The Our Colored Heroes lithograph, published by E.G. Renesch in 1918, depicts the German raid foiled by then-Pvt. Henry Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts during World War I.
He was the only American enlisted man to have a battle named for him during World War I. All right, maybe it was more of a nasty skirmish, but you can look up the Battle of Henry Johnson and lo and behold there it is. Sgt. Johnson and his comrade Pvt. Needham Roberts were the first members of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) awarded the Croix de Guerre (Palm and Star) by French. Subsequently his whole unit was cited by them.
Johnson’s own U. S. Army, however, refused to give the soldier any award for combat bravery. I wonder if it could have had anything to do with the fact that Johnson was Black and a member of an all-Black regiment.
Henry Lincoln Johnson was born sometime, exact date unknown, in 1897 in Alexandria, Virginia. As a teenager his family moved to Albany, New York where he eventually found work as a Red Cap at the city’s Union Station. Older readers will recall that Red Caps were baggage handlers at railway station who were paid in tips by travelers. Depending on how busy the station was and how deferential and friendly the service, Black men could make a fairly decent living, even after the usual kick-backs to station masters for the privilege of working.
But patriotism seized the diminutive young man—he stood only 5’6” and weighed 130 pounds-- when the United States seemed near to entering the war raging in Europe. Despite having a wife and small children he enlisted in the all-Black National Guard 15th New York Infantry. When war broke out the regiment was mustered into service as the 369th Infantry Regiment who earned the name Harlem Hellfighters. It was among the first units to arrive in France, landing there on New Year’s Day 1918,
Black troops of the 369th Regiment served along side French troops and under French command because American units had refused to share trenches with them. Seen here with French helmets like.
General John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, fiercely resisted calls to rotate American units into the line under French and British command. He insisted that Americans fight under American command and in charge of their own sector of the Front. But for some reason, Pershing, who earned his nick name Black Jack when he commanded Black Buffalo Soldier Cavalry in Texas and during the futile chase of Pancho Villa in Mexico, allowed the 369th to go into the French line under French command.
The unit was relieved of their American Springfield rifles, and issued longer French rifles designed mainly for bayonet charges as well as French helmets and in most cases French uniforms
On night of May 15, 1918 Johnson and Roberts were posted to sentry duty in advance of the main French trenches when they detected a force of 20 German raiders advancing, hoping to find a weak spot in the French line. They engaged the Germans in a brief fire fight during which both men were wounded. Johnson’s fire killed one and injured two others, but the enemy quickly advanced and one tried to seize the wounded Roberts.
Throwing down his rifle, Johnson drew a French bolo knife—a weapon similar to a short, narrow bladed machete—that he carried and slashed and stabbed the soldier attempting to grab his friend. He then turned on the others in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Three more Germans fell dead and more were wounded. Meanwhile Roberts recovered enough to begin lobbing hand grenades. The raiders were forced to retreat with heavy casualties. They certainly had not found a week spot in the line.
Sgt. Henry Johnson with his Croix de Guerre medal.
In the brief action, Johnson was wounded by grenade fragments, and blasts from a trench shot gun. The French were impressed. They knew élan when they saw it. When the two soldiers were sufficiently recovered from their wounds, a French general pinned the Croix de Guerre on each man’s chest. They were the first American soldiers so decorated.
The white officers of their own regiment, however, saw no reason for awards to either man. Johnson returned to front line duty and was wounded again in action. In all he was treated for 21 combat wounds in 1918—yet was not even awarded the Purple Heart which had already begun to be routinely awarded to all soldiers injured in combat.
Johnson’s achievements, however, were noted at home, where the Albany newspapers heralded him as hero and by the rapidly expanding black press across the nation. That press reported that he had earned the nickname Black Death, but frankly it strikes me more as press hype than anything anyone would ever call him to his face.
Sgt. Johnson riding in a New York City parade.
At war’s end Johnson did have a moment or two in the sun, despite the Army’s continued refusal to honor him. He marched with his regiment in the grand welcome home review parade down in New York City, although some high ranking officers and city officials had opposed the inclusion of Black units. He was also among war heroes to ride in open cars for an early ticker-tape parade. His story and image were used in the last War Bond campaign to raise money in the Black community.
Back home in Albany he was one of the featured speakers at a local Hear Our War Heroes program. Perhaps it was the success of that 1919 talk that led to a lecture tour contract. After several appearances in which he told his story, recited patriotic boiler plate, and painted a picture of racial harmony in the trenches, Johnson mounted a stage in St. Louis and threw away the script.
A World War II era cartoon used to encourage Black enlistment depicted Johnson as a hero even though he had not been officially honored by the Army.
Instead he detailed the routine humiliations of black troops, including the refusal of white units to even share trenches with them. The local press was outraged. Johnson lost his speaking contract. He was even arrested and brought up on charges of illegally wearing his uniform past his enlistment—a common practice among veterans, including members of the newly organized American Legion.
Humiliated, Johnson returned to Albany. He seemed to suffer all the symptoms we now identify as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Previously industrious and hardworking, he could not hold a job. He began drinking heavily. By the early 20’s he was completely estranged from his wife and children.
On July 5, 1929 Johnson died of complications of alcoholism at a Veteran’s Hospital in New Lenox, Illinois. He died a penniless. His family was told that he was interred in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Johnson’s son Herman A. Johnson went on to his own distinguished military service as a pilot in the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.
After World War II Herman Johnson and other supporters began a decade’s long campaign to have Henry awarded the Medal of Honor. After almost profligate awards of the Medal during the Civil War, Indian campaigns, and Spanish American War requirements for the Medal had been severely tightened during World War I. But comparisons to others who received the award made a good case for a posthumous award to Johnson. The Army refused to review his case.
Interest in his case was revived by Black Vietnam veterans and the family in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. In 1991 the City of Albany erected a monument to Johnson in Washington Park. President Bill Clinton finally ordered a Purple Hart be awarded the oft wounded Johnson in 1996.
In 2001 researchers into his case “discovered” his grave at Arlington National Cemetery. The burial there was evidently arranged by someone at the VA Hospital who knew his story, but his family was never informed. Publicity around that also caused the Army to finally review his case.
Although they continued to refuse a recommendation for the Medal of Honor, in February 2003 86 year old Herman Johnson received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest Army medal for bravery in combat, on behalf of his father at a special ceremony in Albany. The action came after a mandated review of the cases of African-American troops, who the Army finally acknowledged had been systematically slighted.
President Barack Obama bestows the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Henry Johnson, accepting on his behalf is Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, of the New York National Guard, in the East Room of the White House, June 2, 2015.
Finally on June 2, 2015 President Barack Obama presented Johnson’s posthumous Medal of Honor to a senior Non-Commissioned Officer of the New York National Guard.
All of that is wonderful for the family and a just correction of a grievous injustice. But it all comes way too late for Sgt. Johnson.