Monday, May 14, 2018

Henry Johnson, Known as "Black Death"

"Henry Johnson suffered 21 wounds and rescued a soldier while repelling an enemy raid in the Argonne Forest in 1918, but died 11 years later a forgotten man."[1] As I learned more about Henry Johnson I realized he had not been forgotten when he died though his life and World War I feats were forgotten later. Yet much about his life remains shrouded in mystery. On the 100th anniversary of the night in which he received his grievous wounds, I'd like to relate what I've learned about a true American hero.

After the war he returned home to Albany and his job but his wartime injuries were too much for him. He turned to the bottle and, destitute, he died in 1929. It was assumed by the man who thought he was Henry's estranged son[2] that his father died unmourned by his country.

Early Life

Henry Johnson was born in 1892 during the Jim Crow era in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Isaac Johnson and Maggie Carter. He married Mattie Campbell in 1915 and soon after moved to Albany, New York, where he held a variety of jobs, including a porter at the train station.

World War I

On 5 Jun 1917 Henry registered for the draft and was inducted into one of four regiments in which black men were allowed to serve, the 15th New York National Guard. The unit was federalized, becoming the 369th Infantry Regiment during the war, and was attached to the mostly black 93rd Division. War planners "deemed racial segregation, just as in civilian life, the most logical way of managing the presence of African Americans in the Army."[3] After a brief training period in the southern U.S. where the unit experienced the unremitting racism in which Henry grew up, they boarded troop ships for Europe on 14 December 1917.

Sgt. Henry Johnson; courtesy of the U.S. Army

General Pershing was the commanding officer of the American Expeditionary Forces and assigned the 369th to duties involving mostly menial labor such as digging latrines, warehouse stock men, and on the docks. Pershing dearly wanted to keep the American forces together as a fighting unit instead of sending them piecemeal into battle under command of French and British officers. Yet he worried the war might be lost before his army was ready to fight. So he assigned the 369th Infantry to the French. It solved some problems for him, including that of American white soldiers not wanting to fight along side African Americans.

The 369th received minimal additional training under French command as well as enough French words and phrases to understand orders, were given French guns and munitions and sent to the front lines at the western edge of the Argonne Forest. Henry and Needham Roberts were assigned sentry duty on the night of 14 May. Henry later told a reporter he thought it was "crazy" to risk the rest of the troops by sending out untrained men. He and Roberts had not been on duty long when the German started sniping at their position.

The two soldiers lined up grenades to have at the ready if a German raiding party attempted to overtake their position. And soon they did. Roberts was wounded early in the fight and handed the grenades to Johnson. Germans were coming from everywhere and soon the grenades were gone. Johnson was wounded in the head and face but began firing his rifle until it jammed. Then his used the gun like a baseball bat until it splintered. He went down after taking a blow to the head. When he saw the Germans trying to take Roberts prisoner, Johnson took out his bolo knife and began hacking away at the enemy. He managed to save Roberts and, after several more wounds, succeeded getting them both out of the way before passing out. He came to in a field hospital. When the sun rose his fellow soldiers surveyed the carnage. Johnson had killed four Germans, wounded another 10 to 20, and suffered 21 injuries in hand-to-hand combat, including a smashed foot.

Johnson later said, "There wasn't anything so fine about it. Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done the same." But the French thought differently. Both Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts received the Croix de Guerre, France's highest military honor for valor and bravery. Henry's medal included a Palm, which meant he had been mentioned in regimental or brigade level despatches. The Germans called the 369th the "Hellfighters" and they began calling themselves the Harlem Hellfighters. Henry's nickname became "Black Death."

