In late April 1918, the German troops opposite the French in the Argonne Forest began a series of trench raids and reconnaissance patrols in preparation for the third phase of the Spring Offensive – Operation Blücher–Yorck, whose objective was Paris. The Germans were surprised to find not French troops but African American soldiers of the 369th US Infantry.
Formerly known as the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, the 369th was re-designated when they got to France in the First World War. The 369th was recruited primarily from Harlem, where 50,000 of New York’s 60,000 African Americans lived. When they landed in France on New Year’s Day 1918, the regiment was assigned supply, labor and support jobs because many of the American regiments from the South refused to train with them. When the Germans launched their Spring Offensive in March, the French were in need of men to fill their trenches. However, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, was under orders from President Wilson that American troops were to fight together, and not used as replacements for British and French casualties. Pershing recognized that because of the discrimination, it would be difficult to assign the 369th to an American division. By assigning the 369th to the French, under the strict provision that they fight as a regiment, Pershing was assisting his distressed French allies and getting the 369th into the fight, while still adhering to the letter of Wilson’s orders, if not the spirit.
In early April 1918, the 369th was assigned to the 16th French Infantry Division. Because American equipment would be difficult to get in the French army, the 369th turned in all of their American equipment, except their uniforms, and drew French equipment, including weapons. They were then assigned to partner, man for man, with a French regiment for three weeks of grueling training behind the front. In the mid-April 1918, the 369th took their place in the trenches opposite the Germans.
On the night of 15 May, a 24 man German patrol crept through No Man’s Land opposite the 369th. In a small listening post to the front of the American trenches, Pvts Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts heard the distinct clip of wire cutters. Johnson told Roberts to run back to the trenches to warn the rest. Just as he departed the first German grenades landed. Johnson was wounded by shrapnel in the hip and back, but Needham was nearly killed. Johnson threw his own grenades. Then as the Germans charged, he shot three with his French rifle, the last with muzzle directly in the chest of the German. Johnson then noticed two Germans trying to carry off Needham. With no time to reload (the French Labille Rifle only had a three-round magazine), Johnson pulled his US Army issue bolo knife, essentially a Filipino machete, disemboweled one German, and then sunk the heavy blade into the skull of the other. By this point the rest of the German patrol arrived, so Johnson attacked them too. His aggressiveness and ferocity surprised them. In the ensuing melee, Johnson suffered 21 separate wounds, but drove the Germans off and saved Needham.
The German patrol stated later that they had been assaulted by “Black Death”, and the name showed up in propaganda specifically directed at Johnson. The name stuck.
The French awarded both Johnson and Needham the Croix de Guerre, the first American soldiers to receive the honor in the First World War. Over the 191 consecutive days of combat the 369th fought in, their French partner referred to the unit as the “Harlem Hellfighters”. That name stuck too.
The Harlem Hellfighters hold the honor of having served the most time in combat of any American unit in the First World War. President Obama awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor to Henry Johnson on 2 June 2015. The medal was received by the New York National Guard, as there was no next of kin.