For the third iteration of Trenton’s Historic Figures, we will be taking a close look at Needham Roberts, a war hero who earned not only the Croix de Guerre medal by the French government, but also the purple heart posthumously in 1996 for his service during World War I.
Born in 1901, Roberts grew up on Wilson Street in Trenton, NJ and was the son of a pastor. In 1917, Roberts quit his job as a local drugstore clerk to serve in the United States Army. Being only 16 at the time, Roberts had to lie to the recruiter telling him that he was 19 so he could join.
After enlisting in the army, Roberts was assigned to the New York Fifteenth Infantry, which later became known as the 369th Infantry or the Harlem Hellfighters. His regiment was then sent to France where they were to be under the control of French forces. The American soldiers, who were given basic training in French language and military tactics, were outfitted with French uniforms and equipment.
Roberts and a fellow member of his regiment, Henry Johnson, had been ordered to keep watch in the Argonne Forest (France) when one day a raiding party of German soldiers (about 20 men) attacked them out of nowhere. “Though both were wounded, they continued to fight the Germans and defend the French line. Roberts’ wounds disabled him enough to allow the Germans to attempt to drag him away as a prisoner. Henry Johnson, who attacked the Germans with a bolo knife, rescued Roberts and repelled the attack, saving him from a terrible fate.” (www.aaregistry.org)
Due to their bravery and heroics, both Roberts and Johnson were awarded the French Coix de Guerre medal. They were the first Americans to ever receive this honor. When both men returned home to the U.S., neither Roberts nor Johnson was recognized by the United States government for their feats overseas. However, a huge celebration was held in Roberts’ honor when he returned home to Trenton, New Jersey.
It wasn’t until 1996, 47 years after Roberts’ passing that the United States government awarded him with the Purple Heart. For more information on Needham Roberts and the Harlem Hellfighters please visit trentonhistory.org, aaregistry.org, or https://www.britannica.com/biography/Needham-Roberts.