New York’s famous 369th (Old 15th) Infantry Regiment arrives home from France. Via the National Archives
In the earliest hours of May 15, 1918, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts of the 369th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black American unit serving under French command in World War I, were keeping guard over a frontline trench in France’s Argonne Forest, about 115 miles east of Paris. Suddenly, two-dozen German soldiers charged out of the pitch-black no-man’s-land. Despite being stabbed 21 times and shot at least twice, Johnson killed four German soldiers, repelled the other 20, and saved his injured comrade Roberts from capture, using little more than a nine-inch bolo knife. Days later, the French Army stood at attention as Johnson and Roberts became the first Americans ever awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor. Johnson’s metal included a Golden Palm, for extraordinary valor.
Johnson and Robert’s decorations were the first of 171 individual Croix de Guerre medals awarded to members of the Harlem Hellfighters. By the war’s end, the Croix would be awarded to the unit as a whole, in recognition of its incredible contribution to the war effort: The Hellfighters spent a stunning 191 days at the Front, more than any other American unit. In that time, they never lost a trench to the enemy or a man to capture. Instead, they earned the respect of both allies and enemies, helped introduce Jazz to France, and returned home to a grateful city where hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers turned out to welcome home 3,000 Hellfighter heroes in a victory parade that stretched from 23rd Street and 5th Avenue to 145th Street and Lenox.