The story of Henry L. Johnson would make one hell of a Hollywood movie, but Hollywood by and large would rather skip true American hero stories in favor of mindless drivel.
Henry was born in Alexandria, Virginia in 1897 and in his early teens moved to Albany, New York. He was working as a redcap porter at Albany's Union Station in 1917 when he enlisted in the New York National Guard's all-black 15th Infantry Regiment based in Harlem. The unit was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment (The Harlem Hellfighters) prior to deployment to Europe, with Johnson arriving in France on New Year's Day, 1918.
Early on in the campaign the regiment was relegated to menial taskings due to the racism of their white commanders. They unloaded cargo vessels, dug ditches and other scut duties. Finally, after weeks of this the French Command felt that the men were being wasted and asked for them to be placed under their operational command. The 369th and Johnson were transferred to the French Command and immediately pressed into service in the Argonne Forest with 16th Division of the French 4th Army.
In the early hours of May 14th, 1918, Johnson was on guard duty with Private Needham Roberts when they were set upon by a German raiding party of at least two dozen men out to take prisoners for interrogation by intelligence agents. Johnson was shot in the chest with a shotgun and Roberts took two pistol rounds in the chest. The Germans scooped up Roberts and started to make their way back to their lines.
Staggering to his feet, Johnson began to fire at the retreating enemy, and then charged after them, still firing his Lebel rifle. When his weapon jammed, he started chucking grenades at them. When he finally caught up to the Germans he clubbed them with his rifle butt until the rifle broke in half, then he used his bolo trench knife. He grabbed Roberts, and dragged his disabled comrade back to their post, still fighting off Germans along the way. During the course of the action, Johnson was wounded a staggering 21 times.
When French troops arrived a few hours later, they found Johnson and Roberts inside their post laughing and singing songs. They also found dead and dying German soldiers strewn about the ground.
Because of Johnson's extraordinary deeds and selfless determination to save his comrade Needham Roberts, France awarded him that nation's highest military honor, The French Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm. The citation for the award reads as follows:
"Johnson, Henry (13348), private in Company C, being on double sentry duty during the night and having been assaulted by a group composed of at least one dozen Germans, shot and disabled one of them and grievously wounded two others with his bolo. In spite of three wounds with pistol bullets and grenades at the beginning of the fight, this man ran to the assistance of his wounded comrade who was about to be carried away prisoner by the enemy, and continued to fight up to the retreat of the Germans. He has given a beautiful example of courage and activity."
|Johnson with his Croix de Guerre|
Upon Johnson's return to the United States, he received a ticker tape parade along New York City's Fifth Avenue. After hearing his story, former President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Johnson to be "one of the five bravest men who fought in World War I."
|Johnson at the parade in his honor|
Sent back to the States, the Army used Johnson as a recruiting tool to entice young black men into the service. Sadly, unable to continue his job as a porter on the railroad because of his wounds, he became destitute and an alcoholic. He died penniless in a veterans hospital on July 5, 1929, penniless, estranged from his wife and family and without official recognition from the U.S. government. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. For years, his son Herman never even knew where his father was buried. Herman Archibald Johnson was himself a distinguished soldier, serving as a Major with the Tuskegee Airmen in WW2 and later served in the Missouri House of Representatives.
While France readily acknowledged Johnson's bravery with their highest award for valor, the American military never even awarded him a Purple Heart. That wasn't bestowed upon his family until June 1996. In February of 2003, Herman Johnson was presented with a Distinguished Service Cross for his father's service. A year later the younger Johnson also passed away at the age of 88. The DSC is the nation's second-highest award for valor.
|Herman Johnson with his father's DSC|