A few years ago we featured the heroics of Sgt. Henry Johnson of the Harlem Hellfighters. His unforgettable valor during World War I was often paired with Needham Roberts, and we promised to one day give him equal time. Well, this past Memorial Day weekend presents that opportunity for Roberts who is emblematic of the thousands of African Americans in uniform who served with distinction in battle from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan.
Roberts was born in 1901 in Trenton, New Jersey and was the son of a pastor. With the outbreak of the war, he quit his job at a local drugstore where he was clerk and enlisted in the U.S. Army. This enlistment was finagled by Roberts since he was only sixteen and clearly underage. He was assigned to the 15th Regiment of New York, part of the 369th Infantry which later gained recognition and immortality as the Hellfighters of Harlem.
The unit was sent to Spartanburg, S.C. for basic training and was soon caught embroiled in a confrontation with local residents. Musician and drug major Noble Sissle was at the center of the incident that led to the unit’s early deployment to France. Segregation forbade them to fight alongside white soldiers under the leadership of John “BlackJack” Pershing and his Expeditionary Forces. Instead they welcomed their assignment with French forces, learned the language and wore their uniforms.
Roberts and Johnson were posted on guard duty and watch in the Argonne Forest when out of the night came a band of German soldiers. One account of the raid on their post noted that both Roberts and Johnson were wounded in the battle “but continued to fight the Germans and defend the French line. Roberts’ wounds disabled him enough to allow the Germans to attempt to drag him away as a prisoner. Henry Johnson, who attacked the Germans with a bolo knife, rescued Roberts and repelled the attack, saving him from a terrible fate.” (See: www. Aaregistry.org.)
Bill Harris in his book on the Hellfighters offers a fuller account of the incident. “It was Roberts who first sensed that something out there in the darkness wasn’t quite right, and he slithered on his belly over to his buddy’s side. Then Johnson heard it, too—an almost inaudible clicking sound that they both knew was probably being made by a wire cutter. They couldn’t see a thing beyond their fingertips, but that sound was enough. It told them that the enemy was out there, even if they couldn’t be seen, and the two privates shouted, ‘Corporal of the guard! Corporal of the guard!’”
Johnson, Harris continued, then “fired a flare to light up the battlefield, but before their eyes could adjust to the burst of light, exploding hand grenades put them in the midst of a shower of shrapnel. This blast knocked Roberts off his feet and he was thrown back against the wall of the dugout, badly wounded and not able to get back on his feet.” At this point Johnson, wounded himself, went into action against a platoon of Germans, using his rifle and a bolo knife to ward off the attack to rescue Roberts. “The Black bastard got me,” one German screamed. “Damn right,” Johnson replied, “and this little Black bastard is going to get you again if you try to get up.” Johnson was a veritable whirlwind of action, assailing German after German despite being wounded. The rest of the Germans witnessing his fury, quickly began fleeing the scene. Minutes after the last of them departed, an infantry relief party arrived to discover Johnson who by this time was only half conscious.
Later, both Roberts and Johnson were awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest honor for bravery on the battlefield. In deplorable contrast, the U.S. did not recognize or honor their heroism. But when they returned from Europe and marched with the regiment up Fifth Avenue they both stopped in Harlem to have their photographs taken by James Van Der Zee. In Trenton, a huge celebration was staged for Roberts and a favored son had distinguished himself in war.
The wounds Roberts received in battle made it difficult for him to maintain steady employment, and he supplemented his income from lectures and recounting his wartime experiences. These moments were often captured on radio and reported in journals, magazines and newspapers that provided exposure but little income. It is not now the extent to which he may have been paid for his recruitment speeches targeting Black Americans during World War II.
World War II was over in 1945 and four years later Roberts died in Newark, New Jersey and is buried at Fairmount Cemetery in Newark. It was reported that Roberts and his wife Iola jointly decided to commit suicide and hanged themselves in the basement of their home. “Newspaper accounts…indicated that they may have been motivated by the fact that he had been accused of molesting a child the day before. In fact, Roberts had previously been arrested on a similar charge, which led to his first wife divorcing him. Roberts had also been arrested in the 1920s for wearing his Army uniform after the post-war demobilization, something which had also happened to Johnson. As a result of this record, some authors believe it possible that the criminal charges against Roberts and arrests were motivated by racism, rather than actual misconduct.”
Not until 1996, 47 years after his death, was Roberts awarded the Purple Heart.