b. 15/07/1892 Winston-Salem, North Carolina. d. 01/07/1929 New Lenox, Illinois.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 15/05/1918 NW St Menehoul, Argonne Forest, France.
William Henry Johnson (later Henry) stated he was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on July 15, 1892, when he registered for the World War I draft, but used other dates on other documents and may not have known the exact date of his birth. He moved to Albany, New York when he was in his early teens and worked as a redcap porter at the Albany Union Station on Broadway.
Henry Johnson enlisted in the United States Armed Forces on June 5, 1917, almost two months after the American entry into World War I, joining the all-black New York National Guard 15th Infantry Regiment, which, when mustered into Federal service, was redesignated as the 369th Infantry Regiment, and was then based in Harlem. The 369th Infantry joined the 185th Infantry Brigade upon arrival in France, but was relegated to labor service duties instead of combat training. The 185th Infantry Brigade was in turn assigned on January 5, 1918, to the 93rd Infantry Division.
Although General John J. Pershing, Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) on the Western Front, wished to keep the American forces autonomous, he “loaned” the 369th to the 161st Division of the French Army. Supposedly, the unreported and unofficial reason he was willing to detach the African-American regiments from U.S. command was that vocal white U.S. soldiers refused to fight alongside black troops. The French Army needed more men and welcomed the reinforcements.
The 369th Infantry regiment, later nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters”, was among the first to arrive in France, and among the most highly decorated when it returned. The 369th was an all-black unit under the command of mostly white officers, including their commander, Colonel William Hayward. The Regiment had a tortuous journey to the Western Front, having three different attempts, before arriving on December 27, 1917. It would be several months however, before they saw combat.
The French Army assigned Johnson’s regiment to Outpost 20 on the edge of the Argonne Forest in the Champagne region of France, equipping it with French rifles and helmets. While on observation post duty on the night of May 14, 1918, Johnson came under attack by a large German raiding party, which may have numbered up to 36 soldiers. Using grenades, the butt of his rifle, a bolo knife and his bare fists, Johnson repelled the Germans, killing four while wounding others, rescuing Needham Roberts from capture and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. Johnson suffered 21 wounds during the ordeal. This act of valor earned him the nickname of “Black Death”, as a sign of respect for his prowess in combat.
The story of Johnson’s exploits first came to national attention in an article by Irvin S. Cobb entitled “Young Black Joe” published in the August 24, 1918 Saturday Evening Post. Returning home, now-Sergeant Johnson participated (with his regiment) in a victory parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City in February 1919. Johnson was then paid to take part in a series of lecture tours. He appeared one evening in St. Louis, and instead of delivering the expected tale of racial harmony in the trenches, revealed the abuse that black soldiers had suffered, such as white soldiers refusing to share trenches with blacks. Soon afterwards, a warrant was issued for Johnson’s arrest for wearing his uniform beyond the prescribed date of his commission and paid lecturing engagements dried up. Sadly, his later life was marred by being unable to find regular employment due to his war wounds, and he fell into destitution and alcoholism. In 1928, in his book, “Rank and File: True Stories of the Great War,” Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. stated that Johnson was “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war.” Sadly, less than a year later, Johnson died aged just 36 of myocarditis.
The French government awarded Johnson the Croix de Guerre with a special citation and a golden palm. He was the first American to receive the award. The French Government were the only country to recognise Johnson’s gallantry at that time. He was not recognised with any award by the US authorities for 81 years. Eventually, in the 1990s a campaign began to get Johnson properly acknowledged for his actions in World War I. In June 1996, Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart by President Bill Clinton. In February 2003, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest award, was awarded to Johnson. John Howe, a Vietnam War veteran who had campaigned tirelessly for recognition for Johnson, and U.S. Army Major General Nathaniel James, President of the 369th Veterans’ Association, were present at the ceremony in Albany. The award was received by Herman A. Johnson, one of the Tuskegee Airmen of WWII, on behalf of Henry Johnson, then believed to be his father; the mistake was not clarified until 2015, a decade after the younger Johnson’s death, as part of the further research done leading up to the senior Johnson’s Medal of Honor.
On May 14, 2015, the White House announced that Johnson would receive the Medal of Honor posthumously, presented by President Barack Obama. In the ceremony, held on 2 June 2015, Johnson’s medal was received on his behalf by Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. Obama said, “The least we can do is to say, ‘We know who you are, we know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.'”
In 2017, Albany-area PBS station WMHT aired a documentary about Henry Johnson entitled Henry Johnson: A Tale of Courage. Johnson’s story is recounted in the song Don’t Tread on Me (Harlem Hellfighters) by the Ukrainian death metal band 1914 on their album Where Fear and Weapons Meet, released October 22, 2021. In June 2023, Fort Polk in Louisiana, a U.S. Army base, was renamed for Johnson.
Private Henry Johnson distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of heroism at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a member of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93d Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces on May 15, 1918, during combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the Western Front in France. In the early morning hours, Private Johnson and another soldier were on sentry duty at a forward outpost when they received a surprise attack from a German raiding party consisting of at least 12 soldiers. While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Private Johnson mounted a brave retaliation, resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier was badly wounded and being carried away by the enemy, Private Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage the two enemy captors in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and gravely wounded himself, Private Johnson continued fighting, defeating the two captors and rescuing the wounded soldier. Displaying great courage, he continued to hold back the larger enemy force until the defeated enemy retreated leaving behind a large cache of weapons and equipment and providing valuable intelligence. Without Private Johnson’s quick actions and continued fighting, even in the face of almost certain death, the enemy might have succeeded in capturing prisoners and the outpost, without abandoning valuable intelligence. Private Johnson’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93d Infantry Division and the United States Army.
BURIAL LOCATION: ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA.
SECTION 25, GRAVE 64.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: WAR ROOM, NEW YORK STATE CAPITOL, ALBANY, NEW YORK.