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Henry Johnson
Johnson in 1918, wearing his Croix de Guerre.
Birth name William Henry Johnson
Nickname "Black Death"
Born 1888-1897
Died July 1, 1929 (aged 31–32)
Place of birth Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S.
Place of death Washington, DC, U.S.
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch Seal of the United States Department of War.png United States Army
Years of service 1917–1918
Rank WW1-Sergeant.svg Sergeant

New York National Guard

Battles/wars World War I
Awards Medal of Honor ribbon.svg Medal of Honor
Distinguished Service Cross ribbon.svg Distinguished Service Cross
Purple Heart BAR.svg Purple Heart
Croix de Guerre 1914-1918 ribbon.svg Croix de guerre (Palm and Star)
Relations Herman A. Johnson (son)

Henry Johnson (1897 – July 1, 1929[1]) was a United States Army soldier who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart, and the French Croix de Guerre. He was the first American soldier in World War I to receive the Croix de Guerre with star and Gold Palm from the French government.[2][3] On May 14, 2015, the White House announced that Johnson would be awarded the Medal of Honor, America's highest award for gallantry in combat. The Medal of Honor will be awarded to Johnson on June 2, 2015 and will be received on his behalf by New York Army National Guard Command Sgt. Major Louis E. Wilson, as no known family members are alive to receive the long-awaited honor.[4]

Early life and education[edit | edit source]

Johnson was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina[5][6] in the late 1800's[1] and 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.

Career[edit | edit source]

Henry Johnson biographical cartoon by Charles Alston, 1943


Johnson enlisted in the United States Army on June 5, 1917, joining the all-black New York National Guard unit, the 15th New York Infantry, which, when mustered into federal service was redesignated the 369th Infantry Regiment, based in Harlem. The 15th Infantry Regiment joined its Brigade upon arrival in France, but the unit was relegated to Labor Service duties instead of combat training. The 185th Infantry Brigade was assigned on January 5, 1918 to the 93rd Division [Provisional]. The 15th Infantry Regiment, NYARNG was reorganized and designated, March 1, 1918, as the 369th Infantry Regiment, but the unit continued Labor Service duties while it waited the decision as to what to do with it.

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 why he was willing to detach the Afro-American / Negro Regiments from American command was that vocal and bigoted white American soldiers objecting and refusing to perform combat duty and to fight alongside the black troops - although they were all American citizens. These regiments suffered considerable harassment by American white soldiers with many dying on American soil at their hands 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 rapist tendencies of African Americans.[2] 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 S. Whitmore, 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.[7] While on guard duty on May 14, 1918, Private Johnson came under attack by a large German raider party, which may have numbered as many as 24 German soldiers. Johnson displayed uncommon heroism when, using his rifle, a bolo knife, and his bare fists, he repelled the Germans, thereby rescuing a comrade from capture and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. Johnson suffered 21 wounds during this ordeal.[7] This act of valor earned him the nickname of "Black Death", as a sign of respect for his prowess in combat.

The story of Johnson's exploits first came to national attention in an article by Irvin S. Cobb entitled "Young Black Joe" published in the August 24, 1918 Saturday Evening Post.[8]

Returning home, now Sergeant Johnson participated (with his regiment) in a victory parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City on February 1919.[9] 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 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.[10]

In spite of his heroism and multiple injuries (including loss of a shinbone and most bones of one foot), the United States government denied Johnson a disability pension throughout his life.[11]

Later life and death[edit | edit source]

Johnson died of myocarditis in Washington, D.C. at the veterans' hospital, on July 1, 1929,[1] without official recognition from the U.S. government. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Legacy[edit | edit source]

The French government awarded Johnson the Croix de Guerre with special citation and a golden palm.[2] This was France's highest award for bravery and he was the first American to receive it.[2]

Former United States President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I.[9]

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 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.[12] 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.[13][14]

In December 2004 the Postal facility at 747 Broadway was renamed the "United States Postal Service Henry Johnson Annex".

On September 4, 2007 the City of Albany, New York dedicated the Henry Johnson Charter School. Johnson's granddaughter was in attendance.

A 1918 commercial poster honoring Johnson's wartime heroics was the subject of an 2012 episode of the PBS television series History Detectives.[15]

As of December 3, 2014, the national defense bill included a provision, added by Senator Chuck Schumer, to award Johnson the Medal of Honor.[16]

On May 14, 2015, the White House announced that Sgt. Johnson would be receiving the Medal of Honor posthumously, presented by President Barack Obama.[17]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/megan-smolenyak-smolenyak/wwi-hero-sgt-henry-johnso_b_7493898.html
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "American National Biography Online: Johnson, Henry". anb.org. http://www.anb.org/articles/20/20-01908.html. 
  3. "Conflicts - World War I - Personal Stories". nysed.gov. http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/citizensoldier/conflicts/WWI/hjohnson.cfm. 
  4. http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Watch-Henry-Johnson-Medal-of-Honor-ceremony-at-6301551.php
  5. http://www.anb.org/articles/20/20-01908.html
  6. http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/White-House-Henry-Johnson-will-receive-Medal-of-6264001.php#page-2
  7. 7.0 7.1 Gilbert King. "Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called "Black Death"". Smithsonian. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117386701/?no-ist. 
  8. Cobb, Irvin. "The Glory of the Coming". https://www.gutenberg.org/files/44225/44225-h/44225-h.htm#link2HCH0017. Retrieved 10 August 2014. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 "History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places - Smithsonian". smithsonianmag.com. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117386701/. 
  10. Negro with a Hat, The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and his Dream of Mother Africa, Colin Grant. p.113 ISBN 978-0-224-07868-9
  11. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named nydailynews.com
  12. See General Order No. 9, 18 November 2005, at http://www.apd.army.mil/pdffiles/go0509.pdf.
  13. Henry Johnson, Sergeant, United States Army at www.arlingtoncemetery.net
  14. "African American History Month". defenselink.mil. http://www.defenselink.mil/specials/AfricanAm2003/honors.html. 
  15. Tukufu, Zuberi. "Our Colored Heroes - History Detectives - PBS". http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/investigation/our-colored-heroes/. Retrieved 10 August 2014. 
  16. Grondahl, Paul. "WWI hero Henry Johnson on verge of Medal of Honor". http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/WWI-hero-Henry-Johnson-on-verge-of-Medal-of-Honor-5931952.php. Retrieved 3 December 2014. 
  17. "White House: WWI vet Henry Johnson to receive Medal of Honor". Times Union. http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/White-House-Henry-Johnson-will-receive-Medal-of-6264001.php. 

External links[edit | edit source]

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