Vintage Photograph Shows the WWI Harlem Hellfighters Wearing Cross of War Medals in 1919

Harlem Hellfighters back from WWI, wearing the Cross of War medals, 1919.
Harlem Hellfighters back from WWI, wearing the Cross of War medals, 1919.
Photo: OldSchoolCool

This great colorized vintage photograph from 1919 shows the Harlem Hellfighters after they returned home from World War I, wearing their famous Cross of War medals. Redditor Strahozor tells the story:

The 369th Infantry Regiment was a regiment of the United States Army National Guard during World War I and World War II. It was known for being the first completely African American regiment to serve during World War I, and received the nickname "Hell Fighters" by the Germans due to their toughness. The regiment never lost a man through capture, lost a trench or a foot of ground to the enemy.

The most celebrated man in the 369th was Private Henry Johnson, a former New York train porter, who earned the nickname "Black Death" for his actions in combat. On May 14, 1918, Johnson and another Hellfighter named Needham Roberts were serving sentry duty in the Argonne Forest. Just after 2 a.m. the duo was attacked by German troops. Both men were soon wounded; Roberts so severely that he was unable to stand or shoot. Despite being shot several times, Private Johnson returned fire until his weapon jammed, and then used it as a club and fought hand to hand until it broke into pieces. When Johnson saw that the Germans were trying to take Roberts prisoner, he drew his remaining weapon (a bolo knife), and slashed and stabbed several men until the raiding party fell back. When the dust cleared, Johnson had inflicted at least a dozen casualties on the Germans and suffered 21 wounds from gunfire and bayonets.

Both Private Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were later given the Croix de Guerre, France's highest award for bravery, and the first Americans to receive it. In December of that same year, the French government awarded the Croix de Guerre to 170 additional members of the Harlem Hellfighters, and a unit citation was awarded to the entire regiment.

Sadly, Private Johnson’s heroic stand went unrewarded in the United States in his lifetime, having been banned from public speaking engagements due to openly admitting the poor treatment blacks received from whites in the segregated United States military. He died in 1929 at age thirty-six from myocarditis, and is interred at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1996 he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross in 2003, and posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 2015.

Johnson is not pictured here. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor. Records of the War Department General and Special. Staffs. (165-WW-127-8)

Matt Coneybeare

Matt Coneybeare

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Matt enjoys exploring the City's with his partner and son. He is an avid marathon runner, and spends most of his time eating, running, and working on cool stuff.

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