sweat & tears
of a hero
Veteran: William Henry Johnson, Harlem Hellfighter
Artist / Writer: Camille McMennamin
Throughout his short life, William Henry Johnson is a brave and honorable man.
When America declares war on Germany in 1917, he leaves his job as a hustling redcap porter in Albany’s Union Station for an even tougher gig.
He joins an all-black National Guard unit which becomes the 369th Infantry, later dubbed the “Harlem Hellfighters.”
They fight like hell on the front line in the Argonne Forest. Not alongside white American soldiers, mind you, but with a French expeditionary unit. (Seems it’s fine for black soldiers to represent America, but not to rub elbows with actual Americans. Thank you, General Pershing.)
One nightmarish night on sentry duty, Pvt. Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts are hit with a deafening sniper attack by a raiding party of German soldiers.
Roberts is badly wounded. He can only lie there, passing grenades to Johnson, who’s desperately trying to fend off the fighting force. The pitch-black sky turns orange.
It’s two against 12. The Germans continue to advance.
Bloodied and out of grenades, Johnson grabs his rifle and fires. When he tries to reload, it jams.
Now the two are surrounded.
Lesser men might surrender. Not Johnson. He wields his rifle like a club, furiously attacking the enemies. Then the butt splinters.
Incredibly, when the Germans try taking Roberts prisoner, Johnson pulls out yet another weapon.
A bolo knife.
When reinforcements arrive, Johnson faints from the 21 wounds he’s sustained during the grueling one hour battle.
Singlehandedly, he’s killed four Germans and wounded 10 to 20 more.
The French honor him with the Croix de Guerre and the coveted Gold Palm for extraordinary valor.
America, on the other hand, ignores him, adding insult to his 21 injuries. Without a dime of disability pay, this World War I hero returns to work hustling suitcases. But he’s too weak. He sinks into alcoholism and poverty, his family leaves him, and he dies penniless in 1929 at age 32.
For the blood, sweat and tears he shed nearly a century ago, America has finally given this Harlem Hellfighter his long overdue due: the Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Cross and its most prestigious award: the Medal of Honor.
Now this fine black American soldier can live in our hearts forever.