Black History Month Trailblazers: WWI U.S. Army SGT. Henry Johnson

Published: 7 February 2024

By Senior Airman Joao Marcus Costa, 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
via the Misawa Air Base (USAF) website

Henry Johnson, the 369th Infantry ‘Black Death’ of WWI

A 1918 print illustration titled “Our Colored Heroes” depicts the Battle of Henry Johnson on May 15, 1918. New York Army National Guard Sgt. Henry Johnson. Johnson was part of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the Hellfighters from Harlem, who fought under French command in WWI as an all-black combat unit. While on guard duty in the French sector on May 14, 1918 Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson fought off a 24-man German patrol, though both severely wounded. Both were awarded the Croix de Guerre for their actions, the first Americans in France to receive the award. General Pershing's communique entitled "The colored man is eager to show his mettle and do his bit" at lower left. Image courtesy the NYS Military Museum.

Since its inception, Black History Month became a time to teach and contemplate the historic achievements and contributions of Black historic figures in American History.

New York Army National Guard Sgt. Henry Johnson, circa 1919. Johnson was part of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the Hellfighters from Harlem, who fought under French command in WWI as an all-black combat unit. Johnson received the French Croix de Guerre for his actions in defending his outpost and his comrade Needham Roberts on the night of May 15, 1918. Photo courtesy the NYS Military Museum.

One notable example being U.S. Army SGT. Henry Johnson who, after being awarded a French “Croix de Guerre” or “War Cross” medal for fighting against a German raid party, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor 85 years after his death. For that, SGT. Johnson is one of Misawa Air Base Black History Month trailblazers.

Johnson was born on July 15, 1892, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He later moved to Albany, New York where he became a chauffeur, soda mixer and a redcap porter.

Then, at the age of 25, he enlisted into the Army two months after the United States entered World War I. He became a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African American unit known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The regiment was assigned to the French Army due to the segregationist policies of the U.S. military at the time.

The night of his heroism started out as an ordinary evening when he and a fellow Soldier were assigned sentry duty on May 15, 1918.  During their watch, a surprise attack by a German raiding party pierced the silent night. Johnson, armed with only a bolo knife and his rifle, fought off the attackers, inflicting numerous casualties, refusing to yield even an inch of ground, and thus repelled the attack, preventing himself and his fellow Soldier from being captured.

He sustained multiple injuries during the intense hand-to-hand combat, fighting the ambush until the opposing forces retreated, earning him the nickname “Black Death.”

Though his valor was recognized by the French Government, recognition within the United States was slow to come. Johnson later died almost 10 years after the war due to tuberculosis; it was only posthumously, in 2015, that he was awarded the Medal of Honor by former President Barack Obama.

Johnson’s story is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. His courage in the trenches of World War I and his impact on the struggle for equality make him a true American hero. As we reflect on some of the historic figures who fought not only for their rights, but for their country, let us remember and honor the legacy of Sergeant Henry Johnson left.

Read the entire article on the Misawa Air Base website.
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