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.
Black Death Meets The Germans
In May of 1918, the 369th Infantry Regiment was assigned to guard the Argonne Forest in France. Johnson and another soldier named Needham Roberts had been assigned to a listening post forward of the lines. It wasn’t very long before they attracted the attention of a sniper who tried to keep them pinned down. Soon Johnson heard the distinctive sound of wire cutters clipping the barbed wire, a German raiding party was coming their way. In the silence of the night was Henry Johnson. He was about to show his bravery and valor for many years to come. lining up grenades on the lip of their dugout, they prepared for the worst. Johnson sent Roberts back to the trenches to give warning of the coming attack and he waited alone for the Germans to arrive.
Johnson chucked a grenade in the dark and it was returned with a volley of fire and grenades, With their location exposed, Roberts got blasted by a German grenade as he moved back to the trenches and was wounded. He made it back to the dugout bleeding and stunned, which left Private Henry Johnson to fend for himself and for Roberts who passed him grenades.
Johnson threw grenades from a trench, but the Germans were too many! He ran out of grenades and used his gun to fire aimlessly in the dark. He was shot in the head and torso before his gun was jammed as he mistakenly used an American cartridge clip with his French firearm.
For anybody else, they would have probably thought this was going to be their demise. And who wouldn’t? With Germans surrounding you and bleeding out due to being shot, it wouldn’t be farfetched to admit to yourself that you were going to meet your maker.
But that simply wasn’t Henry Johnson. Using the French rifle as a club, he swung it to the Germans till the stock shattered into splinters. When he broke his rifle, he only had his bolo knife left. Yes, the bolo knife, that one pound and eight ounces Filipino blade. In a fury he cut, stabbed and slashed through the Germans swarming the dugout, Henry swung that bolo knife as hard as he could. He ended up killing 4 soldiers and wounding 10-20 other Germans. More incredible, Johnson was just 5ft 4in tall and 150 lbs.
By the end of the battle, he had 21 wounds but saved Roberts and repelled the Germans. This act saved his entire regiment and the French that were with them. He earned the moniker “Black Death.” He received the Croix De Guerre from the French, the first American to do so with this accomplishment. The rest of the 369th Regiment were all awarded the Croix De Guerre, known as the regiment that “never lost a man through capture, lost a trench or a foot of ground to the enemy.”
When the war ended, Johnson and his unit were given a parade in New York City to adoring crowds in February 1919. In February of 1919, Some 3,000 troops marched in formation and at the head of the procession was Sergeant Henry Johnson waving a handful of red poppies from an open-top Cadillac.
Johnson would die an all but forgotten man at the age of 32, probably from trying to drink away the demons he brought home with him from France. While entitled to the Purple Heart, and other decorations for valor he never received them, but curiously the Army buried him with full honors at Arlington National Cemetary. In 1996, President Clinton awarded Johnson his Purple Heart and the Army gave him the Distinguished Service Cross. This occurred after it was discovered that a clerical error had obscured the location of his remains at Arlington for nearly 80 years. Then an endorsement signed by General John Pershing was found suggesting that he was being considered for an even higher decoration that was never filed. This resulted in President Obama awarding Johnson with the Medal of Honor in 2015.