United States Army soldier
- For the 1890 Medal of Honor recipient, see Henry Johnson (Buffalo Soldier). Not to be confused with African-American attorney and politician Henry Lincoln Johnson (1870-1925)
William Henry Johnson (circa July 15, 1892 – July 1, 1929), commonly known as Henry Johnson, was a United States Army soldier who performed heroically in the first African American unit of the U.S. Army to engage in combat in World War I. On watch in the Argonne Forest on May 14, 1918, he fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, killing multiple German soldiers and rescuing a fellow soldier while experiencing 21 wounds, in an action that was brought to the nation’s attention by coverage in the New York World and The Saturday Evening Post later that year. On June 2, 2015 he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in a posthumous ceremony at the White House.
In 1918, racism against African Americans was common among white U.S. soldiers in the U.S. military, but French attitudes differed. Johnson was recognized by the French with a Croix de guerre with star and bronze palm, and was the first U.S. soldier in World War I to receive that honor.
Johnson died, poor and in obscurity, in 1929. From 1919 on, Henry Johnson’s story has been part of wider consideration of treatment of African Americans in the Great War. There was a long struggle to achieve awards for him from the U.S. military. He was finally awarded the Purple Heart in 1996. In 2002, the U.S. military awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross. Previous efforts to secure the Medal of Honor failed, but in 2015 he was posthumously honored with the award.
Early life and education
Johnson said that he was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on July 15, 1892, when he registered for the World War I draft, but he used other dates on other documents, so he might not have known the exact date of his birth. He moved to Albany, New York, when he was in his early teens. He worked as a redcap porter at the Albany Union Station on Broadway.
Johnson enlisted in the United States Military on June 5, 1917, joining the all-black New York National Guard 15th Infantry Regiment, which, when mustered into Federal service was redesignated as the 369th Infantry Regiment based in Harlem.
The 369th Infantry joined the 185th Infantry Brigade upon arrival in France, but the unit 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 wished to keep the U.S. Army 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 Afro-American/Negro regiments from U.S. command was that vocal white U.S. soldiers refused to fight alongside black troops. These regiments suffered considerable harassment by white U.S. soldiers and even denigration by the American Expeditionary Force headquarters which went so far as to release the notorious pamphlet Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops, which “warned” French civilian authorities of the alleged inferior nature and supposed tendencies of African-American troops to commit sexual assaults. Johnson arrived in France on New Year’s Day, 1918.
The French Army and people had no such problem and were happy and welcoming to accept the reinforcements. Among the first regiments to arrive in France, and among the most highly decorated when it returned, was the 369th Infantry (formerly the 15th Regiment New York Guard), which later became famous as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The 369th was an all-black regiment under the command of mostly white officers including their commander, Colonel William Hayward. The idea of a black New York National Guard regiment was first put forward by Charles W. Fillmore, a black New Yorker. Governor Charles Seymour Whitman, inspired by the brave showing of the black 10th Cavalry in Mexico eventually authorized the project. He appointed Col. William Hayward to carry out the task of organizing the unit, and Hayward gave Fillmore a commission as a captain in the 15th Infantry Regiment, New York National Guard. The 15th New York Infantry Regiment became the 369th United States Infantry Regiment prior to engaging in combat in France.
The 369th got off to a rocky departure from the United States, making three attempts over a period of months to sail for France before finally getting out of sight of land. Even then, their transport, which had stopped and anchored because of a sudden snow storm which arose before they could get out of the harbor, was struck by another ship due to the poor visibility. The captain of the transport, the Pocahontas, wanted to turn back, much to the dismay of his passengers. The by now angry and impatient members of the 369th, led by Col. Hayward, took a very dim view of any further delay. Since the damage to the ship was well above the water line, the ship’s captain admitted that there was no danger of sinking. Col. Hayward then informed the captain that he saw no reason to turn back except cowardice. Col Hayward’s men repaired the damage themselves and the ship sailed on, battered but undaunted. According to Col. Hayward’s notes, they “landed at Brest. Right side up” on December 27, 1917. They acquitted themselves well once they finally got to France. However, it was a while 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 and equipped them with French rifles and helmets. While on observation post duty on the night of May 14, 1918, Private Johnson came under attack by a large German raiding party, which may have numbered as many as 24 German soldiers. Johnson displayed uncommon heroism when using grenades, the butt of his rifle, a bolo knife, and his bare fists, he repelled the Germans, thereby rescuing Needham Roberts from capture and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. Johnson suffered 21 wounds during this ordeal. This act of valor earned him the nickname of “Black Death”, as a sign of respect for his prowess in combat.
Returning home, now Sergeant Johnson participated (with his regiment) in a victory parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City in February 1919. Sergeant 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, he instead revealed the abuse which black soldiers had suffered, such as white soldiers refusing to share trenches with blacks. Soon after this 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.
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 presented to Herman A. Johnson, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, on behalf of his father. 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.
