Harlem Hellfighters: The Overlooked African-American Heroes Of World War I

Published April 4, 2017
Updated June 29, 2020
Published April 4, 2017
Updated June 29, 2020
Hellfighters In France

Wikimedia CommonsThe Harlem Hellfighters in France.

When they arrived overseas, the Harlem Hellfighters were assigned to the command of the French Army. Unlike American military leaders, the French respected black soldiers and their ability to fight.

Under these circumstances, the Hellfighters ended up contributing significantly to the war efforts — successfully repelling the German offensive and launching their own counteroffensive.

Two soldiers in particular — Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts — received widespread fame.

Henry Johnson

U.S. ArmyHenry Johnson

Needham Roberts

Library of CongressNeedham Roberts

The men had been defending a lookout post when a German unit attacked. Together, they defended the post against the entire group. Wounded and with limited weaponry, they managed to fight them off — even after the fight had come to direct hand-to-hand combat.

Both were severely injured and they had run out of ammunition. But as the Germans began to drag Roberts away, Johnson still managed to rescue his comrade using a bolo knife.

“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,” the Hellfighters’ white colonel, William Hayward, was quoted as writing in The Chicago Defender. “So it was in this way the Germans found the Black Americans.”

The two men were the first Americans to be decorated by the French for their service, receiving the prestigious Croix de Guerre medal. (Though they wouldn’t receive their deserved Purple Hearts until 77 years later, after they both had passed away.)

As a whole, the Harlem Hellfighters spent 191 days in combat — longer than any other American unit.

“My men never retire, they go forward or they die,” Hayward said.