Sgt Henry Johnson, U.S. Army (1918-1919) – America’s First World War Hero

Henry Johnson was a World War I soldier who singlehandedly beat back a German assault while critically wounded. He was a great American hero and received the highest military honor of two different countries. One of those countries, however, his very own, didn’t bestow that medal until nearly 100 years after his service in WWI.

The honor this man deserved was not awarded by the U.S. government upon his return home, because he was black. But that racism was eventually overcome, if only by the undeniable memory of his heroism.

Biography of Henry Johnson

In 1917, a young Henry Johnson was working as a Red Cap porter at an Albany, New York train station joined the 15th New York National Guard Regiment. Due to U.S. segregation policies, it was an all-black regiment. Due to be shipped out to France as the U.S. declared war on Germany and its allies, the 15th New York was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment and placed within the American Expeditionary Force under General John J. Pershing.

Johnson arrived in France on New Year’s Day, 1918. The African-American troops of the U.S. Army were harassed, sometimes even killed, by their Caucasian counterparts who would sometimes refuse to fight alongside them. The officers also distrusted them, harassed them, and issued disparaging remarks and pamphlets to French military and civilians about their black Soldiers.

Thus, black regiments were very poorly trained and most often assigned to menial labor like carrying supplies and digging ditches and latrines.

The French, however, didn’t nearly conform to the U.S. military’s blind prejudice. When their Fourth Army, short on troops, was offered the 369th Infantry Regiment to reinforce their line, they gladly took on the Soldiers and put them to use as just that. They were given French rifles and helmets and stationed at Outpost 20 in the Argonne Forest, in France’s Champagne region, just West of the infamous battlefields of Verdun.

In the early morning hours of May 14th, 1918, Johnson and Needham Roberts of Trenton New Jersey were on guard duty. Just before 2 AM, shots from German snipers whizzed by and they knew the enemy was on the prowl.

Right at 2 AM, Johnson and Roberts heard the snip and clip of cutters on the perimeter wire and readied themselves for an attack. Johnson, with a box of grenades at his side, told Roberts to run back and alert the French troops.

As Roberts ran, Johnson began to hurl grenades out of the trench, towards the Germans. From the darkness, the Germans responded in kind with grenades and gunfire. Roberts couldn’t leave his comrade behind and ran back to help, but he was struck by a German grenade and severely wounded in his arm and his hip.

When he was out of grenades, Johnson fired his rifle. He was hit by answering rifle fire, taking hits in his hands and face. He fired round after round until grabbing an American ammo cartridge by mistake and jamming his French rifle.

Suddenly, the Germans were all around, jumping into the trench. At least a dozen Soldiers descended upon the two wounded men thought to be inferior by their white U.S. comrades. Johnson, already with numerous bullet holes in his body, proved that notion of inferiority to be completely false.

Using his rifle as a club, he swung at the enemy, landing crippling blows until his stock finally shattered. Johnson was hit over the head and collapsed. Perhaps if he had been alone, he would have called it quits, obviously outnumbered and badly injured. But he could see the German Soldiers grabbing Roberts, taking him away as a prisoner.

Johnson leaped up, pulled out his bolo knife and charged into the enemy once more.

The knife he gripped in his hand was adopted by the U.S. Army almost ten years earlier. The Army first encountered it in the Spanish-American war, wielded by native guerrilla fighters in the Philippines. Mostly used for agricultural purposes, this big knife, often between a foot and two feet long, was made by metal workers all across the country. Weighted along the back of its sharp, curved blade, the bolo made an exceptional slicing and hacking weapon that could cleave bones with one well-balanced swing.

The whole French force in the region gathered to see Johnson and Roberts awarded the Croix du Guerre, the county’s highest military honor. They were the first U.S. Soldiers ever to earn this distinction. Johnson’s medal was further adorned with the Gold Palm. He became known as “Black Death.”

Henry Johnson Promoted to Sergeant

Upon his return home, Johnson, promoted to Sergeant, lead a parade of 3,000 men from the 369th through New York City to Harlem. More than 500 men of the 369th had earned the Croix du Guerre since Johnson and Roberts and furthermore became one of the most decorated U.S. regiments to serve in WWI. They garnered the nickname the “Harlem Hellfighters.” But despite this, the parade Johnson led was for black servicemen only since they weren’t allowed to participate in the main victory parade.

To add further insult to Johnson’s injuries, no mention of his battle wounds was made in his discharge papers. This meant he not only that he did not receive a Purple Heart but also was denied medical benefits due to an injured veteran, even when the U.S. Army was using his story as propaganda for recruitment.

Because of his injuries, he couldn’t keep a job. Descending into alcoholism, he was left by his wife and three children. In 1929, he died at the age of 32, a discarded American hero.

