Written by Michael Hancock
Like hundreds of thousands of young American men, Henry Johnson returned from the First World War and tried to make a life for himself in spite of what he had experienced on the battlefields of Europe. Escaping with bullet and shrapnel wounds in the dozens, he was fortunate that he even survived. Curiously, his discharge records did not include any mention of his injuries and so Johnson was denied a Purple Heart and a disability allowance. As an uneducated black man in his early twenties, Henry Johnson resigned to live with the errors in his military record and simply tried to carry on as well as he could in the country he faithfully served.
Born William Henry Johnson in Winston Salem, North Carolina, Johnson moved to New York as a teenager. He worked various jobs as a chauffeur, soda mixer, laborer in a coal yard, and as a porter at Union Station in Albany. He enlisted in the United States Army June 5, 1917 and was assigned to Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment. His was an all-black National Guard unit that would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment.
Provided that African-American units were prohibited serving alongside white Army units, General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary forces, eventually brigaded and attached this infantry regiment to French forces during the war. The 369th Regiment was ordered into battle in 1918 at the front line seeing intense combat. Johnson served one tour of duty to the western sector of the Argonne Forest in France’s Champagne region from 1918-1919.
National Archives Identifier 26431272
On one occasion, the Infantry received intelligence that German forces were going to attack their position and, as a result, Private Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were assigned to guard duty that night.
On the evening of May 15, 1918, Johnson and Needham Roberts were suddenly attacked. They found themselves cut off from any support and surrounded by at least twelve advancing German soldiers. Roberts and Johnson expended all of their ammunition during the attack and both Roberts and Johnson were severely wounded. German soldiers began dragging Roberts off in an attempt to capture him and Johnson moved into action.
National Archives Identifier 26431344
He ran from his position toward the men who were dragging Roberts and struck one of them with the butt of his rifle. He then pulled out a bolo knife and struck one of the men in the head and then wheeled around and struck another in the stomach. Doing this brought Johnson some time as he continued to fight and then lobbed grenades at the remaining enemy forces in an effort to finally repel them. His exploits earned him the moniker, “Black Death”.
For his battlefield valor, Johnson became one of the first Americans to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme. It was France’s highest award for valor.
Henry Johnson after Receiving the French Croix de Guerre 1919
(New York Public Library Digital Collections)
Johnson returned home from his tour and was unable to return to his pre-war work because of the severity of his 21 combat injuries. Johnson died in July 1929 and although it was assumed that he had been buried in a pauper’s grave, extensive research confirmed that he had, indeed,been interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. History finally remembered Henry Johnson- in 1996 President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. And once Johnson’s place of burial had been located at Arlington National Cemetery in 2001, the Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military decoration.
97 years after his combat service in France in 1918, the Department of Defense reviewed his records and recommended him for the Medal of Honor, presented by then President Barack Obama in 2015.
His citation reads “Private Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and gravely wounded himself, Private Johnson continued fighting and took his bolo knife and stabbed it through an enemy soldier’s head. Displaying great courage, Private Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated.”
“We are a nation — a people — who remember our heroes,” Obama said during the June 2015 Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House. “We never forget their sacrifice, and we believe it’s never too late to say, ‘Thank you.’”
Henry Johnson and the Harlem Hellfighters in a parade up Fifth Avenue upon their return to New York in February, 1919. (New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs)