Henry Johnson: One of WWI’s Bravest Soldiers

President Theodore Roosevelt named Henry Johnson one of the five bravest Americans to serve in World War I. Despite that, Johnson served at a time when he could be refused service at innumerable establishments across the country due to racist Jim Crow segregation. But that didn’t affect how he served his country, fully and entirely. 

Johnson hailed from Winston Salem, NC but moved to New York as a teenager. After working a variety of jobs, he enlisted in the U.S. Army on June 5, 1917 after seeing in a newspaper that Company C, 15th New York Colored Infantry Regiment, was accepting enlistees. It was an all-Black National Guard unit that became the 369th Infantry Regiment.

In 1918, the 369th was ordered into battle and sent to France. The French had a shortage of men, so the 369th joined up with the 161st Division of the French Army. Johnson’s moment of glory came in the western Argonne Forest in France’s Champagne region. 

On the night of May 14, he and a few others found themselves surrounded by German soldiers. While defending their position, Johnson was shot and wounded in his side, hand, and head. But he did not yield and continued to fire his rifle in defense. As the Germans advanced and eventually swarmed his position, Johnson fell, only to rise again with his bolo knife in hand. Already significantly wounded and continuing to take fire, he stabbed at soldier after soldier, even saving his fellow infantryman who the Germans were attempting to haul away. It’s estimated that the entire ordeal carried on for around an hour. 

Reinforcements arrived and took Johnson away to be treated where he ultimately managed to survive his many injuries. When the sun rose the next day, the gravity of the situation became clear. Johnson not only saved the life of his brother in arms, but killed at least 4 soldiers and wounded at least 24 others. His actions prevented the German forces from breaking the French line.

After his heroic actions, Johnson assumed a number of nicknames for his actions, most notably “Black Death.” Some even referred to the bridge as “the battle of Henry Johnson.” On a service level, he earned the official rank of sergeant. His treatment post-combat was initially skewed. In France he was highly decorated and became one of the first Americans to receive France’s highest award for valor, the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. The “avec Palme” indicates the addition of the Gold Palm, which indicated extraordinary valor. In America though, the praise was mixed. Upon his return, Johnson led a procession in New York City, but his homecoming parade in his home country was segregated. 

Johnson’s post-war life is largely a mystery, although it is known that he requested and received up to $100 a minute for speaking engagements. And while he certainly lived to the fullest upon his return home, Johnson died on July 1, 1929. Sgt. Johnson’s place in history as a great American hero remains unshakable. Despite the racism that interfered with his earned recognition, President Roosevelt’s acknowledgement helped propel him to his deserved place of prominence and he was even posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996, and the Medal of Honor in 2015. 

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Posted on February 1 2021 in Blog

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