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 was a Boy Scout and worked at a local pharmacy but left to join the U.S. Army at the beginning of World War I. Despite only being 15 (enlisted March 30, 1917, one month before his 16th birthday) years old, Roberts lied to the Army recruiter and stated that he was 19 to join the service. He had traveled from Trenton to New York to join the newly formed 15th Regiment New York National Guard, later re-designated as the 369th Infantry. This unit would later go on to be recognized as the Harlem Hell Fighters, widely regarded as the most celebrated African-American Regiment in World War I.
The regiment had little combat training, with only several weeks at camps in New York and a very brief stay at Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina. It was at this latter camp where some local residents, angry at the presence of northern African American soldiers, caused concern to the Army. As a result, the regiment was shipped immediately to France as a single unit, without being part of a larger division.
Because the 15th New York was the first Black combat regiment to arrive in France, it was agreed to loan them to the French Army, which was desperately short of soldiers. The American soldiers quickly learned the French language and their military strategies, and were issued French equipment, worn over their American uniforms. 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 a patch of woods and farmland near the Argonne forest, in the Champagne region of France. While on advanced guard one evening, Johnson and Roberts were attacked by Germans carrying out a raid. Despite being badly injured, these two brave soldiers continued to fight and drive back the superior enemy force.
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 emptied his rifle, but was able to fend off the German soldiers with a bolo knife and rescue Roberts, saving his life in the process.
Colonel William Hayward, commander of the regiment, 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. The Germans’ first attack wounded Roberts, but he was able to pass hand grenades to Johnson, who hurled them at the unseen figures in the dark. Overwhelmed, several German soldiers jumped into the trench and began to take Roberts prisoner, but Johnson jumped up, and using the only weapon he had left, a bolo knife, he plunged it into the head of the enemy. One wounded German yelled out, “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 awarded Johnson and Roberts with the Croix de Guerre, a prestigious military honor. These two were the first African Americans to be bestowed with this distinguished award [Officers and men of the 18th US Infantry, First Division, received CDGs in March 1918]. Upon his return to the United States, Roberts was met in Trenton with much celebration and cheer. To supplement his income, for the next couple of years Roberts traveled the lecture circuit across America. When the United States entered World War II, Roberts was a featured speaker on a nation-wide radio program to encourage support for involvement.
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.
In 1932, when Congress authorized the Purple Heart, Roberts was among the first to receive it. Unfortunately, Henry Johnson had passed away and it took many years for his bravery to be affirmed by the United States government. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996, Distinguished Service Cross in 2002 and the Medal of Honor in 2015.
Needham Roberts is among the many heroic Trentonians who have fought and served throughout our nation’s history. Despite serving in an army that was racially segregated, Roberts went on to have a brilliant military career and won immortal fame. During this Black History Month, may we take a moment to revere individuals like Needham Roberts, who willingly and selflessly served their country 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.