On May 15, 1918, the courage and bravery of African-American soldiers resounded throughout Europe and around the world, by the actions of two black soldiers. Badly wounded by enemy German guns, Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters Regiment, were manning a two-man outpost when a German patrol of more than 20 soldiers attached with rifles, bayonets and grenades arrived. Greatly outnumbered and out of ammo, both men used their rifles as clubs to subdue their attackers, killing or wounding 20 enemy Germans.
For their heroism, Johnson and Roberts became the first Americans to win the prestigious Croix de Guerre. An honor made more unusual since American and British military commanders rejected the African-American combat regiment. Only France would accept the African-American combat solders within its ranks. The soldiers were issued French equipment and uniforms, and given basic schooling and training in French language and military tactics.
One of the war’s most highly decorated units, the 369th Regiment spent 191 days in combat—longer than any other American unit. For their service, the French gave the 369th Regiment the honor of being the advance guard of Allied troops in the triumphal march to the Rhine on November 17, 1918. The Americans refused to allow any black soldiers to march with other Allied soldiers—including colonial African troops—in the victory parade up the Champs-Élysées on Bastille Day in 1919.