heroes” lithograph, published by E.G. Renesch in 1918, depicts the German raid on then-Pvt. Henry Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts during World War I. The lithograph quotes Gen. Pershing, who praises the two African American sentries, who “continued fighting after receiving wounds and despite the use of grenades by a superior force.” (Image courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives)

While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Johnson mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow Soldier was badly wounded, Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces.

Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and being seriously wounded, Johnson continued fighting, took his Bolo knife and stabbed it through an enemy soldier’s head.

Displaying great courage, Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated. The enemy raid’s failure to secure prisoners was due to the bravery and resistance of Johnson and his fellow comrade. The effect of their fierce fighting resulted in the increased vigilance and confidence of the 369th Infantry Regiment.

The Harlem Hellfighters

The “Harlem Hellfighters“ were the first all-black regiment that helped change the American public’s opinion of African-American Soldiers and helped pave the way for future African-American Soldiers.

The 369th Infantry was originally formed in 1913 as the 15th Infantry Regiment in the New York Army National Guard. The 369th was one of the first regiments to have black officers in addition to an all-black enlisted corps. It was one of the few black combat units during World War I.

Sgt. Henry Johnson Harlem Hellfighters
Originally known as the 15th New York, an African-American regiment in a segregated Army and National Guard, the men of the 369th Infantry Regiment distinguished themselves in combat in World War I, fighting with the French Army. The Soldiers pictured here are received to French Croix de Guerre for their heroism. The Soldiers called themselves the “Rattlers” but are best known for the nickname the “Harlem Hell Fighters”. Personnel records of the New York National Guard unit from 1921 to 1949 can now be found on line. (Photo Credit: National Archives )

Because of institutional racial discrimination and segregation in American society and within the Army, American Expeditionary Forces leadership avoided placing African-American units alongside white Army units. As a result, Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, assigned the 369th Infantry to attach with the allied French Army.

During World War I, the regiment participated in the Champagne-Marne, Meuse Argonne, Champagne 1918, and Alsace 1918 campaigns.

The 369th Infantry Soldiers, nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters,” spent 191 days in a row in the front line trenches and earned a regimental Croix de Guerre with Silver Star and Streamer embroidered Meuse-Argonne, and more than 170 Croix de Guerre medals during World War I.

The 369th Infantry’s regimental band, under the direction of Lt. James Reese Europe, is credited with introducing jazz music to European audiences.

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Bart Marcois

Bart Marcois (@bmarcois) was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration. Additionally, Marcois served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department.

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