This Week in History: A Salute to the Service of Needham Roberts
Recipients of the Purple Heart belong to a distinct class of soldiers who were wounded or killed while serving in the United States military. Initially established by George Washington, the Purple Heart is one of the US military’s most distinguished honors. One such recipient was Needham Roberts, a brave soldier from Trenton who served during World War I. As we remember his life of service, may we never forget those who have sacrificed so that we may live freely.
Needham Roberts was born in Trenton, NJ, on April 28th, 1901. Needham was the son of a pastor and spent his youth residing right here in the region. As a teenager, Roberts worked at a local pharmacy but quickly resigned and joined the U.S. Army at the beginning of World War I. Despite only being 16 years old, Roberts lied to the Army recruiter and stated that he was 19 to join the service. Upon enlistment, Roberts was assigned to the 15th Regiment of New York, later re-designated as the 369th Infantry. This Infantry would later go on to be recognized as the Harlem Hellfighters, widely regarded as the most celebrated African-American Regiment in World War I. In addition, the Hellfighters were the first Black troops enlisted in New York’s National Guard.
Roberts conducted his initial military training at Spartanburg, South Carolina, but the troops were quickly handed over to the French due to conflict with the residents. Due to segregation, these soldiers were not permitted to fight alongside white service members and were assigned to the French Army for training. The American soldiers quickly learned the French language and their military strategies, ultimately going on to don the uniforms of the French military. It was in France that Needham Roberts and his fellow soldier, Henry Johnson, would encounter a battle that would change their lives forever.
Roberts and Johnson were stationed in the Argonne Forest, in the wilderness of northeastern France. While on guard one evening, Johnson and Roberts were ambushed by German soldiers carrying out a raid. Despite being injured by German soldiers, these two brave soldiers continued to fight and defend the French line. Unfortunately, Roberts was wounded severely, leaving him too disabled to continue fighting. In this vulnerable state, the German soldiers attempted to drag Roberts off as a prisoner of war. Thankfully, Henry Johnson was able to intervene and protect Roberts from this dreadful fate. Johnson was able to fend off the German soldiers with a bolo knife and rescue Roberts, saving his life in the process.
Bill Harris, one of the soldiers fighting alongside Roberts and Johnson in the Hellfighters, said: “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 they both knew was probably 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!’”
Harris noted that Johnson “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, despite also being wounded, jumped immediately into action to save his fellow soldier. During the altercation, one of the Germans shouted “the Black bastard got me!” Johnson quickly fired back with “damn right. This little Black bastard will get you again if you try to get up.”
To honor their bravery during this terrifying scene, the French military awarded Johnson and Roberts with the Croix de Guerre, a prestigious military honor. These two were the first Americans to be bestowed with this distinguished award. Upon his return to the United States, Roberts was met in Trenton with much celebration and cheer. To supplement his income, Roberts would do public speaking engagements and lectures discussing his experience during the war. He continued to do these speaking engagements and recruitment speeches throughout World War II.
Roberts would ultimately end up passing away shortly after the conclusion of World War II in 1949. He died on April 18th, 1949, in Newark, NJ, and is now buried at Fairmount Cemetery in Newark. Unfortunately, the United States did not recognize the heroism and bravery of Roberts until 47 years later, when he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996. Although the award was long overdue, Roberts finally received the recognition he deserved from the United States. Henry Johnson was also posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.
Needham Roberts is among the many heroic Trentonians who have fought and served throughout our nation’s history. Despite facing various barriers due to his ethnicity, Roberts went on to have a successful military career and even went on to recruit African-American soldiers in World War II. During this Black History Month, may we take a moment to revere individuals like Needham Roberts, who selflessly served their country despite the mistreatment they endured on their own nation’s soil? His legacy of bravery will continue to take long beyond his passing, and the Trenton community will continue to revere this legacy for generations to come.
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