Carter Rila's

Carter's Cutlery Commentaries

November 2006



Myth: Henry Johnson Wielded a U.S. Issue Bolo in His Famous Fight.

Several recent publications have repeated this myth along with the one that the 1905 Hospital Corps Knife was used in France. This is based on a literal reading of the words used in the account of the fight which appears in Lawrence Stalling's magnificent compendium on the A.E.F. "The Doughboys which in turn relies in turn on Maj. Arthur W. Little's narrative history of the Fifteenth New York, later the 369th U.S. Infantry, From Harlem to the Rhine. However, no matter how well written Little’s book was written and published years after the occurrence.

So we have a contemporary writer quoting as fact a third hand account compiled in the 1970s by a very old man, a veteran of the WW I to be sure, but still old, from a second hand account put together in the thirties and published almost twenty years after the event described. Not a very scholarly procedure to make such bald statements dependent upon. Since none of us were there, it should be apparent that we need to go back to sources published very close in time to the happenings so described.

Frankly, I do not believe the exact pattern of implement wielded by the doughty soldier was of high concern to Major Little or to most of his contemporaries. It is highly unlikely that the item implement in question was, in fact, recovered and saved. If it had been it would have certainly ended up on display by now in some depository of repute where it could be viewed. Certainly I have been unable to discover any contemporary photos of Johnson and the "bolo" together. And photos of he alone are scarce.

It is definite from the accounts that Johnson and his companion, Needham Roberts were in no physical shape to recover anything after the fight for they spent several months in hospital and never returned to any more than light duty for the remainder of the war.

As in all accounts the farther removed from the time of occurrence, the tale become more and more "smooth" and the tale is edited to emphasize the teller's points. The number of German troops involved, the items of equipage abandoned in their retreat, who struck whom first, and the words spoken by the German disemboweled by Johnson, "Oh, the son of a bitch has got me!" all vary slightly.

Throughout these tales there is a strong flavor of ethnic humor of the sort no longer acceptable in the more enlightened and or touchy parts of our society, but when one remembers that the speakers either, were for the most part, officers of the regiment, all dedicated to social uplift and the betterment of the Negro, then this stuff falls in today's category of Polish jokes, and at the time was not considered or intended to be pejorative at all. When I, who grew up in the forties and fifties, remember the broad ethnic stereotypes of the "Fred Allen show", "Buelah", and "Life with Luigi", then this kind of thing doesn't bother me at all.

Others, such as Irvin S. Cobb, although imbued with the segregation spirit of the upper South were still able to recognize merit where it existed. The French and Germans had little if any color prejudice, and the French drew no color line at all.

When the Fifteenth New York was called up for the World War and sent to Spartanburg, South Carolina, to train along with the rest of the New York State troops who were to be organized into the all-white 27th Infantry Division, it was politically impossible to brigade Colored with white troops in that time and place. Though this combination rarely occurred in WW II the Army was not completely desegregated until during the Korean War when white and black served in the same squads.

A number of racial insults were perpetrated by the locals on the officers and men of the Fifteenth and a near riot was almost begun by the white troops who would allow no insult to their fellow New Yorkers. This riot impending riot was averted only by the timely intervention of a black officer who told the white enlisted men to cool it. After this incident the unit was sent back to the north and of all things was put in camp adjacent to a Southern regiment! After another race riot was averted it was decided the best thing to do was ship the Fifteenth New York to France, which was done, though not without returning to harbor thrice due to the ship's mechanical breakdown.

Upon arriving in France the black infantry troops were put to labor duties by the American authorities as they were not accompanied by artillery or other support units and the American authorities could not figure out what to do with them. When the French observed such magnificent physical specimens and infantry trained as well, they asked for their services. This suited the U.S. authorities fine, so they were so assigned. Sometime after the arrival in France, the Fifteenth was formally redesignated as the 369th U.S. Infantry. Thus the unit claimed the distinction of being the only state unit to serve in France under their state colors.

National law and policy required that blacks serve in separate units no smaller than companies. (approximately 100 to 220 men.) The regiment was nominally brigaded in the 93rd Division with two other Colored Infantry Regiments made up from former National Guard units and one converted from a Colored labor regiment. The 93rd units unlike their brothers in the Colored 92nd Division never served all together for they never had any support units.

All of this fit the national policies of President Wilson for, regardless of all his high talk about the rights of man, his second wife had led him to segregate official Washington, and he had little sympathy for the uplift of the Negro. If the 92nd and 93rd Divisions had been sent to Mesopotamia and disappeared into the sands it would have suited him fine. However, the fine black troops did not disappear, instead they distinguished themselves and became the first American enlisted men to win the French Croix de Guerre. Here is part of the first published account as it appeared in the New York World of May 20, 1918 under the lead banner headline.


Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts Win French War Crosses For Gallantry in Putting to Flight 24 of Enemy Regiment Aids French on Front West of Verdun Goes Into Line After Only Three Weeks Training-- World Man Gets First News of Colored Man in Action. By Lincoln Eyre (Staff Correspondent of the World)


With the American Army in France. May 19th. - Negro infantrymen of the old 15th New York have met the Germans and worsted them. Recent military developments enable the censor to pass the story of the achievements of the first colored American Army unit holding a sector on the French front, whose arrival at Armageddon I sought to describe in a much-deleted dispatch May 12.

Since writing that dispatch I have paid the dusky warriors a second visit in their trenches.... west of Verdun and have learned of the glorious exploits of Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts. The names of Johnson and Roberts will stand out forever on the roll of honor of their race.

Battling in the blackness of night with rifles, hand grenades, and "bolo knife", wholly deprived of the assistance of their comrades, they put to flight an enemy assaulting party at least twenty-four men strong. Roberts, wounded in three places, stretched out helplessly in the mud, hurled grenades, even while the hands of a muscular German were about his throat.

Johnson did even more. Having shot one of his foemen down and clubbed another with the butt of his rifle, he sprang to the aid of Roberts and with his bolo knife clove into the skull of one German and disemboweled another. As the enemy fell into disorderly retreat, Johnson, three times wounded, sank to the ground, seized a grenade alongside his prostrate body and literally blew one of the retreating Germans into fragments.

In the belief of their white commander, a former public service commissioner of New York (Col. Hayward-C.R.) the two negroes by their valor and intelligence frustrated a well developed plan to assail one of our most important points of resistance.

The privates have been awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French General of the division under whom the unit is serving, and Johnson is scheduled to receive the much coveted gold palm of the French Army commander as well.

The divisional order of the day states:

"Private Johnson finding himself on night sentry duty and being attacked by a group of more than a dozen Germans, put one hors de combat with rifle shots and two others with knife cuts. Although wounded thrice by revolver bullets and grenades at the start of the fight, he went to the help of his wounded comrade as the latter was about to be carried off by the enemy and continued the struggle until the enemy was forced to flee. He gave a magnificent example of courage and energy."

The black warriors from 53rd Street, Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx--Henry Johnson, hailing from Albany, is one of the few Up-Staters in the unit--are the first Americans of their race to fight on the battle fields of Europe for the democratic ideals that set them free. For more than a month they have played a part in the vast theatre of war, yet save for certain personages at general headquarters nobody in General Pershing's command has been any wiser.

Even the war correspondents, whose duties oblige them to keep in touch with every phase of our military activities, were quite unaware of the newcomers' presence in the line. I am still the only accredited correspondent who has visited the sector they are occupying, as a distinct unit under French command. A whispered word from the upper realms of the army hierarchy set me on the trail.

So thoroughly camouflaged it was that I roamed the country for two days before my objective was obtained. Being incased in the French Army to a greater degree than any other American contingent--they are only doughboys supported by French artillery--these chocolate soldiers are temporarily in a state of splendid isolation as far as the remainder of the American expeditionary force is concerned. It is to all intents and purposes a part of the French Army, under the most intensive application of the principles that all we have is at Gen. Foch's disposal under the present emergency…

It is obvious that the A.E.F. authorities were content up to this time to have the Negro units disappear from public consciousness. After this episode the full publicity treatment was turned on. The regimental band was sent on a tour of France and made a great hit among the soldiers and civilians alike.

Continuing with Mr. Eyres' account I will omit the bloody details. They are available in the account given and appear also in Major Little's book and in a much more contemporary book written by Col. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. describing heroic episodes of the War. Roosevelt’s account was summarized from Col. Little's original manuscript so is also selective.

Mr. Eyre states:

At the same moment, one of the other Germans, of whom fully a dozen had penetrated the wire in those few seconds fired three revolver [It was actually a Luger pistol. -C.R.] shots. Johnson felt blood spurt from wounds in his left leg, his right hip and his right forearm.

"But just then," he complains, "I remembered my bolo knife." This is a sinister [It is not left-handed! C.R.] instrument about a foot long with a blade tapering to a point from a width of about three inches. It was originally modeled after the Filipino's favorite weapon. Wrenching it from its sheath, Johnson sliced it down upon the head of the man whose hands were at Robert's throat and then swung around and drove it through the stomach of another German...

Eyre is saying here that he actually interviewed Johnson but nowhere is he saying he observed the actual knife. But he did interview many of Johnson and Robert’s companions when their memories were still fresh. Eyre goes on to describe his visit to the unit.

When I roamed through the sector two days ago, the news that their two comrades had received the Croix de Guerre, was just becoming generally known, I heard many comments upon the occurrence and not one of them indicated any sentiment other than pride in the honor the pair had brought to the unit and a resolve to emulate their gallant conduct.

