Outnumbered in the Dark

The 369th Infantry division (a.k.a. Harlem Hellfighters) in action. This particular image displays the action at Séchault, France on 29 September 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

On May 13, 1918, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, both soldiers in the 369th Infantry division were on guard duty at a forward post in northeastern France. The enemy had a strong defensive position that the Allied forces hadn’t been able to penetrate.

It was a precarious position for Johnson and Roberts. They were 60 yards in front of the main guard post, which was a few hundred yards ahead of the rest of the battalion. To the other side of the two soldiers was no-man’s-land. And an enemy with machine guns that can shoot over a mile away. In a forward post, their nerves are raw and all attention paid to the sounds around them. The casual conversation had to wait for safer circumstances.

Left to think in silence for hours, they considered the life that had led them to France in the first place. Johnson had worked odd jobs, usually labor or service oriented jobs, in New York. He thought of his wife he had left behind to fight for a country that didn’t even recognize him as a citizen. He fought for democracy so that eventually he and his family might someday enjoy equal rights in his own country. Roberts was a store clerk in New Jersey. He yearned for adventure and the chance to prove himself along with his fellow African-Americans. They weren’t even allowed to fight along white American soldier. Socially, they were seen as inferior and couldn’t be trusted as disciplined soldiers.

Adventure would find them in that isolated position early in the morning. Small pieces of tin were attached to the barbed wire to provide an early warning in case someone was coming across the lines. Johnson and Roberts heard something, but what was it. They strained to hear anything else. They moved away from each other to make sure one burst of gunfire didn’t kill both of them. They heard voices now and they were definitely German. Both men prepared and waited for the clash that was certain to come. Rifles loaded, grenades carefully placed within reach and Johnson loosened his heavy bolo knife for easy access.

When both men heard a clicking noise, they realized what it was, wire cutters. They were coming through. Rather than waiting or even running, they grabbed grenades and started throwing them at the advancing enemy. They came running at them as they unloaded as many shots as they could in the darkness of early morning.

When Johnson’s gun jammed, he started using it as a club on his assailants. Overpowered by numbers, the enemy took his gun and started to drag him back to their trenches. Johnson was able to get his knife out and stab the man’s leg who was holding his throat. Then slashed as a couple of the other soldiers who tried to restrain him.

That’s when Johnson saw that Roberts was also being dragged back by the enemy. Without thinking of his own opportunity to run and get away, Johnson attacked Robert’s assailants and freed his friend. The Germans didn’t know how many enemies they were dealing with and about this time, more members of the 369th were rushing to the fight. The Germans retreated past the barbed wire and into the woods.

Johnson and Roberts were badly wounded and lost a lot of blood, but from the footprints and carnage they found the next day, it appeared that more than a dozen men had been wounded, some fatally, with more men possibly in the group. They had held off an enemy patrol and hadn’t given up on each other.

Johnson and Roberts were awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French for valor and heroism in the battle. They were not recognized back home for their bravery though. Their success was not overlooked, however when the second World War began and another generation of brave soldiers was called on to bear the torch of freedom.

For you:

There are times when we can’t see the good through the bad. Clearly being outnumbered six-to-one is not a good situation. They were sure to be interrogated and that wasn’t going to be a good experience. Both men could have complained or ran to save themselves. The outcome would have been similar either way. They probably would have died. But by turning and fighting and doing all they could, they turned the tables and escaped with their lives.

When you are faced with difficulties, you may have to just survive the day and forget beauty points. Get through the hard times and then evaluate what needs to happen. It’s important you look at what can be done rather than stewing about how crummy the situation is. It just might be the perfect situation you need to achieve your goal. Both men represented a race that was downtrodden and abused. Their society saw them as incapable of being good soldiers, and therefore unequal with the rest of society. They showed in that dark hour that they are capable of just as much bravery as any other person (as have many others before and after). Their difficult situation couldn’t have been more perfect at showing the truth.

What difficulty are you facing now? Compare it to your vision. Is it a blessing in disguise? Face your fears and challenges. You will grow if you keep trying.


I started writing short stories in elementary school, starting with a short story about twin track athletes. In college, I wrote for the college newspaper and studied communications. My first job out of college was with a magazine as an assistant editor, where I started a comic strip called City Boy.

My first published work, was a short essay entitled, Dream with Me, published in “The Art of Service” booklet put out by the Thayne Center for Service and Learning. I also published a three part series for families called “Family Parables – Wise Man Foolish Man.” This set is designed to be used by families to create discussion and learning as a family. I soon will publish my first novel, Love Like Alzheimer’s, a story of a family that is learning to love deeper as their beloved grandmother struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.

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