His official Croix de Guerre with Palm citation:

"Private Henry Johnson, finding himself on night sentry duty, and being attacked by more than a dozen Germans, put one hors de combat with rifle shots and two others with knife cuts. Altho wounded thrice by revolver bullets and grenades at the start of the fight, he went to the help of his wounded comrade, as the latter was about to be carried off by the enemy, and continued to struggle until the Germans were forced to flee."[4]

A group of the Harlem Hellfighters with their Croix de Guerre; courtesy of
Library of Congress

Ticker-tape Parade

Two days after the 369th returned to the U.S., New York City greeted their return with a ticker-tape parade. The New York Tribune described Johnson's role in the parade in a front-page story on 18 February:

"Perhaps the spectacle of all most calculated to draw attention was the sight of Sergeant Henry Johnson, he whose rifle butt and bolo knife slew four foe and incapacitated thirty-two others who had the hardihood to raid his post one midnight. Sergeant Johnson has a silver plate in his foot as a relic of that memorable occasion, so he could not march. Instead he occupied the tonneau of a large automobile.

He stood up in the car and clutched a great bouquet of lilies an admirer had handed him. Waving this offering in one hand and his overseas hat in the other, the ebony hero's way up Fifth Avenue was a veritable triumph. By the mansions of the city's wealthy he rode. And from their windows as well as from the concourse of folk upon the sidewalks fluttering handkerchiefs and shouted plaudits heralded the passage of this black man."

Henry Johnson during the ticker tape parade in New York City; courtesy of
the Smithsonian

Thought to have Died Forgotten

When Henry was discharged, his Army records included no reference to his the injuries received in the Argonne Forest. As a result, he was not awarded a Purple Heart nor was he entitled to any disability compensation. As an uneducated black man, who signed his draft registration card by making his mark, he did not know he could petition the Army to correct his service records. It was thought he buried in a pauper's field, likely in Albany.

His obituary appeared on the 13 July 1929 edition of the The New Age, on page 1:

Henry Johnson, First Hero of 369th Dies in Washington

Washington, DC--William Henry Johnson, who with Needham Roberts, thrilled the world in the summer of 1918 by single-handedly repulsing an attack of the Germans and capturing or killing some 15 German soldiers, died here Tuesday 2 July almost in poverty.

Johnson served overseas with the 369th Infantry, formerly the Old Fifteen Regiment of New York which was brigaded with French troops at the front.

Late one night word came the Germans were preparing to attack the Negro regiment. Immediately they organized for defense and in order to warn the troops of their danger, sentinels were placed along the front lines. Privates Johnson and Needham Roberts were sent to do sentinel duty at a small outpost on the front line.

Cut off from comrades

The attack came in the middle of the night at the point where Johnson and Roberts were stationed, and they soon found themselves cut off from regimental headquarters with only a few hand grenades and their pistols.

When the Germans discovered them, they opened fire and Johnson was wounded three times and Roberts twice but both refused to surrender. The Germans crept closer and closer and when they discovered the brave Americans had exhausted their ammunition, rushed in to seize them. They were about to drag Roberts away when Johnson attacked them, smashing right and left with the handle of his revolver and slashing effectively with his bolo knife, which had the weight of a cleaver and the blade of a razor.

Stunned by the sheer bravery of their lone attacker, the Germans turned and fled but not before several had been killed or wounded.

Both men decorated

For this feat both Johnson and Roberts were awarded the Croix de Guerre, being the first members of this regiment to be so decorated. After being in French hospitals for some time, they came home on sick leave and were given a hero's welcome by the citizens of New York.

Johnson was a native of Albany, N.Y., and citizens there as well as citizens of New York City planned to aid him to start off on some successful peace-time pursuit, but he wandered from city to city and never really settled down. His last appearance in New York was in 1919 when Alderman Moore brought him back to New York to aid the Victory Loan drive. He told of his exploits in France in both Wall Street and Harlem.

He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery last Friday. His wife Minnie Johnson[5] survives him.

