Today is Memorial Day, a day we set aside to remember those who served and died for this country.
As Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
But my Memorial Day may feel a bit different from yours. There are specific people I need to honor.
Like the ones in the video above, marching across France.
They are the Harlem Hellfighters of World War 1, the all-black, all-volunteer 369th Infantry Regiment, who fought with the French army — after the US Army concluded they couldn’t fight.
In 191 straight days of combat, the most of any American unit in the war, they never took a backward step.
If you ever visit the French Champagne region, stop by Sechault, one of the towns they liberated from the Germans. There’s a granite obelisk there, dedicated to the 369th.
Perhaps their greatest tribute, though, is their nickname, the Hellfighters.
The Germans gave them that.
THE BATTLE OF HENRY JOHNSON
Few soldiers ever win any nation’s highest decoration for valor. Fewer still get a battle named after them.
A member in the 369th Infantry, Henry Johnson and fellow private Needham Roberts were on a two-man sentry post when they were attacked by German trench raiders, numbering between 20 and 24.
With Roberts quickly disabled, Johnson fought on alone, throwing grenades, firing his rifle until it jammed, then clubbing the Germans with it.
When they still kept coming, he reached for his bolo knife. When two German soldiers tried to drag off the wounded Roberts, Johnson, already wounded 21 times, went after them with his bolo until they dropped his friend and fled.
The outpost and his countryman remained in his bleeding hands.
Henry Johnson had singlehandedly killed four German soldiers, wounded as many as 20 more and routed all those who remained.
He was awarded France’s highest medal for bravery, the Croix de Guerre. Back in the United States, however, he was still a second-class citizen who couldn’t get a job.
He died a broken man in a Veterans Hospital in 1929.
Since then, Johnson has been posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. A campaign is underway in Congress to award him the Medal of Honor.
The small but desperate night action that brought him fame as a soldier but no respect as a man, has been known ever since as the Battle of Henry Johnson.
He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with the rank of sergeant. Section 25, Lot 64.
On June 2, 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Pvt. Henry Lincoln Johnson the Medal of Honor:
“America can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson. We can’t change what happened to too many soldiers like him, who went uncelebrated because our nation judged them by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. But we can do our best to make it right.”
Then there were the 11 black GIs from Alabama, captured by Nazi SS troops in the Belgian town of Wereth during World War 2.
They were mutilated with bayonets, shot and their bodies left in the snow.
For two months.
One of them was Pvt. Curtis Adams, recently married and with a newborn son.
In published government lists of atrocities committed against American servicemen by the German military, it was not even mentioned.
Today, Wereth survives as one of those picturesque little European villes nestled amid green fields and forested hills, not far from Brussels.
There, you’ll find a memorial to the Wereth 11, placed there by townspeople who have chosen not to forget. You’ll also find the graves of seven of those Alabama GIs.
Including Curtis Adams.
There are others, of all races, who deserve memory this day — the merchant seamen lost with the more than 2,700 ships torpedoed by German U-boats in World War 2. They never wore uniforms or fired a shot. But the war would’ve been lost without them.
We’ll never know exactly how many perished; the Pentagon apparently didn’t feel their deaths merited detailed records. We do know there were an awful lot of them, including my grandfather.
They have few monuments, and no graves except for the bottom of the cold Atlantic.
For me, this is a day to honor men like Curtis Adams and my grandfather, who also died, again in Lincoln’s words, “that freedom might live.”
Someday, God willing, it will.
Have you ever wondered how the French, especially in Paris, acquired their love for jazz?
It was the Harlem Hellfighters’ regimental band, led by James Reese Europe, who introduced them, and the rest of Europe, to it.
The same regimental band in the video above.