Sergeant William Henry Johnson “Black Death” of the Harlem Hellfighters 369th Infantry Regiment. In North France, Johnson single-handedly repelled a German raiding force while suffering 21 wounds while also being stabbed, shot, and wounded by grenade shrapnel in order to save his fellow soldier Private Needham Roberts.
All by himself, he was able to kill and hurt around 20 German soldiers. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions in 2015, posthumously.
He insisted that he was not a hero while recounting the incident, saying, “There wasn’t anything so fine about it. I only battled for my life. That is what a rabbit would have done.
The Harlem Hellfighters were the code name for Sgt. Johnson’s Regiment.
The Harlem Hellfighters remained on the front lines for 191 days longer than any other American regiment, despite domestic racism and segregation.
German soldiers, who were impressed by their grit and daring, gave them the nickname.
The French Croix de Guerre was also given to the regiment in recognition of their bravery.
However, it took many years for the United States to fully recognize their service. Despite the fact that they were fighting for freedom abroad, their narrative sheds light on the complexity of racial discrimination.
On July 15, 1892, Henry Johnson was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Early in Johnson’s adolescence, his family relocated to Albany, New York. He worked a variety of occupations at Albany’s Union Station, including redcap porter, soda mixer, coal yard laborer, and chauffeur.
On June 5, 1917, Johnson enrolled in Company C of the Fifteenth New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment. In the New York Army National Guard, the Fifteenth New York was initially established in 1913. The unit was all-Black in accordance with the military’s racial segregation rules. The Fifteenth New York was enlisted into federal service and given the new designation of 369th Infantry Regiment after the United States entered World War I. The 93rd Division, one of two divisions made up of African Americans, was home to the 369th Infantry. The 369th Infantry and other Black regiments were not deployed on the front lines by General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, reflecting the military leadership’s belief that African Americans were incapable of serving as combatants. They were used in support and logistical capacities.
The 369th Infantry was given to the struggling French in March 1918 because they required combatants and were used to deploying their own Black colonial troops. The French ignored the Americans’ warnings not to treat the 369th Infantry and other African Americans the same as white soldiers and accepted them into their armed forces. The French moved the 369th Infantry to the Argonne Forest in the Champagne region after arming the soldiers with French weaponry and providing instruction.
During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the transfer to the front lines in the Argonne Forest marked the start of 191 nonstop days spent in the trenches. German troops against them referred to the 369th Infantry as “Hollenkampfer,” which translates to “Hellfighter.” They acquired the moniker Harlem Hellfighters as a result. Because of the snake on the Gadsden flag from the Revolutionary War, they called themselves the Harlem Rattlers.
Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, a 369th Infantry comrade, were assigned to an observation station forward of the main line on the evening of May 14, 1918. On May 15, at two in the morning, Johnson and Roberts noticed about 25 German soldiers moving toward their position. They quickly started fighting the Germans violently hand to hand. Johnson left the protection of his position and, when he ran out of ammunition, used his bolo knife and his gun as a club. When he observed two German soldiers attempting to seize his friend, he was able to stop them from doing so. Both men had critical injuries.
Before French reinforcements could arrive and remove Johnson and Roberts to an aid station beyond the main lines, the Germans suffered significant casualties and withdrew. 21 wounds were inflicted on Johnson throughout the conflict. He wounded 10 to 20 people in addition to killing four Germans, according to estimates.
Johnson received the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, the country’s highest valor honor, in recognition of his exploits on May 15, 1918. One of the first Americans to receive this recognition was he. Henry Johnson, according to French orders dated May 16, “gave a magnificent example of courage and energy.” Due of his violent combat that evening, Johnson also earned the nickname “Black Death”.
In February 1919, Johnson and the rest of the 369th Infantry arrived home to a hero’s welcome. He was in charge of his squadron when it marched up Fifth Avenue during the 369th Infantry’s triumph parade in New York City. He was traveling in an open car while still being treated for his injuries and waving to the onlookers. Johnson’s image was utilized by the government at this time to market victory stamps and on Army recruitment materials.
Despite his bravery, the Army soon after Johnson’s return home released him. His wounds or the bravery he demonstrated were not mentioned in his discharge papers. After the war, he was not given disability benefits. Both the government and the American people ignored him after his discharge.
Johnson went back to Albany and started working as a redcap porter again. Due to his injuries, working was challenging, and he was unable to provide for his family. The marriage of Johnson ended as a result of these difficulties. On July 1, 1929, in New Lenox, Illinois, after his wife and children abandoned him, he passed away alone and penniless. At Arlington National Cemetery, he had a full military funeral and was laid to rest in Section 25, Site 64.
Johnson’s tale was unearthed in the 1990s after a review of World War I service records for African Americans. Johnson received the Purple Heart posthumously from President Bill Clinton in 1996. Johnson received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest military decoration, from the US Army in 2002. In the end, Johnson received the Medal of Honor posthumously on June 2, 2015, during a White House ceremony.
The following is taken from the Medal of Honor citation for Private Henry Johnson: “On May 15, 1918, while serving as a member of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93d Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces, during combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the Western Front in France, Private Henry Johnson distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of heroism at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. At least 12 German soldiers launched a surprise attack on Private Johnson and another soldier who were on sentry duty at a forward outpost in the early morning hours. Private Johnson staged a valiant counterattack while under heavy enemy fire and despite suffering serious injuries, which led to several enemy casualties. Private Johnson put himself in great danger by moving from his position to engage his fellow soldier’s captors in hand-to-hand battle when the other man was severely injured and being hauled away by the enemy. Even though he was critically injured, Private Johnson persisted in the battle, killing the two captors and rescuing the wounded soldier while using only a knife. He showed incredible bravery by continuing to fight off the bigger enemy group until the beaten foe withdrew, leaving behind a sizable cache of weapons and gear as well as useful intelligence.
Without Private Johnson’s rapid decisions and determination to fight even in the face of a near-certain death, the enemy might have been able to take the outpost and the captives without giving up crucial intelligence. The tremendous bravery and selflessness displayed by Private Johnson above and beyond the call of duty uphold the highest ideals of the military service and are a wonderful testament to him, Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93d Infantry Division, and the United States Army.
In honor of Sergeant Henry Johnson, Fort Polk in Louisiana was renamed Fort Johnson on June 13, 2023.