Headstone of Henry Johnson in Arlington
National Cemetery; courtesy of A. Horan

Posthumous Awards

My husband and I learned about Henry Johnson on one of our Sunday drives exploring our new home in upstate New York. As we were driving through Washington Park in Albany, we stopped to look at a monument:

Monument honoring Sgt. Henry Johnson, Washington Park,
Albany, New York; personal collection

The battle of Henry Johnson
Medal of Honor
June 2, 2015
First American awarded
Croix de Guerre
Gold palm

In memory of
Sergeant Henry Lincoln Johnson
Albany, New York
For uncommon valor in combat
Against an armed enemy, May 14th 1918
While serving with Company C
369th Infantry Regiment
Part of U.S. Expeditionary Forces
During World War I,
Assigned to the Fourth French Army
Awarded the Croix de Guerre by France
This 11th day of November 1991
at Albany, New York

President William Clinton
Directed the award of
The Purple Heart to Henry Johnson
on 27 June 1996
Seventy eight years following the action

The United States of America
To all who shall see these presents greetings
This is to certify that 
The President of the United States of America
Has awarded the Purple Heart
Established by General George Washington
At Newburgh, New York August 7, 1782
Henry Johnson
Then Sergeant, United States Army
For wounds received 
In action
In World War I on 14 May 1918
Given under my hand in the city of Washington
This 25th Day of June 1996

369th U.S. Infantry
15th Infantry New York Guard
Known by the enemy as
"The Hellfighters"
Regiment awarded
The following 
Battle streamers
Croix de Guerre
Silver Star
25 July 1917 -- 25 February 1919

First allied regiment
To Reach the Rhine
Never lost a man captured
A trench or a foot of ground
191 days in combat
Longest of any American unit
367 men killed in action
1,097 men wounded in action
171 French decorations for bravery

Though the government used his image for Victory Stamps and recruiting posts, it largely forgot about Henry Johnson. Seventy years later, the extraordinary nature of his service of began to be recognized. First, the City of Albany erected this monument to his memory. In 1996 President Bill Clinton awarded him the Purple Heart and in 2002 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

A few years later, research conducted by one of Senator Chuck Schumer's staffers uncovered a previously unknown document which contained first-hand accounts, including one from Needham Roberts, the man he saved, of Henry's fight against the German raiding party on the night of 14 May 1918. And, finally, in 2015 President Obama and the U.S. Congress awarded Johnson the Medal of Honor.[6] It seemed more than fitting and long overdue recognition of a soldier, Teddy Roosevelt called one of the "five bravest Americans" to serve in World War I.

That research also proved that Henry Johnson was not the estranged father of Herman Johnson, who had campaigned for years to have the man he thought was his father awarded the military honors to which he was rightfully due.

Henry Johnson was born in 1892 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Isaac Johnson and Maggie Carter. Several different birth dates were listed on source documents so it is possible Henry did not know his exact date of birth. His name is also problematic. The memorial monument in Albany gives his name as Henry Lincoln Johnson. Many public trees provide the name William Henry Johnson. All the source documents indicated Henry Johnson. He married Mattie Campbell, daughter of James Campbell and Maria Watson, on 12 June 1915 in Winston-Salem. He either moved with this wife or alone to Albany, New York, and worked as a porter at the train station, as well as for a coal delivery company. It is not known if he had children. On 5 June 1917 he volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army. He died in Washington, DC, on 2 July 1929 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He received several posthumous military awards, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was not married to Cornelia Phoenix; her three sons, Herman Archibald, Roland Madison, and George Howard Johnson, are believed to be the children of Roland A. Johnson, who she married in 1914 in Schenectady County, New York.

The official website of the U.S. Army featured Henry Johnson on 8 May 2018: New York National Guardsman Henry Johnson fought for his life with a knife on 15 May 1918.

[1] King, Gilbert. Remembering Henry Johnson, the soldier called "Black Death,", 25 Oct 2011 (accessed 4 Feb 2018)
[2] Herman Archibald Johnson went to his grave in 2004 thinking Henry Johnson was his father. A staffer in Sen. Chuck Schumer's (D-NY) office learned this was not the case while continuing to research the life and military record of Henry Johnson in an effort to have the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to him posthumously. Herman Archibald Johnson was the son of Roland A. Johnson and Cornelia Phoenix.
[3] Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Who Were the Harlem (accessed 4 Feb 2018)
[4] The Black Man Did Well, Waterloo Evening Courier, 22 Feb 1919, (accessed 5 Feb 2018)
[5] His wife's name was Mattie (Campbell) Johnson, not Minnie.
[6] Official Medal of Honor Citation

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