From the American Revolution to the Spanish-American War

Who were Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts?

Henry Johnson (1897–1929) and Needham Roberts (1901–1949) were the first black soldiers to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre as individuals, in 1918. As privates with the 369th Infantry, they were injured on May 14, 1918, in an assault by German soldiers, but continued to fight and succeeded in routing their attackers. Johnson went to Roberts’ rescue when he was being taken away by the enemy, and rescued him. During World War I, Johnson, of Albany, New York, joined the Army National Guard’s “Harlem Hellfighters” unit. Roberts was only fifteen or sixteen years old when he joined the regiment. The segregated unit fought under the French in Europe. After France awarded each man in the unit its highest honor for bravery, President Theodore Roosevelt also cited Johnson as one of the five bravest Americans during the war. The U.S. military, however, failed to decorate him. When Johnson died, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. In 1996, efforts were made to award him the Medal of Honor. Errors in military records prevented him from receiving the medal posthumously; eventually, the errors were corrected, and efforts to award him the medal continued. In 1996 Roberts was awarded the Purple Heart. Johnson also received the Purple Heart that year, and in April 2000 the Distinguished Service Cross, both posthumously.

An illustration by Charles Henry Alston for the Office of War Information commemorates the selfless act of bravery committed by Dorie Miller in defending Pearl Harbor from the Japanese attack.


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