Forgotten Hero: Henry Johnson Fought Off Dozens Of German Soldiers

New York Army National Guard Sgt. Henry Johnson, circa 1919. (Photo Credit: New York State Military Museum)

Despite the large array of medals and decorations created to honor those who performed incredible acts of bravery, many individuals are never recognized for their actions. This is often due to prejudice, political opinions, and nationality getting in the way of the reward being applied to its rightful recipient.

One such case is of Henry Johnson, a soldier in the first African American unit in the U.S. Army to see action in WWI.

Henry Johnson would go above and beyond the call of duty, fighting in hand-to-hand combat against overwhelming odds, while saving a fellow soldier in the process.

Henry Johnson enlisted in the National Guard

Johnson’s early life is clouded in mystery, even to himself. He claims to have been born July 15, 1892, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but whether this is true or not is unknown as he also used different dates on different documents.

In his early teens, he worked as a railway porter, carrying goods and luggage. He enlisted into the Army in mid-1917, after learning that the New York National Guard 15th Infantry Regiment was recruiting. This regiment only recruited black soldiers.

Johnson’s regiment was deployed to France, where he arrived in January 1918. From the get-go, the eager regiment — now renamed to the 369th Infantry Regiment and would later become known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” — was relegated to menial tasks like cleaning and moving goods.

The regiment was temporarily handed over to the 161st Division of the French Army by General John J. Pershing. It is believed that the reason for this detachment was that Pershing wanted to give African American soldiers a chance to advance in leadership, which they could not do in the segregated American Army.

Detail from a World War I poster depicting Johnson's heroism
Detail from a World War I poster depicting Johnson’s heroism. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

The French Army had no such issues and gladly accepted the men as reinforcements, kitting them out with French equipment. Johnson and his regiment were deployed to Outpost 20 near the Argonne Forest.

On the night of May 14, 1918, Johnson was unaware that he was about to experience the fight of his life.

Johnson, along with fellow soldier Needham Roberts, was on sentry duty on the edge of the forest. Their sentry shift was due to finish at midnight. Two soldiers approached Johnson and Roberts to relieve them of their watch.

A nighttime raid was Johnson’s chance to be a hero

Johnson, quickly recognizing the young men’s inexperience, opted to stay with them on watch rather than leave. Roberts returned to his trench to sleep, but Johnson soon could hear movement, rustling, and the clipping of wire cutters.

Suddenly, out of the darkness, a swarm of German troops attacked his position. Calling for help, Roberts ran back to Johnson’s aid, but was struck by shrapnel and was out of action. He wasn’t completely out of the fight, however, as he passed hand grenades to Johnson, who threw them at the advancing Germans.

Once the grenades ran out, he opened fire with his rifle, being hit in the side, head, and hand in the process. Eventually, Johnson’s rifle jammed, becoming a hand-to-hand weapon instead, being swung like a bat into the enemy. Fighting for his life, he was caught on the head with a devastating blow. Falling to the ground, dazed, and beside his now shattered rifle, he got back up and unsheathed his 14-inch bolo knife.

Sgt. Henry Johnson – American Hero of WWI (Photo Credit: National Archives at College Park)
Sgt. Henry Johnson – American Hero of WWI (Photo Credit: National Archives at College Park)

He thrust, hacked, and chopped with his knife, killing one man with a single strike. Noticing the Germans attempting to drag away the injured Roberts, Johnson leaped upon them, stabbing one of them in the ribs before fending them off.

Overall, the gruesome exchange lasted for around an hour before reinforcements arrived, forcing the Germans to flee. His incredible effort had saved the lives of both him and Roberts, who received medical attention for their wounds, in Johnson’s case totaling 21 injuries.

The morning sunrise illuminated the scene, revealing pools of blood, equipment, and four dead German soldiers. It is estimated he inflicted injuries to another 25–30. Word of Johnson’s legendary stand spread quickly, earning him a promotion to sergeant and the nickname “the Black Death.”

For his effort, the French awarded Johnson the Croix de Guerre, one of their highest awards, before sending him back home to the U.S.

William Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts standing with their French Croix de Guerre medals in 1918. (Photo Credit: US Army)
William Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts standing with their French Croix de Guerre medals in 1918. (Photo Credit: US Army)

After such an ordeal, many soldiers would return home to a hero’s welcome, which Johnson did to an extent, but it was a bittersweet achievement. Many publications of the events quickly glossed over his race, or avoided mentioning it at all. He gave his all and returned to a country celebrating his efforts while still regarding him as an inferior citizen.

More from us: Remembering WWII’s “Forgotten Army”

After the war’s end, the Harlem Hellfighters participated in a victory parade, with Johnson upfront. Still, they were not allowed to parade alongside white troops.

The final years of Johnson’s life mirrored the first, slipping into obscurity after the war while receiving disability payments from the government. It remains unclear how much his injuries affected his later life and job opportunities.

Johnson died on July 1, 1929, of myocarditis. The full extent of his actions wouldn’t be appreciated until he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Medal of Honor by Barack Obama in 2015.