In the heart of the Argonne Forest, Private Henry Johnson stood in his foxhole with Needham Roberts. They were both on sentry duty, watching for any enemy movement. It had been quiet most of the day, and so Needham took this silence as an invitation to run his mouth like usual.
“I’m telling you, the French are alright. In that town we passed earlier there was this blue eyed white girl looking at me, and I mean she was looking at me.”
“The only reason a white girl would be looking at you is because you walk so god damn funny. You walk like you got frog legs, bouncing up and down all over the place. You’re lucky we’re the ones on watch, you’re not sneaking up on nobody,” Johnson replied, smiling.
“No, I’m telling you, she was staring at me. She wanted Me, brother!”
Johnson turned to Roberts, he never got used to seeing Needham in that helmet, with its double visors and the insignia of the burning bomb with RF in the middle, “Republique Francaise.”
Both of them were from the US 369th infantry, the Harlem Hellfighters, the Germans were the first to call them Hellfighters, and Johnson figured the nickname stuck because they could fight like hell. Even though they had showed prowess on the battlefield, command had assigned them to the French army because the white Americans refused to fight alongside or even share a trench with them.
“They’re not meant to be fighting! What? One minute they’re in the field, picking cotton, the next they’re supposed to be soldiers?”
“I don’t want to be so worried about them stealing my boots right from under me that I won’t be able to fight!”
“We don’t know what kinds of diseases they could be carrying!”
When they found out they were being assigned to the French army, Needham had said “Fuck them. No really, fuck them. We’ll dig a better trench than these spoiled white boys anyways, we know how to work, and we know how to fight, they’ve been soldiers for six months, we’ve been soldiers our whole lives.”
The French Army welcomed them with open arms, happy to get some reinforcements as mutinies were spreading like wildfire throughout the French forces. Some of the French had been at the front for months on end, and with their arrival, some would be able to get a good meal, and a good night’s sleep for the first time in weeks. Never had Johnson seen so many white men happy to see him before.
Johnson turned away from Needham and peered out into the forest. The trees were massive and everywhere, covered in moss from top to bottom; some areas had been burned to the ground but not here. Here, they could be hiding anywhere.
Feeling the French Rifle in his hands, Johnson had almost gotten used to the weight of it. “All I know is I’m happy that the French actually gave us some fucking weapons. If it wasn’t for them we’d probably be sitting here with nothing but rocks to throw at them.”
Needham laughed, “That’s how Pershing’d want it, then after we got killed he’d point to that as an example of the Negro soldier’s inferiority. They don’t have heart he’d say. They don’t have the mental capacity to be a soldier. They don’t have–” A loud crack split through the air, and Needham dropped to the ground. Another shot rang out striking the tree next to Johnson. Snipers. Johnson got down.
“Needham? Needham? Are you alright?”
“I’m hurt pretty bad. Fuck, he got me. Did you see them?” Needham was bleeding out of his right shoulder; the blood was already soaking his clothes.
“No. I’ll try to get a better look.”
Johnson peered out of the foxhole and saw them, several Huns running right at them, 10, 20, 30? He couldn’t tell, they were charging at them fast, and using the trees for cover. “Shit. More are coming!” Johnson dropped the rifle and grabbed his grenades and lobbed them into the group of them. Explosions rang out. His ears were ringing but when he turned, Needham was already handing him another grenade. Everything started moving so fast, throwing grenade after grenade into them. Nothing but the sound of ringing. Johnson turned to Needham, and Needham had no more grenades for him. Johnson grabbed the French rifle and began shooting at the Germans. They were getting closer. One down, two, miss, dammit, three… Shit. Reload. Oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me, the cartridge is jammed. Johnson looked down and tried to free the cartridge, but when he looked up the Huns were already on them. One rushed at Johnson, bayonet pointed at his belly, Johnson ducked to the left, the bayonet slashing his side, he could feel the warm blood trickling down his torso, Johnson swung his rifle at him, knocking him to the ground. Bringing down the rifle on the German’s head, Johnson kept smashing the rifle into him until the butt of the rifle splintered. Johnson looked up and saw several men carrying Needham out of the fox hole. Needham was up trying to shove them off of him, but there were at least ten of them all around him. Everything after that moved too fast, Johnson remembers jumping out of the fox hole and running right at them. He remembers one of the Germans firing at him, although he doesn’t remember if the bullet struck him or not. He remembers tackling into the middle of them all. He remembers pulling his bolo knife out of a German’s head. He remembers pummeling one of their white faces with all the strength and anger in his body. He remembers the blood. So much blood, he couldn’t tell whose. He remembers becoming the Black Death. And he remembers the Germans fleeing, either because reinforcements were arriving, or because they realized they couldn’t best Johnson when his brother’s life was on the line. All he knew is that as soon as they dropped Needham, Johnson collapsed in a pool of black and white blood.
