The heroic Hellfighter was a man in the United States in the early 1800s who fought against slavery. He led many slaves to freedom and was eventually captured and executed by the authorities, but his legacy lived on through his family.

The The Heroic Hellfighter is a book that tells the story of the Harlem Hellfighters, an African-American regiment in World War I. It was written by William Manchester and published in 1978.

The Heroic HellfighterIn his book Rank and File, published in 1928, Henry Johnson was named one of the five bravest American troops in World War I by Theodore Roosevelt Jr., co-founder of the American Legion and son of the former president. Johnson would not get appropriate honor from his nation until June 2, 2015, when President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor posthumously.

Johnson, who was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, shortly before the turn of the century, worked as a railway porter in Albany. In 1917, he joined in the Army in New York. He joined Company C of the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, an all-black regiment that was later renamed the 369th Infantry. The troops of the 369th (also known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”) were loaned to the struggling French Fourth Army at a period when black soldiers were usually restricted to menial work. They fought at Sainte-Menehould, France, wearing French helmets and wielding French weaponry.

Johnson and fellow “Hellfighter” Needham Roberts were on guard duty in the predawn darkness of May 15, 1918, when they came under German sniper fire. The privates prepared a package of 30 hand grenades for use in the event of an assault. Johnson threw a grenade after hearing the cable near his position being cut. He then instructed Roberts to notify the French commander of the situation. Roberts went out, but as enemy rifle fire became more intense, he returned to the dugout to assist Johnson. He made it back, but not without being severely injured by shrapnel in the arm. He couldn’t use a gun because of his injuries, so he gave grenades to Johnson, who threw them at the Germans.

Johnson had been hit in the head by gunfire by the time the duo had used all their explosives. Despite this, he continued to fire his weapon, taking additional enemy bullets in his side and hand, until his French gun became stuck. Johnson swung his stuck weapon like a club as the Germans overran his position, shattering the stock. At that point, the young American was struck in the head and knocked out. Johnson drew his only surviving weapon, a machete-like bolo knife, jumped to his feet, and rushed back into the fight as two Germans attempted to take Roberts away (normal procedure for intelligence reasons).

“Believe me, each cut meant something,” Johnson subsequently said.

With his bolo knife, he attacked two Germans who had approached him, received a gunshot to the arm, stabbed another German who had approached him, and then pulled Roberts away from his captors. Johnson eventually succumbed as the remaining opposing troops went to their heels. He was found unconscious when French troops came.

Johnson suffered 21 injuries when he arrived at a field hospital, including gunshot and stab wounds to his head, chest, right arm, and left leg, as well as a broken left foot. Observers subsequently discovered that he had repelled a German raiding force, killing four Germans and injuring a dozen more.

The self-effacing private remembered, “There wasn’t anything particularly wonderful about it.” “I was just fighting for my life. That would have been done by a rabbit.”

Johnson was given the Croix de guerre, France’s highest military award, along with a bronze palm and star, and was dubbed “Black Death” by his colleagues. But it wasn’t until President Bill Clinton bestowed the Purple Heart on him posthumously in 1996, and Congress bestowed the Distinguished Service Cross on him in 2002 that he received recognition in the United States.

Johnson died in Washington, D.C., in his 30s, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Military History Magazine’s March 2017 edition was the first to publish this article.


This article first appeared in the August 2014 edition of Wild West. To subscribe, go to this link.

The Harlem Hellfighters motto is a motto of the Harlem Hellfighter’s, a regiment that fought in World War I. It was created by the regimental chaplain and it reads, No man leaves this post until he is dead or has seen hell. Reference: harlem hellfighters motto.

Frequently Asked Questions

What did the Harlem Hellfighters accomplish?

The Harlem Hellfighters were a group of African American soldiers who fought in World War I. They were the first African Americans to fight for the United States and they served with distinction, receiving Frances highest honor for their service.

What was the Harlem Hellfighters motto?


Is there a movie about the Harlem Hellfighters?

The Harlem Hellfighters was a nickname given to the 369th Infantry Regiment, an all-black regiment of the United States Army during World War I.

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