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Posted on: February 3, 2019

Celebrating Black History Month

Henry_Lincoln_Johnson_in_uniform

The Town of Smyrna is Celebrating Black History Month. Each day we will highlight a different individual. If you have someone you would like us to share, please let us know.

The Exploit of Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts---How one American Soldier in No Man's Land Killed Four Germans and Wounded Twenty-eight Others Single Handed---First American Soldiers to Receive the French Croix de Guerre---Other Instances of Individual Heroism by Negro Soldiers.

There is no prouder chapter in the history of the Negro race than the records of the American and French Armies that tell of the heroic exploits of colored soldiers, exploits that rank with the most glorious examples of individual courage and devotion to duty in all history. The names of these men who, through their personal bravery and daring, won the coveted Distinguished Service Cross of the American Army or the no less significant Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) of the French, will live forever in the annals of the race.

The first American soldiers of any race, white or black, to receive the French Croix de Guerre, were Henry Johnson of Albany, N.Y. and Needham Roberts, of Trenton, N. J. Both men were privates in the 369th Infantry, the old Fifteenth New York National Guard regiment. This regiment was brigaded with French troops and early in May, 1918, with other American Negro detachments, was put in charge of a long sector of the front line trenches. The event that gave to Johnson and Roberts the honor of being the first Americans to win the French War Cross is best described in a letter which Colonel William Hayward wrote to Mrs. Edna Johnson, the wife of Private (now Sergeant) Johnson. Colonel Hayward's letter follows:

Colonel Hayward to Mrs. Johnson

"Your husband, Private Henry Johnson is in my regiment, 369th United States infantry, formerly the Fifteenth New York infantryHe has been at all times a good soldier and a good boy of fine morale and upright character. To these admirable traits he has lately added the most convincing numbers of fine courage and fighting ability. I regret to say at the moment that he is in the hospital, seriously, but not dangerously wounded, the wounds having been received under such circumstances that every one of us in the regiment. would be pleased and proud to trade places with him. It was as follows:

"He and Private Needham Roberts were on guard together at a small outpost on the frontline trench near the German lines and during the night a strong raiding party of Germans numbering from twelve to twenty judging by the weapons, clothing and paraphernalia they left behind and by their footprints, stole across No Man's Land and made a surprise attack in the dead of the night an our two brave soldiers.

Fighting Against Great Odds

"We had learned some time ago from captured German prisoners that the Germans had heard of the regiment of Black Americans in this sector, and the German officers had told their men how easy to combat and capture them it would be. So this raiding party came over, and on the contrary Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts attended very strictly to their duties. At the beginning of the attack the Germans fired a volley of bullets and grenades and both of the boys were wounded, your husband three times and Roberts twice, then the Germans rushed the post, expecting to make an easy capture. In spite of their wounds, the two boys waited coolly and courageously and when the Germans were within striking distance opened fire, your husband with his rifle and Private Roberts from his helpless position on the ground with hand grenades. But the German raiding party came on in spite of their wounded and in a few seconds our boys were at grips with the terrible foe in a desperate hand-to-hand encounter, in which the enemy outnumbered them ten to one.

"The boys inflicted great loss on the enemy, but Roberts was overpowered and about to be carried away when your husband, who had used up all of the cartridges in the magazine of his rifle and had knocked one German down with the butt end of it, drew his bolo from his belt. A bolo is a short heavy weapon carried by the American soldier, with the edge of a razor, the weight of a cleaver and the point of a butcher knife. He rushed to the rescue of his former comrade, and fighting desperately, opened with his bolo the head of the German who was throttling Roberts, and turned to the boche who had Roberts by the feet, plunging the bolo into the German's bowels. This one was the leader of the German party, and on receiving what must have been this mortal wound, exclaimed in American English, without a trace, of accent, "Oh, the son of a --- got me," thus proving that he was undoubtedly one of the so-called German-Americans who came to our country, not to. become a good citizen, but to partake of its plenty and bounty and then return to fight for the kaiser and help enslave the world. He was doubtless selected as a leader of the party to speak English and perhaps fool my soldiers, calling to them in English not to fire, that it was a friend.

Knifing the Hun

"Henry laid about him right and left with his heavy knife, and Roberts, released from the grasp of the scoundrels, began again to throw hand grenades. and exploded them in their midst, and the Germans, doubtless thinking it was, a host instead of two brave Colored boys fighting like tigers at bay, picked up their dead and wounded and slunk away, leaving many weapons and part of their shot riddled clothing, and leaving a trail of blood, which we followed at dawn near to their lines. We feel certain that one of the enemy was killed by rifle fire, two by your husband's bolo, one by grenades thrown by Private Roberts and several others grievously wounded. So it was in this way the Germans found the Black Americans. Both boys have received a citation of the French general commanding the splendid French division in which my regiment is now serving and will receive the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War). The citation translated, is as follows:

"First---Johnson, Henry (13348), private in company C, being on double sentry duty during the night and having been assaulted by a group composed of at least one dozen Germans, shot and disabled one of them and grievously wounded two others with his bolo. In spite of three wounds with pistol bullets and grenades at the beginning of the fight, this man ran to the assistance of his wounded comrade who was about to be carried away prisoner by the enemy, and continued to fight up to the retreat of the Germans. He has given a beautiful example of courage and activity.

"Second---Roberts, Needham (13369), private in Company C, being on double sentry duty during the night was assaulted and grievously wounded in his leg by a group of Germans continuing fighting by throwing grenades, although he was prone on the ground, up to the retreat of the enemy. Good and brave soldier. The general requested that the citation of the division commander to the soldier Johnson be changed to the citation of the orders of the Army.

"Some time ago the great General Gouraud placed in my hands the sum of 100 francs to be sent to the family of the first one of my soldiers wounded in the fight with the enemy under heroic circumstances. Inasmuch as these boys were wounded simultaneously, and both displayed great heroism, I think it but fair to send to each one-half of this sum. Accordingly I am enclosing New York exchange for the equivalent of fifty francs. I am sure that you have made a splendid contribution to the cause of liberty by giving your husband to your country, and it is my hope and prayer to bring him back to you safe and sound, together with as many comrades as it is humanly possible by care and caution to conserve and bring back to America. But it must be borne in mind that we cannot all come back, that none of us can come back until the job is done."


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