Heinrich pulled the trigger of his MG08, the bullets sprayed into the smoke left behind from the artillery shells that had struck between their trenches. This is what Heinrich had wanted. He was going to be a hero. He was going to defeat the French, and secure glory for himself and the fatherland. He was going to be just like his grandfather. One of his earliest memories was of him marching with his grandfather as a young boy. In training he was a great shot, quick on his feet, a capable leader, the best in the unit, the perfect soldier. Heinrich felt exhilaration as the MG08 fired. The gun roared out as it sprayed bullets. And then Heinrich saw them.
The French emerged from the smoke, and Heinrich flipped the machine gun over to begin firing into them. He saw the moment the first bullet pierced a French soldier’s belly, his body fell to the ground as several other rounds pierced his pelvis, and right away Heinrich felt his stomach churn. He kept holding the trigger. The MG08 roared out faster now. Each screech of his gun was met with the scream of a soldier in blue. And then Heinrich saw him.
Emerging from the shell hole, he had brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and a scar across his cheek just like Heinrich’s younger brother had. Heinrich pulled the trigger, and watched those blue eyes scream out in pain as Heinrich tore his leg clean off, sending the boy falling backwards into the shell hole. Heinrich began to scream as he kept up the stream of death, but he couldn’t hear his own voice. The thundering of the machine gun was all that he could hear now. They were now tripping over the bodies, but they just kept coming. They just wouldn’t stop. “Turn back, please. Turn back!” But they pressed on, right into Heinrich’s line of fire. “I can’t.” “I-I can’t do this. I can’t.” Heinrich collapsed to the ground and crawled backwards on all fours from that unnatural, ungodly monstrosity. He pushed his back up against the trench, but he could still feel the kick in his arms, still hear its howling in his ear. “Make it stop. Make it stop! Please!”
Abel laid in the shell hole. He was dying, and he knew it. The German Machine gunner had got him several times in the gut, and the others had retreated, leaving him here to die. He couldn’t blame them. They would have just died with him. He didn’t even feel angry. What was strange was that Abel couldn’t even feel the pain, he felt at peace. It was over. He had put in his time in this hell, and at last, he was going to be able to rest. Abel lay in the shell hole staring up at the sky, it was brown and covered in dust from the shells, but just beyond it was a beautiful blue sky, not a cloud up there. Abel remembered laying with Josephine, his head on her soft chest as they stared at the sky. “What about the name Rosalie?” She said in her sweet airy voice.
No. No. Why did I have to think about them? Abel began to panic. He couldn’t die now, he had to get back to them. He sat up and tore off a piece of cloth, and began trying to stop the bleeding from his stomach, but the blood just kept coming. As he pressed harder, he began to feel the pain, and soon he began to feel dizzy and fell backwards. He landed, facing Simone, his empty blue eyes staring back at him. His breathless mouth next to his. “I have to get out, I have to get out!” He could feel the blood pumping out of him faster now, he began trying to climb out, but he couldn’t muster the strength and slid back into the hole. “Help! Please God, somebody help me!”
They could hear them screaming out across the no man’s land. Dozens of doomed corpses crying out in the hot sun. But one voice carried louder than all the others. At first, he called for help, he did that all day and into the night, screaming for someone to come save him. But in the morning the screams came slower, and the soldiers would think he’d died, only to hear him cry out again an hour later. “Josephine! Josephine! Josephine!” And by noon the next day, they only heard a gurgled cry.
