Monday, September 29, 2014

A real-life hero’s profile from the First World War - Guest Post by Julie Rowe

Former President Theodore Roosevelt called this man one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I.

Henry Johnson, the first American private to be awarded the Croix du Guerre, France’s highest military honor, in the First World War – was 5”4 and weighed 130 lbs. He was a porter at a train station in New York before he enlisted in the all-black 15th New York National Guard Regiment, renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment upon shipping out to France.

Henry and the fellow Harlem Hellraisers as many called them were poorly trained and worked at first at menial jobs such as latrine digging and unloading ships. The French army was short of men, however, so the Hellraisers were lent to them. They were given French helmets, weapons and a few useful words then put on sentry duty.

On Henry’s first night as a sentry, at about two am, a German raiding party made its way through the barbed wire. Henry and fellow Hellraiser Needham Roberts were stationed in a forward fox hole and heard their wire cutters. They began throwing grenades at the Germans. Return fire was fierce and Needham was wounded bad enough that he couldn’t do much more than hand Henry grenades. Henry was also wounded, but not as bad as his friend. When they ran out of grenades, Henry fired at the Germans until his rifle jammed. By this time the Germans were in their fox hole and were attempting to cart Needham off. Henry beat at them with the butt of his rifle until it broke. Then he pulled out his American bolo knife and hacked and slashed until the Germans dropped Needham and retreated. By then Henry had been injured several more times.

Dawn revealed the extent of the fight. Henry had killed four German soldiers outright and injured 10 to 20 more.

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