-An Unconscious Tribute

The air was thick with the praise of Johnson and Roberts, but the finest tribute of all, I thought, was a mute and unconscious one I chanced to behold. _

A little chap, his ebony skin beaded with sweat, sat on the ground with his legs hooked around a chunk of granite that had once been a tombstone. Oblivious to all that was going on around him, he was sharpening his bolo knife on the stone, pausing from time to time to test its edge against his finger or his tongue (!). As he rubbed the blade against the granite he crooned a low-pitched chant couched in a language all his own. Only once could I catch an intelligent phrase: "Bush "Germans, we're going to get you yet!" He kept mumbling it at intervals again and again.

Irvin S. Cobb, the old "Kaintucky" philosopher of later years, was also present on that day. Appearing in the Saturday Evening Post of August 28, 1918, his article "Young Black Joe" is a sympathetic portrayal of the black troops which predicted a broader social acceptance as a result of their war performance. Unfortunately that did not come about for over forty years and another war. His account gives another view of the aftermath of the Johnson-Roberts fight and another description of the "bolo" knife being so vigorously sharpened.

As we passed along (the trench), we heard one short and stumpy private, with a complexion like the bottom of a coal mine and a smile like the sudden lifting of a piano lid, call out to a mate as he fitted his greased rifle together:

"Henry Johnson, he done right well, didn't he? But say, boy, effen they just gimme a razor an' a armload of bricks an' one half pint of bust-haid likker I kin go plumb to Berlin."

(As we walked along the trench, we saw) A small, squarely built individual of the color of a good bottle of cider vinegar, who balanced upon his knees a slab of whitish stone... and in his two hands, held by the handle, a bolo with a nine-inch blade. First he would anoint the uppermost surface of the white slab after the ordained fashion of those who use whetstones, and then industriously he would hone his blade. And all the while, under his breath, he crooned a little wordless humming song which had in it some of the menace of a wasp's petulant buzzing. He was making war medicine. A United States soldier whose remote ancestors by preference fought hand to hand with their jungle enemies was qualifying to see Henry Johnson and go him one better.

"They're all like that boy with the bolo, and some of them are even more so," said the colonel after we had tramped back again to the dugout in a chalk cliff...(p 78)

So far we have two eyewitnesses looking at the same man doing the same thing at the same time and we have two different descriptions of the same knife:

Lincoln Eyre-bolo knife. This is a sinister instrument about a foot long with a blade tapering to a point from a width of about three inches. It was originally modeled after the Filipino's favorite weapon.

Irvin S. Cobb- a bolo with a nine-inch blade.

Note that Cobb does not define his terms perhaps because the more sophisticated readers of the Post were supposed to know what a bolo was. But as we have seen, many present day writers don't know either. These descriptions could apply to the 1909 bolo (Eyre) and to the 1910 bolo (Cobb). Again neither actually measured the item observed nor a range of three inches is not a far off estimate. And, of course, they did not give a hoot for history or knife collectors of 70 years later. In fact, they do not even agree on the color of the individual either nor on what he was singing or mumbling. So much for eyewitness accounts let alone those of twenty years after!

How then can we approach the resolution of what sort of cutting instrument did Johnson wield? It is best to approach it from the viewpoint of what was he most likely to have? All serious students of WW I know that all of the 93rd Division troops were re-equipped by the French before going into action.

There was a similar case for the 27th (New York) Division; their erstwhile comrades-in-arms, served with the British and were also rearmed. However the British cartridge belts were similar to ours and the 27th was not re-accoutred. The 69th soldiers did retain their U.S. clothing.

Their rearming made great good sense as they were deeply "incased in the French Army" to quote Eyre's account above and were nowhere near the American supply systems.

Thus in every photograph of U.S. black units of the 93rd Division taken in the French zone the troops are wearing the French accoutrements for the Lebel rifle and French helmets. The only American arms visible in the photos are the U.S. officers' .45 pistols and the U.S. standard accoutrements for them. It seems to me that if the troops had carried along their "Yankee" issue cutlery it would be seen in one or two photos being brandished in a suitably fierce manner. However the only U. S. issue cutlery being brandished are the mess knives issued to the troops. A few U.S. issue meat cans and canteens can occasionally be seen as well.

What was or could have been issued at the time of the re-equipping of the 369th? The standard issue to the white French troops was an item known to American Revolution specialists as a fascine knife. In fact this is nothing more than the common hedge knife used in Western Europe and Great

Britain to tend the hedgerows. The official French name for this is "serpe". Several major European powers issued these.

But even if this one handed bush-tool, could be mistaken for a weapon with its concave edge and hook, could not easily be withdrawn from its target if a blow was struck with it. As is so well described in "All Quiet On the Western Front Frenchmen and Germans preferred to fight at close range with sharpened trench shovels, clubs, and other blunt instruments.