On May 14, 2015, the White House announced that Sgt. Johnson would be receiving the Medal of Honor posthumously, presented by President Barack Obama. In the June 2nd ceremony, Johnson’s medal was received on his behalf by the Command Sgt. Maj. 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.'”
Medal of Honor
On June 2, 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard on behalf of Private Johnson. The award was presented to Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson instead of next-of-kin due to Private Johnson having no living relatives. The official citation reads:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to
Private Henry Johnson
United States Army
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:
Private Johnson distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a member of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, American Expeditionary Forces, during combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the Western Front in France on May 15, 1918. 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, Private Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces. 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. Private Johnson’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.
Later life and death
Veterans Bureau records show that a “permanent and total disability” rating was granted to Johnson on September 16, 1927, as a result of his tuberculosis. Additional Veterans Bureau records refer to Johnson receiving monthly compensation and regular visits by Veterans Bureau medical personnel until his death.
In 1919, co-founder of the American Legion Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of former United States President Theodore Roosevelt, referred to Johnson as one of the “five bravest Americans” to have served in World War I.
Interest in obtaining fitting recognition for Johnson grew during the 1970s and 1980s. In November 1991 a monument was erected in Albany, New York’s Washington Park in his honor, and a section of Northern Boulevard was renamed Henry Johnson Boulevard.
In December 2004, the Postal facility at 747 Broadway was renamed the “United States Postal Service Henry Johnson Annex”.
On September 4, 2007, the Brighter Choice Foundation in Albany, New York dedicated the Henry Johnson Charter School. Johnson’s granddaughter was in attendance.
For many years, it was thought that Herman Archibald Johnson was the son of Henry Johnson. In tracking Henry Johnson’s genealogy prior to his being awarded the Medal of Honor, however, it was discovered that there was not a family connection. Regarding this, the Army was quoted as saying, “While we appreciate the Johnson family fighting for the award and keeping the memory and valorous acts of Henry Johnson alive, we regretfully cannot recognize them as PNOK,” or primary next of kin.
In December 2014, the City School District of Albany established a Junior Reserve officers’ Training Program (JROTC) at Albany High School named the Henry Johnson Battalion in honor of SGT Johnson. Currently the program enrolls over 100 cadets.
- “Sergeant Henry Johnson”. US Army. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
- Smithsonian Magazine
- Although he has been confused with Henry Lincoln Johnson in several sources, they are different individuals. Smolenyak, Megan. “Memorial Day: Correcting the Story of World War I Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. Henry Johnson”. Huffington Post. Retrieved 3 August 2016.
- Martin, Tony (2008). “American National Biography Online: Johnson, Henry”. anb.org.
- “Two World War I Soldiers Posthumously Receive Medal of Honor”. New York Times. June 3, 2015. Retrieved 2015-10-20.
- “Conflicts – World War I – Personal Stories”. nysed.gov. Archived from the original on March 4, 2011.
- Clayton, Cindy. “Genealogist helps set the record straight”. Fredricksburg Free Lance-Star. Retrieved 14 July 2015.
- “Henry Johnson in the World War I draft registration”. Albany, New York. June 5, 1917. Retrieved 2015-10-20.
- TROUILLARD, STÉPHANIE (May 14, 2018). “Henry Johnson, Harlem soldier and forgotten WWI hero”. France24. Retrieved July 16, 2018.
- King, Gilbert. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death““. Smithsonian magazine.
- Cobb, Irvin. “The Glory of the Coming”. gutenberg.org. Retrieved 10 August 2014.
- “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death““. Smithsonian magazine.
Negro with a Hat, The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and his Dream of Mother Africa, Colin Grant. p.113
- Report on the Activities in the World War of 369th United States Infantry (15th New York)=July 1, 1920 (PDF). Headquarters Division, New York Guard located in the George S. Robb papers at the Kansas Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas.
- See General Order No. 9, 18 November 2005, at http://www.apd.army.mil/pdffiles/go0509.pdf.
- Henry Johnson, Sergeant, United States Army at www.arlingtoncemetery.net
- “African American History Month”. defenselink.mil.
- “White House: WWI vet Henry Johnson to receive Medal of Honor”. Times Union.
- Shear, Michael. “Two World War I Soldiers Posthumously Receive Medal of Honor”. New York Times. Retrieved 2 June 2015.
- Lamothe, Dan. “Army discovers sad surprise in family history of new Medal of Honor recipient Henry Johnson”. Washington Post. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
- “Sergeant Henry Johnson”. US Army. Retrieved 2 June 2015.
- Lamothe, Dan. “How the White House and media got it wrong on Medal of Honor recipient Henry Johnson”. Washington Post. Retrieved 11 June 2015.
- Smolenyak, Megan. “WWI Hero Sgt. Henry Johnson Receives Long Overdue Medal of Honor”. The Huffington Post. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
- Tukufu, Zuberi. “Our Colored Heroes – History Detectives – PBS”. PBS. Retrieved 10 August 2014.
- Grondahl, Paul. “WWI hero Henry Johnson on verge of Medal of Honor”. Times Union. Retrieved 3 December 2014.
- Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.