Henry Johnson, a Black soldier who valiantly fought in World War I, will hopefully soon be awarded the nation’s highest military honor nearly a century after his passing. Johnson single-handedly defeated a sneak attack by German forces while stationed in France, saving the lives of he and his fellow soldiers in the process.
Born Henry Lincoln Johnson presumably in 1897, Johnson worked as Red Cap porter in Albany, N.Y. He joined the Army in 1917, and was assigned to the all-Black New York National Guard unit.
The unit, which trained with broomsticks instead of rifles because white higher-ups wouldn’t equip them, was later put into federal service. The 369th Infantry Regiment of Harlem, famously known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” were assigned to France during the War.
While guarding his post in the Argonne Forest, Johnson was rushed by a pack of German soldiers who barraged his position with grenades and gunfire. Johnson, armed with just a rifle and bolo knife, fired back at the Germans, suffering 21 wounds.
When the Germans closed in, Johnson used his knife to take down three of the men before he made the group retreat. The event was known as “The Battle Of Henry Johnson” and Johnson was nicknamed “Black Death” because of his fighting prowess.
France awarded Johnson with its Palm and Star military medal, becoming the first American to win the award. Johnson returned to America a hero and worked as a lecturer. Wearing his uniform, Johnson spoke and select engagements across the country.
However, he revealed truths about treatment of Black soldiers in the military. Unsurprisingly, he was told he could no longer wear the uniform. A warrant for his arrest was issued for “keeping the uniform past his duties.”
Despite losing part of his shin and foot, Johnson was not awarded the Purple Heart award and much of the reason was race. His injuries weren’t even listed in his discharge papers, and he never received disability payments.
Johnson died broke in 1929.
For the last 15 years, New York Senator Chuck Schumer has been lobbying to have Johnson posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and recently produced documents proving Johnson did perform his heroic actions. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Secretary John McHugh agree that Johnson deserves the Medal but Congressional authorization must happen for it to happen. According to reports, that is in progress.
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