But his memory did live on. His son, Herman Johnson, who served in the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, along with New York Senator Chuck Schumer and others, fought to have his father’s valor officially recognized. In the 1990s, a monument was erected in Albany in Johnson’s honor and President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him the Purple Heart. In 2002, the U.S. Army granted him the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest honor the military has. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the top honor, the Medal of Honour. The French had long since recognized him as a war hero.

The all-African-American 369th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army arrived in France in January 1918. In an era of racial prejudice and segregation within the armed forces, its Soldiers were initially assigned only menial labor such as unloading cargo and cleaning latrines. But when the strapped French Fourth Army needed more troops, the U.S. Army lent it the so-called “Harlem Hellfighters,” hundreds of whom would go on to win France’s Croix de Guerre for their brave service. One of them was Henry Johnson, whose fierce exploits in the Argonne on the night of May 4, 1918, earned him the nickname “Black Death.” Nearly a century after his service, Johnson – who died in 1929 at the age of 32 – has received the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, in a ceremony at the White House.

 In 1917, Henry Johnson was working as a railroad porter in Albany, New York, when the United States declared war on Germany. At the time, before the Selective Service Act introduced conscription, African-American volunteers were only allowed in four all-black regiments in the Army and a few National Guard units. Johnson enlisted in the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, which was converted into the 369th Infantry Regiment for the purposes of the war. The regiment belonged to the largely black 93rd Division of the American Expeditionary Force, a hastily assembled division that would be among the first American forces to arrive in France. Most of the 369th’s Soldiers came from Harlem, San Juan Hill (around 59th Street in Manhattan) and Williamsburg, Brooklyn; after their exploits in France, they would be dubbed the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

In the early months of 1918, with France stretched to its limits in its struggle against Germany, U.S. General John Pershing lent the 369th to the Fourth Army, though he made it clear he considered black Soldiers inferior to whites. In fact, Pershing went even further in his directive to the French Military Mission, writing that the black man lacked a “civic and professional conscience” and was a “constant menace to the American.” To their credit, the French paid little attention to Pershing’s warnings. They sent the 369th to the western edge of the Argonne Forest, in the Champagne region of France.

Outfitted in French military garb, Johnson and another private, Needham Roberts of New Jersey, were serving sentry duty on the night of May 4, 1918, when German snipers began firing on them. 

The French, however, didn’t nearly conform to the U.S. military’s blind prejudice. When their Fourth Army, short on troops, was offered the 369th Infantry Regiment to reinforce their line, they gladly took on the Soldiers and put them to use as just that. They were given French rifles and helmets and stationed at Outpost 20 in the Argonne Forest, in France’s Champagne region, just West of the infamous battlefields of Verdun.

In the early morning hours of May 14th, 1918, Johnson and Needham Roberts of Trenton New Jersey were on guard duty. Just before 2 AM, shots from German snipers whizzed by and they knew the enemy was on the prowl.

Right at 2 AM, Johnson and Roberts heard the snip and clip of cutters on the perimeter wire and readied themselves for an attack. Johnson, with a box of grenades at his side, told Roberts to run back and alert the French troops.

As Roberts ran, Johnson began to hurl grenades out of the trench, towards the Germans. From the darkness, the Germans responded in kind with grenades and gunfire. Roberts couldn’t leave his comrade behind and ran back to help, but he was struck by a German grenade and severely wounded in his arm and his hip.

When he was out of grenades, Johnson fired his rifle. He was hit by answering rifle fire, taking hits in his hands and face. He fired round after round until grabbing an American ammo cartridge by mistake and jamming his French rifle.

Suddenly, the Germans were all around, jumping into the trench. At least a dozen Soldiers descended upon the two wounded men thought to be inferior by their white U.S. comrades. Johnson, already with numerous bullet holes in his body, proved that notion of inferiority was a false assertion.

Using his rifle as a club, he swung at the enemy, landing crippling blows until his stock finally shattered. Johnson was hit over the head and collapsed. Perhaps if he had been alone, he would have called it quits, obviously outnumbered and badly injured. But he could see the German Soldiers grabbing Roberts, taking him away as a prisoner.

Johnson leaped up, pulled out his bolo knife and charged into the enemy once more.

The knife he gripped in his hand was adopted by the U.S. Army almost ten years earlier. The Army first encountered it in the Spanish-American war, wielded by native guerrilla fighters in the Philippines. Mostly used for agricultural purposes, this big knife, often between a foot and two feet long, was made by metal workers across the country. Weighted along the back of its sharp, curved blade, the bolo made an exceptional slicing and hacking weapon that could cleave bones with one well-balanced swing.

The Germans in that trench received a quick lesson in just how terrifying this weapon was when wielded by a man committed to fighting to his last breath.

Johnson stabbed one soldier in the stomach. He killed an officer as he was shot in the arm. One German tried to tackle him by jumping on his back but instead was stopped by Johnson’s blade between his ribs. Overwhelmed by his ferocity and with the sound of French and American troops running towards the skirmish, the Germans ran back into the night.

