In 1917, Henry Johnson was working as a railroad porter in Albany, New York, when the United States declared war on Germany. Little did he know that his heroics in that war—helping protect France's western front by tenaciously fighting off a German raiding party of nearly two dozen—would earn him a posthumous Medal of Honor nearly a century later. Johnson is one of only two Black World War I veterans to receive the medal, America's highest commendation for valor in combat.

At the time the U.S. entered the war, before the Selective Service Act introduced conscription, African American volunteers were only allowed in four all-Black regiments in the Army and a few National Guard units. Johnson enlisted in the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, which was converted into the 369th Infantry Regiment for the purposes of the war. For many African Americans, fighting for the country that had long oppressed them was a bid to earn respect and equal treatment.

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The regiment belonged to the largely Black 93rd Division of the American Expeditionary Force, a hastily assembled division that would be among the first American forces to arrive in France. Most of the 369th’s soldiers came from Harlem, San Juan Hill (around 59th Street in Manhattan) and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. After their exploits in France—where they fought fiercely—they would be given the nickname the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

The Hellfighters Fought With the French

When the 369th first shipped over to France, the U.S. Army issued them inferior, castoff gear and used them only for manual labor jobs. But in the early months of 1918, with France stretched to its limits in its struggle against Germany, U.S. General John Pershing lent the 369th to fight for the French Army—though he made it clear he considered Black soldiers inferior to their white counterparts. In fact, Pershing went even further in his directive to the French Military Mission, writing that the Black man lacked a “civic and professional conscience” and was a “constant menace to the American.” To their credit, the French paid little attention to Pershing’s warnings. They sent the 369th to the western edge of the Argonne Forest, in the Champagne region of France.

Johnson's valor, along with that of his Black compatriots, would prove Pershing and other detractors wrong about the intelligence, commitment and bravery of Black soldiers.

Outfitted with French military gear superior to what they'd been given by their own army, Johnson and another private, 17-year-old Needham Roberts of New Jersey, were serving sentry duty on the night of May 15, 1918, when German snipers began firing on them. Johnson began throwing grenades at the approaching Germans; hit by a shrapnel from a German grenade, Roberts could only pass more of the small bombs to Johnson to lob at the enemy. When he exhausted his supply of grenades, Johnson began firing his rifle, but it soon jammed. By then, the Germans had surrounded the two privates, and Johnson, who was just 5' 6" and 130 pounds, used his rifle as a club until the butt splintered. He saw the Germans attempting to take Roberts prisoner and charged at them with his only remaining weapon, a bolo knife.

Johnson stabbed one soldier in the stomach and another in the ribs, and was still fighting when more French and American troops arrived on the scene, causing the Germans to retreat. When the reinforcements got there, Johnson fainted from the 21 wounds he had sustained in the one-hour battle. All told, he had killed four Germans and wounded some 10 to 20 more. More importantly, he had prevented them from breaking the French line.

For his actions in what one journalist later called "the Battle of Henry Johnson," the French awarded both Johnson and Roberts the Croix de Guerre; Johnson’s included the coveted Gold Palm for extraordinary valor. In all, some 500 members of the Harlem Hellfighters earned the Croix de Guerre during World War I, showing France’s appreciation for their sacrifice. By the end of the war, the 369th had spent more continuous days on the front lines—191—than any other American unit.

The Hellfighters' Homecoming

When Johnson and his fellow Hellfighters arrived home in February 1919, they were honored with a parade up New York’s Fifth Avenue. Thousands of spectators lined the route to watch Johnson lead nearly 3,000 troops in an open car toward Harlem, holding a bouquet of lilies. The celebration had a dark side, however: The 369th were given their own parade because they weren’t allowed to join the official victory parade alongside other returning (white) U.S. troops. And despite their service, Black veterans hoping for some respect and recognition faced continued discrimination, segregation and racial violence.

Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I, and the government used his image on Victory War stamps and army recruiting materials. But Johnson’s discharge papers made no mention of his many wounds, and the U.S. Army gave him no disability pay the after the war. While they initially sent him on a speaking tour to beef up recruitment, the Army ultimately shunned Johnson once he began speaking candidly about the shoddy treatment Black soldiers had received.

Johnson returned to Albany, and to his job as a railroad porter, but his injuries made it difficult for him to work. He soon began to decline into alcoholism and poverty. His wife and children left him, and he died penniless in 1929 at the age of 32.

The Fight to Give Johnson His Due

Starting in the 1990s, however, Johnson’s story began gaining more recognition. Albany erected a monument in his honor, and a campaign was launched to get the U.S. government to posthumously recognize Johnson for his service. Spearheaded by Johnson’s son Herman—who was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II—and New York politicians including Senator Chuck Schumer, the efforts gained ground over the years. In 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded Johnson a Purple Heart. In 2001, historians from the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs confirmed that Johnson had in fact received a burial with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in July 1929, unbeknownst to his family. In 2002, the U.S. Army awarded Johnson the nation’s second-highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross.

Still, Schumer and other Johnson supporters continued their campaign to win Johnson the recognition they felt he deserved—and had been denied solely because of the color of his skin. After nearly two decades, their efforts were rewarded when the White House announced that Johnson would be awarded the Medal of Honor in June of 2015. Among the new information that convinced the U.S. Army to bestow its highest award was a communiqué from Pershing, written shortly after the Argonne battle, commending Johnson’s performance. As reported by NBC News, one of Senator Schumer’s staffers turned up the previously unknown document in her research, along with firsthand accounts of the battle from Roberts and other soldiers. Herman Johnson passed away in 2004, and Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard accepted the Medal of Honor on behalf of Henry Johnson.

In June 2023, the U.S. Army renamed Louisiana's Fort Polk in honor of Johnson. The base had been previously named after Confederate Lieutenant-General Leonidas Polk.

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