The Original Rambo
By David Carlin
Henry Johnson heard the wire-cutters somewhere in the darkness. He urged the other sentry, Needham Roberts, to run back and warn the French troops. Just moments later, the bullets of German snipers began whizzing by the men. A series of grenades landed near them, one of them immobilizing Roberts, leaving Johnson to face a German raiding party alone. As two dozen Germans charged the sentry post, Johnson repeatedly fired his rifle and hurled grenades. Despite being hit, he continued to hold his position. When his gun jammed, the Germans were nearly upon him. He swung at them with his rifle butt and struck at them with his bare fists. Suddenly, he saw some Germans attempting to drag Roberts away. He leapt into action, felling at least three Germans with his bolo knife. At this point, the surviving Germans decided to retreat, driven off by a one-man army.
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When relief arrived, Johnson passed out. He had been wounded 21 times. Around him lay over a dozen dead and injured Germans. His exploits earned him the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor, as well as the nickname, the Black Death. Had he been white, his battlefield heroics would have guaranteed a bright and lucrative future back home in America. Instead, after a moment in the spotlight, Johnson faded into obscurity and died penniless in 1929.
The Harlem Hellfighters
Johnson was part of the 369th Infantry Regiment. Their ferocity led their German foes to give them their enduring nickname: the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters were a predominantly African-American group from New York. In 1917, they went to South Carolina for training. There, the soldiers faced constant racial harassment from local citizens. Many military officers were also biased against black soldiers, and as a result, when the regiment arrived in Europe, they found themselves cleaning toilets and moving supplies.
However, things quickly changed for the Hellfighters. In early 1918, the Germans launched a ferocious offensive. French and British lines strained under the German advance, and fresh troops were urgently needed. The Americans transferred the 369th Infantry to the French Fourth Army. The French, with more progressive attitudes on race, eagerly accepted the help. Under French command, the soldiers were placed in a central combat role.
The Hellfighters quickly proved their mettle. They played an important role in many of the decisive battles of 1918. After the war, a grateful France awarded honors to the entire regiment. During the war, the Harlem Hellfighters spent more time at the frontline than any other American regiment. As a result, they also suffered the highest casualties of any American regiment, over 1500 killed or wounded.
An unhappy homecoming
Despite the racism in American society, the deeds of the Harlem Hellfighters could not escape notice. Writing about Henry Johnson, a popular journalist declared “the color of a man’s skin has nothing to do with the color of his soul.” When the Hellfighters returned to America, a celebratory parade was organized up Fifth Avenue. Huge crowds turned out along the route, cheering loudly, but saving the biggest applause for the Black Death.
For a short period, Henry Johnson was a national celebrity. Theodore Roosevelt Junior, son of the President, called him one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in the Great War. Johnson embarked on a cross-country speaking tour. Soon, however, things began to unravel.
Audiences came to hear Johnson’s account of the war, but it turned out they only wanted the whitewashed, feel-good version. Johnson would not oblige them. In St. Louis, tensions boiled over. Johnson asserted that there was little solidarity between blacks and whites in the trenches, some of the white soldiers even refused to serve alongside him. Then he recounted the humiliating racism of white officers, who considered the black troops as little better than cannon fodder. After fighting for freedom in Europe, the lack of freedom in America sorely disappointed him. At one point he declared “If I was a white man, I’d be the next governor of New York.” The audience began to boo and heckle. Local leaders apologized for Johnson and tried to calm the crowd.
For his honesty, Johnson was savaged in the press and blamed for causing racial unrest. He was now toxic. His remaining engagements dried up as no promoter would book him. Johnson took a series of part-time jobs, but the war had left him with physical and psychological scars. He said, “I have seen so many dead bodies piled up that when I saw a live one I didn’t think it was natural.” Today, he might have had access to therapy and rehabilitation, but as a poor black man in the 1920s, he had few options. In constant pain from his lingering injuries, he turned to drinking. His wife left him in 1923. By 1929, weakened from tuberculosis, he died of a heart attack. He was 36 years old.
In France, black soldiers like Johnson had experienced a less racially restrictive society that treated them as human beings. When they returned home, society expected them to become second-class citizens again. President Wilson had declared that America was fighting to “make the world safe for democracy.” Black soldiers had fought and died for that cause, only to learn that Wilson’s vision of “democracy” was not colorblind.
Recognizing this hypocrisy, many African-American veterans became involved in the nascent civil rights movement of the 1920s. Demands for equal opportunity and fair treatment were met with a swift and brutal response. Across the South and Midwest, a campaign of lynching and violence terrorized black communities. The rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan saw its membership soar to over four million.
Recognition at last
For decades, Henry Johnson’s relatives had believed he was buried in a pauper’s grave. However, in the early 2000s, when military historians were exploring Johnson’s life, they found a clerical error in the burial records. In fact, Johnson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. After identifying his grave, the Army awarded Johnson the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military honor.
In 2015, President Obama awarded Johnson the Medal of Honor. Several Harlem Hellfighter veterans from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam attended the ceremony. Sadly, Henry Johnson had no remaining living relatives, so Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard accepted the honor on his behalf. Speaking about Johnson, President Obama said “We are a nation — a people — who remember our heroes…We never forget their sacrifice. And we believe that it’s never too late to say thank you.” Indeed, it is never too late for all of us to honor heroes like Henry Johnson.