As the reinforcements arrived, Johnson collapsed. He had been shot, stabbed, beaten and hit with grenade shrapnel, taking a total of 21 severe injuries in his desperate fight.

The whole French force in the region gathered to see Johnson and Roberts awarded the Croix du Guerre, the county’s highest military honor. They were the first U.S. Soldiers ever to earn this distinction. Johnson’s medal was further adorned with the Gold Palm. He became known as “Black Death.”

Upon his return home, Johnson, promoted to Sergeant, lead a parade of 3,000 men from the 369th through New York City to Harlem. More than 500 men of the 369th had earned the Croix du Guerre since Johnson and Roberts and furthermore became one of the most decorated U.S. regiments to serve in WWI. They garnered the nickname the “Harlem Hellfighters.” But despite this, the parade Johnson led was for black servicemen only since they weren’t allowed to participate in the main victory parade.

To add further insult to Johnson’s injuries, no mention of his battle wounds was made in his discharge papers. This meant he not only that he did not receive a Purple Heart but also was denied medical benefits due to an injured veteran, even when the U.S. Army was using his story as propaganda for recruitment.

Johnson stabbed one soldier in the stomach and another in the ribs and was still fighting when more French and American troops arrived on the scene, causing the Germans to retreat. 

When the reinforcements got there, Johnson fainted from the 21 wounds he had sustained in the one-hour battle. All told, he had killed four Germans and wounded some 10 to 20 more and prevented them from breaking the French line. 

Henry Johnson’s Military Recognition

The French awarded both Johnson and Roberts the Croix de Guerre; Johnson’s included the coveted Gold Palm for extraordinary valor. In all, some 500 members of the Harlem Hellfighters earned the Croix de Guerre during World War I, showing France’s appreciation for their sacrifice.

When Johnson and his fellow Hellfighters arrived home in February 1919, they were honored with a parade up New York’s Fifth Avenue. Thousands of spectators lined the route to watch Johnson lead nearly 3,000 troops in an open car towards Harlem, holding a bouquet of lilies. The celebration had a dark side, however: The 369th were given their own parade because they weren’t allowed to join the official victory parade alongside other returning U.S. troops.

Though former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I, and the government used his image on Victory War stamps and army recruiting materials, Johnson’s discharge papers made no mention of his many wounds, and he received no disability pay after the war. Johnson returned to Albany, and to his job as a railroad porter, but his injuries made it difficult for him to work, and he soon began to decline into alcoholism and poverty. His wife and children left him, and he died penniless in 1929 at the age of 32. As far as anyone in his family knew, he ended up in a pauper’s grave in Albany.

Starting in the 1990s, however, Johnson’s story began gaining more recognition. Albany erected a monument in his honor, and a campaign was launched to get the United States government to posthumously recognize Johnson for his service. Spearheaded by Johnson’s son Herman – who was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II – and New York politicians including Senator Chuck Schumer, the efforts gained ground over the years, and in 1996 President Bill Clinton awarded Johnson a Purple Heart. In 2001, historians from the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs confirmed that Johnson had, in fact, received a burial with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in July of 1929, unbeknownst to his family. In 2002, the U.S. Army awarded Johnson the nation’s second-highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross.

Still, Schumer and other Johnson supporters continued their dedicated campaign to win Johnson the recognition they felt he deserved and had been denied solely because of the color of his skin. After nearly two decades, their efforts were finally rewarded last month when the White House announced that Johnson would receive the Medal of Honor on June 2. 

Medal of Honor on Behalf of Henry Johnson

Among the new information that convinced the U.S. Army to bestow its highest award was a communique from Pershing, written shortly after the Argonne battle, commending Johnson’s performance. 

As reported by NBC News, one of Senator Schumer’s staffers turned up the previously unknown document in her research, along with firsthand accounts of the battle from Roberts and other Soldiers. Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard accepted the Medal of Honor on behalf of Henry Johnson.

Before Johnson’s son Herman passed away in 2004, he got to stand at his father’s grave. Herman Johnson had spent most of his life believing his father was laid to rest in some unknown pauper’s grave. But military records found in 2001 revealed Johnson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors.

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Tags: "Black Death.", African-American troops of the U.S. Army, Croix du Guerre, Harlem Hellfighters., Henry Johnson, Medal of Honour, NBC News, President Bill Clinton, Purple Heart, Red Cap, U.S. Army, World War I, World War II

2 Comments

  1. Virgil Budd

    It brought tears to my eyes reading this story. Mr Johnson served his country with honor and his country failed him.
    I myself I’m a Vietnam veteran former crew chief on B-52s .
    I would have been very proud to have meet this man and thanked him for his service. He was finally honored for his bravery.
    .

    Reply
  2. CLuddeni

    Such a disservice towards a true American Hero. It makes me ashamed to be an American when I see such horrendous treatment of an American veteran.

    Reply

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