The Harlem Hellfighters Helped Win WWI, But This African-American Regiment Was Cruelly Treated

May 1918 and World War I was raging across Western Europe. U.S. Army privates Henry Johnson, 21, and Needham Roberts, 17, were on night-time sentry duty in the Forest of Argonne, Northern France, when they came under heavy enemy attack. At least a dozen German soldiers, and possibly as many as twice that number, opened fire. However, the pair were members of the Harlem Hellfighters and mounted a heroic counteroffensive. Eventually, Roberts lay seriously injured and a grievously wounded Johnson found himself out of ammunition. Nonetheless, the private drew his bolo knife and continued to fight. He could have been forgiven for asking how he – an African-American from New York City – had found himself in rural France fighting Germans.

Johnson and Roberts were part of the newly designated 369th Infantry Regiment, which in April 1918 had become the first African-American regiment to serve in World War I. At home in the States, the unit was nicknamed the “Black Rattlers.” Over in France, they were dubbed “Men of Bronze” by their hosts. However, among the enemy German troops, the men of the Harlem-based regiment became known as “Hellfighters” due to their ferocity in the field of combat.

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