It was just after 2:00 a.m. when Henry Johnson heard the “snippin’ and clippin’” of wirecutters near the section of trench he was guarding. It was May 14, 1918, in a French forest known as the Argonne, and Johnson and fellow soldier Needham Roberts were about to be involved in one of the most heroic actions committed by Americans in World War I.
Sniper fire had previously alerted Johnson and Roberts to the likelihood of an incoming German attack. They subsequently readied a case of grenades with which to repel the enemy, and when the time came Johnson sent Roberts to alert the French troops with whom their regiment had been stationed.
But Roberts never made it. He turned back to help his comrade as the fighting broke out, a German explosive injuring him in the arm and hip. Johnson was all but alone and outnumbered. What’s more, he had to protect Roberts. And what he did next was nothing short of miraculous, though it would take years for his incredible feat to be properly recognized.
It’s not entirely clear when Henry Johnson was born, but we know that he moved to New York State in his early adolescence. He lived in Albany, where he worked at the city’s Union Station on Broadway as a “redcap” – what people then called railway porters. On June 5, 1917, however, he joined the army, enlisting in the New York National Guard 15th Infantry Regiment.
But when Johnson’s regiment was mustered for the war in France, its name was changed to the 369th Infantry Regiment. With an armory based in Harlem, it was one of the first American regiments to arrive in France in WWI. By the time it had left, moreover, it had also received one of the highest numbers of military honors out of all the U.S. regiments in the conflict. And, at that time, it was comprised entirely of African-American recruits.
When they first landed in Europe, however, the 369th didn’t see combat straight away. In fact, they were initially given menial tasks instead, such as moving supplies and cleaning the communal toilets. So, it wasn’t until the French Fourth Army requested more troops from its American allies that the 369th moved to the front lines and began to make its name.
But even though the so-called “Harlem Hellfighters” of the 369th were all American citizens, they still faced horrendous prejudice from their fellow U.S. troops. Indeed, some white members of the army wouldn’t even share trenches with African-American soldiers. The 369th, then, were widely considered inferior both in the ranks and by top brass. In fact, the American Expeditionary Force even went so far as to release a pamphlet that warned French citizens of the supposed dangers of the black regiments.
These concerns, however, weren’t shared by the French military. Indeed, by the time the 369th had returned to America after the war, well over a hundred of its soldiers had been awarded the Croix de Guerre – France’s highest military award. What’s more, Johnson and Roberts were the first U.S. privates in the First World War to be awarded the medal.
The Harlem Hellfighters were posted to a location known as Outpost 20, which lay on the borders of the Argonne Forest. However, they’d received little or no training up to that point. They were merely given French helmets and munitions, and they were taught enough French vocabulary for them to be able to grasp orders from their foreign commanders.
One night, Johnson and Roberts were assigned the midnight to 4:00 a.m. watch. Johnson, according to The Smithsonian, later told a journalist that it was “crazy” that two men with so little combat experience had been tasked with protecting their fellow soldiers overnight. But all the same, he and Roberts took up their posts for the long night ahead.
So, when the German attack finally came, Johnson told a wounded Roberts to lie prostrate and pass him grenades. The odds were stacked against the two men, though. Soon, in fact, the box of grenades had been used up, and Johnson consequently began shooting his rifle out into the gloom.
By now, however, Johnson himself had been wounded by German bullets to the head and lip. And as he fired round after round from his French rifle, more of the German shots struck him. He was subsequently injured in the side and the hand. But this didn’t stop the soldier who would soon be known as “Black Death.”
With his injuries stacking up, Johnson continued to shoot until he accidentally primed his rifle with a U.S. ammunition cartridge, causing it to jam. German troops were all around, with some even entering the trench that Johnson was defending. Undeterred, he wielded his rifle like a hand weapon, battering back the assailants until the butt of the rifle smashed under the strength of his blows.
Then, however, Johnson fell down after a blow to his skull. But as he saw the Germans dragging Roberts away, he gathered his courage at a time when many would have faltered. Indeed, Johnson got back up and drew the last armament that he possessed – a bolo knife, a weapon somewhere between a foot and two feet long. With an uncommon bravery, Johnson returned to the fray to save his comrade.
Johnson took down one German with a blow to the gut, killing an enemy officer with another thrust. He was shot again in the process, this time in the arm. Another German then jumped onto Johnson’s back, only to be dispatched with a stab to the chest. By this time, however, French and American reinforcements were closing in. Consequently, the remaining Germans dropped Roberts and fled.
Almost singlehandedly, Johnson had taken the lives of four enemy soldiers and wounded up to 20 more. Though perhaps more importantly, he had also held the line – saving the lives of countless men in the process. And as the French and American troops finally came to his aid, Johnson passed out.
Johnson had suffered 21 wounds in the fray. So, when the French military awarded him the Croix de Guerre, an additional award called the Gold Palm – denoting extraordinary valor – came with it. Yet despite the incredible sacrifice that he made during WWI, Johnson’s story after his wartime exploits is a sad one.
The Harlem Hellfighters were given their own procession when they came back to America in 1919, with Johnson at its head. It was, however, a bittersweet affair. Incredibly, the African-Americans weren’t allowed to parade with the white soldiers. This was, essentially, the real reason why the Hellfighters had their own procession. What’s more, a discharge mistake meant that Johnson didn’t receive any disability pay or a Purple Heart when he left the army.
Johnson tried to go back to his peacetime job, but his injuries made things too difficult. And just ten years after the Hellfighters had returned from the war, Johnson died poor and unknown, aged just 32. Despite his incredible heroism and sacrifice, an anonymous pauper’s grave in Albany was thought to be his final resting place. What’s more, it wasn’t until 2015 that Johnson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, America’s most prestigious award for military service.
So, it had taken the best part of a century for Johnson’s service to be fully recognized. Another clerical error, revealed in 2001, showed that Johnson had not actually been interred in a pauper’s grave. In fact, he had been buried with full honors at Arlington Cemetery. So, with this more recent honoring of Johnson’s memory, let’s hope we never forget what he sacrificed for his country.