We often hear legendary battle stories from our war veterans. Whether that be an exhilarating covert mission beyond enemy territory, their hardships of surviving against malaria in the Vietnam War while being pinned down in the jungles, or flying in a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombing the Nazis out of their bunkers. But chances are you haven’t heard of Henry Johnson. The first American Hero of WWI.

Maybe you’ve heard this name in passing when he was awarded the Medal of Honor by former President Barack Obama in 2015, but have you ever wondered why he received such an honor 86 years after he died?

Here’s the famed story of the National Guardsman who fought twenty Germans and came to be known as the “Black Death.”

Fresh Kid Straight Out of North Carolina

Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, William Henry Johnson first joined the United States Military with the New York National Guard 15th Infantry Regiment. This all-black military reserve force was later renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment.

Why did he join the military? Just like many young men during World War I, they had wanted to join the fight with their brothers-in-arms so that they could make the world a better place and have a decent life worth living. Despite the rampant racism and segregation of the Jim Crow laws in the South, many African-Americans wanted to join the world war to no longer be recognized as second-class citizens but as equals. During this time, black people were allowed to serve in all military branches, except operating aircraft and enlisting with the Marines. They were allowed to serve in the navy but were limited to non-military tasks such as cleaning, mechanical, and preparation work.

Nonetheless, black units were almost always assigned to Europe, particularly France, to perform menial tasks. And you guessed it, our legendary hero Henry Johnson was deployed to France as part of the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the “Harlem Hell Fighters.” Why did they have this name? There are two reasons, the first being they were mostly drawn from Harlem in New Yokr City. The second reason will reveal itself to you after reading this story.

Arriving In France

When Henry and his regiment arrived in France, they were immediately relegated to laborer duties instead of combat training. Specifically in support of the 161st Division of the French Army. This is because white soldiers did not like fighting with African-Americans, so in protest, these soldiers would not fight. The racism was so bad during those days that the American Expeditionary Force made and distributed pamphlets supposedly warning the French about the criminal and sexual nature of the black people.

While the white Americans extremely disliked the blacks, the French always spoke highly of them and treated them as equals. In fact, they did not segregate the 369th and welcomed them into the French 6th Divison. Led by Col. William Hayward, they fought in the Second Battle of the Marne participated in various allied attacks throughout their tour.