War Heroes in History

The Battle of Henry Johnson

Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, soldiers in the all-Black 39th Infantry Regiment of Harlem, were America’s first heroes in World War I

“On May 15, 1918, Henry Johnson became a legend,” — President Barack Obama

Our Colored Heroes (1918), by E.G. Renesch of Chicago, dramatized Johnson’s actions in war.
Our Colored Heroes (1918), by E.G. Renesch of Chicago, dramatized Johnson’s actions in war. Public domain.

General George Washington, Sergeant Alvin York, Sergeant Audie Murphy, and General George S. Patton are known to many Americans as war heroes. But African-American soldier Sergeant Henry Johnson, who fought valiantly against German soldiers in the Argonne Forest of the Champagne region in France in World War I, was another great American hero.

Born William Henry Johnson in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on about August 15 in 1892, Johnson moved to Albany, New York as a teen. He worked as a chauffeur, soda mixer, coal yard laborer, and redcap porter at Albany Union Station.

On June 5, 1917, Johnson enlisted in the all-Black New York National Guard 15th Infantry Regiment. The unit mustered into federal service as the 369th Infantry Regiment in Harlem. The soldiers called themselves the Black Rattlers. Later in the war, because of the regiment’s battle exploits, the French would nickname them Men of Bronze, and the Germans would call them the Hellfighters from Harlem.

Johnson in 1919, wearing his French Croix de Guerre medal.
Johnson in 1919, wearing his French Croix de Guerre medal. Public domain.

The 369th and other Black units endured racism from many white American soldiers. The American Expeditionary Forces, commanded by General of the Armies John J. Pershing, issued a secret pamphlet that warned French civilian authorities of the alleged inferior nature of Black soldiers and their supposed tendencies to commit sexual assault. Later, it assigned the 369th to the French Army’s 161st Division to assist its ally and preserve segregation within the ranks. The French Army and people welcomed the reinforcements.

After the 369th Infantry Regiment arrived in France on about New Year’s Day in 1918, the French Army assigned it to Outpost 20 in the Argonne Forest. It equipped its soldiers with helmets and Lebel Model 1886 rifles.

French Lebel Model 1886 rifles. The 369th Infantry Regiment of Harlem was issued these rifles by the French Army.
French Lebel Model 1886 rifles. The 369th Infantry Regiment of Harlem was issued these rifles by the French Army.
French Lebel Model 1886 rifles. The French Army assigned these rifles to the 369th Infantry Regiment of Harlem. Public domain.

On the night of May 15, 1918, then-Private Johnson and Private Needham Roberts, his 17-year-old buddy, were assigned to guard a bridge. At about 2:00 am, a patrol of twenty or more German soldiers attacked them by surprise with gunfire and grenades. Johnson and Roberts retaliated in kind.

Roberts suffered shrapnel wounds to his arm and hip and could no longer fight. Johnson, also seriously injured, engaged a German soldier in hand-to-hand combat and thrust his Bolo knife deep into his opponent’s skull. Then, he wielded the knife to disembowel another soldier.

By the time the fighting was over, Johnson had killed four Germans and injured others. The enemy retreated.

Johnson’s actions prevented Roberts from being captured or killed. He sustained 21 injuries himself.

Sgt. Henry Johnson was “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war.” — Theodore Roosevelt

A newspaper reporter called Johnson’s and Robert’s fight “The Battle of Henry Johnson.” His bold action earned him the moniker “Black Death.” In his book “Rank and File: True Stories of the Great War,” former president Theodore Roosevelt said that Sgt. Henry Johnson was “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war.”

“Each slash meant something, believe me,” Johnson later said. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it… Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.”

The French bestowed on Johnson and Roberts the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. It is France’s highest honor for military valor. They were the first Americans to receive this award.

The 369th Infantry Regiment received the Croix de Guerre at the unit level. The French presented presented 171 individual awards for heroism.

Later in the war, the Army promoted Johnson to sergeant. Following the war, he and Roberts led the parade in New York City to celebrate and honor the 369th.

Henry Johnson biographical cartoon by Charles Alston, 1943
Henry Johnson biographical cartoon by Charles Alston, 1943. Public domain.

President Barack Obama honored Johnson with the Medal of Honor on May 19, 2015.

“On May 15, 1918, Henry Johnson became a legend,” President Obama said at the ceremony.

References

U.S. Army — Sergeant Henry Johnson | Medal of Honor

U.S. Department of Defense — Medal of Honor Monday: Army Sgt. Henry Johnson

Wikipedia — Henry Johnson (World War I Soldier)

Wikipedia — 369th Infantry Regiment (United States)

Wikipedia — Lebel Model 1886 Rifle

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