Remembering Henry Johnson and the Harlem Hellfighters

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Remembering Henry Johnson and the Harlem Hellfighters

I'm seemingly always a day late on seeing articles and such, as this post would have made a lot more sense coming before Memorial Day, instead of the day after.  But I spent Memorial Day the way I think all of our departed comrades would have liked, playing with my kids, explaining the American Flag (my twins are only 2, so that may have been wasted) and then having dinner with my inlaws.

Nonetheless, I ran across this incredible article first thing this morning when I came into the office.

Henry Johnson, the One-Man Army Who Fought Off Dozens of German Soldiers During World War I

It was after midnight on May 15, 1918 when William Henry Johnson began to hear the rustling. Johnson was a long way from his home in Albany, New York, guarding a bridge in the Argonne Forest in Champagne, France. Sleeping next to him was Needham Roberts, a fellow soldier. Both men had enlisted in the New York National Guard just a few months earlier and were now part of the French Army, donated by U.S. forces to their understaffed allies in the thick of World War I.

As Johnson continued hearing the strange noises late into the night, he urged his partner to get up. A tired Roberts waved him off, believing Johnson was just nervous. Johnson decided to prepare himself just in case, piling up his assortment of grenades and rifle cartridges within arm's reach. If someone was coming, he would be ready.

The rustling continued. At one point, Johnson heard a clipping noise—what he suspected was the sound of the perimeter fence being cut. He again told Roberts to wake up. "Man," he said, "You better wake up pretty soon or you [might] never wake up."

The two began lobbing grenades into the darkness, hoping to discourage whoever might be lurking around the perimeter. Suddenly, in the middle of the French forest, Johnson saw dozens of German soldiers come charging, bayonets pointed toward him. They began to fire.

What transpired over the next hour would become an act of heroism that prompted former President Theodore Roosevelt to declare Johnson one of the bravest Americans to take up arms in the war. Johnson would even lead a procession back in New York City, with crowds lined up along the street to greet him.

The whole article is a must read of all must reads.  Just truly astonishing.  For those with low attention span, or less time, I'll give you the video version:

The way the black troops were treated was just shameful obviously, and the black troops weren't even allowed to have their own officers, but instead white officers were placed in charge of them.  One of them was Hamilton Fish, who would later discuss some of the racial tensions that the men faced:

Fish sensed trouble. He wrote: “Realizing that the presence of so many black troops in the predominantly white and segregated town … could cause trouble, I telegrammed Franklin Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, telling him of my fears and requesting that he do what he could to have us sent directly to France.… Despite my appeal to Roosevelt, our orders remained unchanged, and we went to Spartanburg for 12 tension-filled days. It was made obvious that we were not welcome in the town. Soldiers were assaulted, forced off the sidewalk and subjected to other racial harassments.”

Calling a hasty conference with local officials, a forceful Captain Fish informed them “that if any of the town’s citizens sought by force to interfere with the rights of the black troops under my command, I would demand that swift legal action be taken against the perpetrators. This quieted things down temporarily.” On October 24, the regiment was recalled to Camp Whitman.

There, however, the 369th faced more trouble when it found itself housed next to a white Alabama regiment. “Early one afternoon, I learned that the Alabamians intended to attack us during the night … I had to borrow ammunition … as we had none. After arming our soldiers, I and my fellow officers told them that if they were attacked, they were to fight back; if they were fired on, they were to fire back.”

A midnight meeting between Fish and a trio of Alabama officers led to a later newspaper story that he had challenged them to a fistfight (which he denied), but in reality, all three returned to their regiments to prevent what he asserted “would be a massacre … and I was left standing there with my revolver cocked in the firing position, unsure how to release the hammer without discharging a round,” as he recalled in 1991.

(That article is also a must read.)

Fish would later go on to be a founder of The American Legion, would write our preamble, would be elected to the US House of Representatives, and was the man who was responsible for the establishment of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

Hamilton Fish. Born in New York state in 1888, his life would mirror a long family tradition of service in both the government and the military. Fish graduated from Harvard in just three years, before the outbreak of World War I.

He was named company commander of the 369th Infantry Regiment – more famously known as the "Harlem Hellfighters." At that time, before full military integration, even groups such as the all-black New York regiment had white leadership. Fish was vocal in his faith in his men. In an October 1917 letter written while en route to Europe, he wrote, " ... after four months’ training sent with the rest to the front, I honestly believe that I have the best company in the [regiment], and that they will follow me anywheres." In the heat of battle in July 1918, he wrote again of his charges, "I am proud to be trusted with such a post of honor and have the greatest confidence in my own men to do their duty to the end." Ultimately, the Hellfighters’ record bore out Fish’s faith. The regiment lost no ground, had no POWs taken and was the first to reach the Rhine, while spending more time on the front lines than any other American regiment.

Back in the United States, Fish attended the Legion’s St. Louis Caucus where he and two other men, as part of the Committee on Constitution, produced the preamble to the Legion’s constitution (read it here ( He was made a past national commander of the Legion at the 61st National Convention in 1979.

There's a ton of good stuff about Johnson and the Hellfighters out there, and I encourage you to go look at it.

As a sort of follow up note, The American Legion still believes that many other deserving African American Soldiers like Johnson should be awarded the Medal of Honor.  And we have a resolution supporting an initiative to look at more of the awards:

RESOLVED, By The American Legion in National Convention assembled in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on August 28, 29, 30, 2018, That The American Legion fully supports legislation to lift statutes of limitations and other obstacles that may impede proper investigation and appropriate actions for minority veterans of WWI whose military records and official descriptions of combat actions fully support consideration for award of the Medal of Honor.

There are currently bills in Congress to do just that.  Let's hope they pass.  For instance, S 1218:

World War I Valor Medals Review Act

This bill requires review of the service records of certain decorated World War I veterans to determine whether they should be awarded the Medal of Honor for valor during that war. Specifically, the Secretary of the Army or the Secretary of the Navy shall review the records of any African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, Jewish American, or Native American war veteran who was recommended for review by a veterans service organization and who, for action that occurred between April 6, 1917, and November 11, 1918

  • was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross or the Navy Cross,
  • was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm by the government of France, or
  • was recommended for a Medal of Honor.

If a review indicates that the award is warranted, a recommendation shall be made to the President to award the Medal of Honor to that veteran.

HR 2249 is the House Companion Bill.

You can contact your Member of Congress at 202-224-3121 and ask them to cosponsor this bill and rectify the lack of awards these heroes received.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.