Private Henry Johnson’s bravery in World War I

Published: 17 February 2023

By Tara Ross
via the Tara Ross web site

Henry Johnson

During this week in 1919, a parade welcomes the New York National Guard home from World War I. Among the American heroes recognized that day was Private Henry Johnson.

He had already been awarded the French Croix de Guerre. He would also ultimately receive a Medal of Honor.

Perhaps no one expected the 5’4” railroad porter from Albany to become such a hero?

John Henry JohnsonSoon after the United States entered World War I, Johnson enlisted in an all-black regiment. The 369th Infantry departed for France by the end of 1917, where they would serve under French command.

Johnson’s heroism came during the wee morning hours of May 15. He and another soldier, Private Needham Roberts, were on sentry duty near the front lines. They were protecting both a French and an American regiment behind them.

Shortly after 2 a.m., the silence of the night was broken by the sound of wire clippers.

The two men were under attack. Johnson’s Medal citation would later describe a “German raiding party consisting of at least 12 soldiers,” but other sources indicate a larger enemy force of two dozen or more. Either way, Johnson and Roberts were both injured immediately. They began throwing grenades, and when enemy soldiers began entering their outpost, Johnson fired.

He was quickly out of bullets, with no opportunity to reload. The butt of his rifle would have to do. He knocked down the next German to come at him.

“The German went down,” Arthur Little, the 1st Battalion Commander, later wrote, “crying, in perfectly good Bowery English, ‘The little black so and so has got me!’ But Johnson retorted that this “little black so [&] so” would get the German again, if he got up.

At that moment, Johnson glanced over to see how Roberts was faring. An unwelcome sight met his eyes: The badly wounded Roberts was being carried away, a prisoner.

Johnson lunged toward the enemy, his bolo knife in hand. The injuries that followed were fairly gruesome. Ultimately, Johnson would be credited with killing four Germans and wounding up to 22 more. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” Johnson later said of his hand-to-hand combat. “Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.”

Perhaps, but Johnson did still more: He saved his fellow soldier. He protected the regiments behind him. He proved the worth of black soldiers to those who (unfortunately) then still remained doubtful. And, as it turns out, he also ensured the capture of quite a bit of German equipment.

Read the entire article on the Tara Ross web site here:

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