Helen was driving the ambulance on the retreat on a dirt road next to a field surrounded by hills. The Germans had broken through the British line, and she and the other ambulance drivers had come to retrieve the wounded before the bulk of the British moved west. As she got out of the ambulance, several men began to hoot and holler at her. She’d learned not to look at them; she was learning not to hear them. She just walked over to the wounded tent. The lieutenant stood there holding his wide jaw, staring at her as if she were a unicorn. “I’m here to collect the wounded, I’m one of the drivers,” she said.
The lieutenant let out a chuckle. “You are one of the drivers now? Surely, they haven’t killed that many of us?”
“Who needs to be transported, we need to move qui-”
“Why’d you cut your hair so short? A shame for God to give you such beautiful blonde hair and then you spit in his face by cutting it so short.”
Helen slapped the steering wheel with frustration at the memory. She didn’t want to be here, she didn’t vote for this rotten war, but when her brothers volunteered, she couldn’t just stay at home and do nothing. An explosion rang out in front of her, one of the ambulances engulfed in a plume of fire. Helen slammed on the brakes, grabbed her pistol and opened the door. Bullets began to clang against the right side of the ambulance. Helen got out on the left side and took cover. She looked out over the field, they must be in the hill somewhere. The firing stopped, and she ran over to the other ambulance. She saw Michael, the other driver stumbling out of the car, he collapsed to the ground, and began rolling around on fire. She sprinted over to him used her coat to beat out the flames. “You’re going to be alright, now come on. We have to get you out of here.” But Michael was already unconscious. Helen kneeled down and slapped him on the face, but he wouldn’t stir. Then she heard the crunching of boots running towards her, when the Germans rounded the ambulance, they stopped stunned to see her. There were two of them and they just kept staring in confusion, before either one could raise their rifle, Helen lifted her pistol and shot the both of them. She turned and grabbed Michael by his legs and dragged him to her ambulance. “You’re not pinning your death on me, you bastard.”
Omari walked with Ibrahim through the burning village. They were Askari. They were the Schutztruppe, they were African, they were German, though not often. They were following General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s orders to seize the village and whatever supplies there were. “Those living down there have sided with the enemy against your brethren, they are eating plenty while we starve.” And so they seized the village, and sure enough there was little to no food, because no white men lived there. Omari could hear the screams of women and children as men penetrated their homes and their bodies.
Omari kicked down the door to one of the houses and stepped inside. A man jumped on him, throwing him to the ground, Omari’s rifle flew across the room. Before Omari could get up, the man was on him pummeling him, his face was a deep black like Omari’s, his eyebrows thin like his too, he could see the panic in his large eyes. Omari just laid there, unable to decide what to do, and then a shot rang out, and the man’s head exploded. Bits of skull and brain flew into Omari’s eyes, blinding him as the man went limp on top of him.
Charles climbs out of the trench and hears nothing. The rifles, the machine guns, the artillery have all stopped. The world is almost silent. He begins to cross the field between him and them. He steps over dead trees and dead men. His pace slows as he walks past the shell hole where Raphael and Louis had died. He remembers running for cover when an artillery barrage struck, them calling for him to get to them, and then the explosion. On the other side he can see the Huns walking towards him as well. Without their spiked helmets, they almost resemble men. He shares a cigarette and a drink with one of the Germans, they walk together through the No Man’s Land, testing the reality of their new lives. Charles stops by the shell hole.
“Two of my friends died in that shell hole just three days ago.”
The German turns to him and in an almost accentless French said. “My older brother is the reason that shell hole exists.”
“Did you bury him?”
Charles grabs his entrenching tool, and instinctively the Hun reaches for his knife. Charles sticks the shovel into the ground, and throws some dirt into the hole. The other man sees this, and grabs his own shovel, and the two of them begin to fill the hole.
“The President of the United States of America authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to
Private Henry Johnson
United States Army
For Conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty… Private Johnson’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.”
-Official Citation for the posthumous issuance of the Medal of Honor to Henry Johnson for his service in World War I on June 2nd 2015 by President Barack Obama, 88 years after Johnson’s death.
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