The definitive answer is given in an interview appearing in the compendium "Deeds of Heroism and Daring" which appeared both separately and as part of the "Harper's multi-volume history of the war.

The speaker is Col. William D. Hayward, the organizer and leader of the Fifteenth New York since 1916.

"When at last we reached the French front in the Argonne Forest I reported to the French officer in command that I had arrived with the 15th New York Infantry and would place myself and my men at his disposal. ‘ It is impossible!’ exclaimed the officer. ‘There's no such American unit due here.’ Finally he said in surprise, ‘Are you the 369th Infantry Regiment of the United States?’ and I replied, ‘I are.’


Then they took all our American ordnance away and gave us bolos, which are knives modeled after those used by the Cubans. I was glad afterward, though I think our boys would have done better with razors. When we were leaving France I was told that the regiment would be presented with three thousand razors by the French. When we received the gift we found they were safety razors. The regiment was insulted.

My boys had a sublime faith that they would win. The idea of defeat never entered their heads. No private or officer had any doubt of our ability to break through. One day I found a number of the men buying German money that had been taken from the dead. I asked why they wanted it and they answered, `We'll be needin' this here money soon.' In five months they were spending it in the Rhine towns and talking Harlem German with a Yiddish accent.

They were the advance guard of the Allied armies. The French gave them the honor of carrying the Stars and Stripes to the Rhine. And I was the first man to scoop water from the river. Can you beat that for Allied generosity?"

He jested about them freely, did Colonel Hayward, but the jests were of a kind to betray the intense pride he felt in the soldierly character and spirited daring of the men under him. The Hun learned to regard with wholesome fear a charge of Hayward's "bellhops and waiters", as he styled them.

This statement indicates as strongly as any that the knife in question was issued by the French. Because the 369th was a black regiment it was issued the same arms and accoutrements as carried by the French black troops from Africa. Though recruited from all the French African colonies they were all designated as Senegalese.

Thus the machete issued to the 369th was what is known today to English speaking collectors as the Senegalese machete. A great number of brand new ones of post WW II vintage were sold in the U.S. in the early 1960s after the independence of the French African colonies rendered them surplus. A great number of these are still around. But not seen often at militaria shows. However, it is more difficult to find those of a vintage contemporary with the exploits of Henry Johnson. In addition the scabbards for the U.S. bolos will not fit the French issue leather belts.

What I was never able to understand however is that in all the books on African weapons I have consulted never is this pattern shown. The answer is to be found in the French militaria magazine "Uniformes".

In the caption of one of the illustrations is the following.

The regulation of 1898 assigned to the infantry a machete

``of Annamite pattern.'' The text of 1914 specified that its scabbard was of fawn-colored leather. "The blade ends in a plane section in the form of a very elongated isosceles triangle." The blade shown is marked "Arbette Cie Paris 1911.'' (private collection)

The general text states the basis of issue as: per four or five men...

This is my translation as the one in the magazine is too vague and generalized. I was unable to find an exact French term so we will have to use machete. But in actuality it is not a machete (a slicer) but a chopper.

This article tells us several things. One, the Senegalese machete is not an African pattern but an Annamite one. Annam was the central portion of French Indo China of which Hue was the capital. The pattern also resembles somewhat the blade form of choppers and knives made by Sinoese peoples of the area and used in Southern China.

See Atlanta Cutlery Catalogs for these. Summer 1986, p 17.

Chinese Bush Knife 12 inches long, 2 ˝ inches wide and 3/16 thick.

Two, the implement was not intended originally to be issued for use as an individual weapon, rather it is an entrenching tool or camping tool exactly as is the hedge knife. And so were the U.S. bolos as well. How anyone could think that the intent was for U.S. white men to duke it out with blades in the boonies with folks who grew up sleeping with edged tools is beyond me.

However, during the war issue was expanded and use as a weapon was likely intended and encouraged. But even though the scabbard fits the French infantryman’s leather waist belt the carry is awkward and is only comfortable worn angled on the small of the back. Photos show it being worn this way but it is then unhandy for the draw. Best to keep it lying on a trench shelf for immediate use.

The accompanying U.S. Official photograph of a French Senegalese soldier might indicate that it was his individual issue, but he is on show not in combat. However, of all the many other photos of Senegalese troops I have observed, only one of a multitude shows the machete being worn in the field. As the scabbard is poor--flimsy and clumsy, more a protective cover than a sheath, hard to draw from, interferes with the other items on the belt, and the poorly placed retaining tab is easily sliced off when drawing the tool; it is most likely the knives were simply left stashed about in readily available places for immediate use as were trench clubs and other lethal instruments.

So the mystery is solved. And another myth dispelled.

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