The Saga of Henry Johnson

From Betty DeRamus

Now that folks are crowding theaters for Red Tails, maybe someone will consider filming the saga of Henry Johnson, a black World War I hero. Johnson knifed, shot, battered and blew up so many German soldiers in a single night that more than a million New Yorkers greeted him and other members of his regiment when they came home.

Johnson—a small man who once carried suitcases in the New York Central Railroad Station–was a member of New York’s all-black volunteer 15th Infantry. In the summer of 1917 the regiment was shipped to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, S.C. where the mayor had promised the Northern men would be treated “like Negroes.” He didn’t lie. A black soldier was pushed off a trolley after paying his fare. Another was thrown into a gutter and beaten. And a member of the infantry’s band was kicked because it supposedly took him too long to remove his hat inside a hotel.
Fearful that the black regiment might decide to shoot up Spartanburg, the War Department ordered the men sent overseas and turned over to the French Army. Renamed the 369th regiment, it was assigned in April of 1918 to the 16th French division on the front lines. It was the first black American unit to reach the war zone, its men staying in the trenches for 191 days. The German called the regiment “Hell Fighters,” because they were never captured or gave up ground.
On May 14, 1918, a German patrol of more than 20 men crept up the 369th’s five-man observer post. The patrol attacked, throwing grenades and wounding both Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts. Roberts propped himself up and flung grenades into the night. Johnson scrambled to his feet, fired three times and killed one German. He knocked out another with his rifle. When he saw two Germans dragging off a comrade, Johnson leapt on the shoulders of one of the Germans and buried a nine-inch knife in his head. Johnson was then attacked and shot by the soldier he had knocked down. As his assailant closed in, Johnson buried a knife in his stomach.
Panicked by Johnson’s yells and the mounting pile of dead and wounded comrades, the enemy patrol began retreating. When daylight came, Johnson and others followed the fleeing patrol, hurling grenades. Finally, Johnson passed out.
Johnson and Needham Roberts became the first individual American soldiers to receive the French nation’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre, and Johnson was promoted to sergeant. Some Americans understood why he and other African American soldiers–denounced as cowards and considered less than human–fought with so much fury.

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