Army Privates Henry Johnson, 26, and Needham Roberts, 17, were posting late night sentry duty near the Argonne Forest in France on May 15, 1918, when they heard the sound of wire cutters and shots fired, alerting the two infantrymen of a German raiding party who outnumbered the soldiers almost 10 to 1.
Johnson yelled out for Roberts to run back to their command and alert them of the attack, but Roberts was struck by a grenade blast injuring his hip and arm. Incapable of moving, Roberts laid down in their trench and proceeded to hand Johnson grenades as the American soldiers attempted to stall the incoming German troops.
Despite being shot multiple times in his upper body, Johnson continued to throw grenades until he ran out. He then picked up his French Labelle rifle, and while being shot again in the side, Johnson returned fire until a reload attempt using an American cartridge jammed his rifle.
Left with nothing except his broken body, an empty rifle and an M-1909 Bolo knife as the Germans descended upon the them, Johnson started swinging his rifle like a club, holding off the German soldiers until the buttstock of his rifle splintered.
Johnson, thoroughly overwhelmed after taking a crushing blow to the head, saw two German soldiers attempting to carry Roberts back to their side. As being taken prisoner was considered worse than death, Johnson chased after his fellow soldier, unsheathing his knife and stabbing one of the German soldiers in the head. The 5-foot-4, 130-pound man then turned and continued fighting off the German soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, disemboweling another enemy troop in the process, until the sound of French and American re-enforcements forced the German raiding party to flee from Johnson and Roberts.
According to a New York National Guard report from the war, Johnson had “killed one German with rifle fire, knocked one down with clubbed rifle, killed two with bolo, killed one with grenade, and, it is believed, wounded others,” despite being wounded 21 times in the process.
Orders were given the next day to award Johnson, then-nicknamed “Black Death,” and Roberts the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor.
The ‘Harlem Hellfighters’
Johnson, who enlisted June 5, 1917, was the first soldier to gain fame for the 369th Infantry Regiment, later known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” a black infantry unit originally formed in 1913 as the New York Army National Guard’s 15th Infantry Regiment.
One of the few black combat units deployed during the first World War, the 369th was also one of the first Army regiments to have black officers leading an all-black enlisted corps.
But despite the courage shown by American soldiers of all races, American Expeditionary Forces under Gen. John Pershing still adhered to the societal segregation standards of the time. Because of this, black regiments were not typically placed alongside white units, and the 369th was consequently attached to the French Army, who held slightly-less discriminatory beliefs.
It was fighting alongside the French, however, that the Hellfighters proved their worth, fighting in the Champagne-Marne, Meuse Argonne, Champagne 1918 and Alsace 1918 campaigns.
The Harlem Hellfighters spent 191 days in front line trenches, spending more time in combat than any other American unit in World War 1.
As a unit, they were awarded a regimental French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star and Streamer embroidered Meuse-Argonne. Its members were awarded more than 170 individual French valor medals throughout the war, making them one of the most highly decorated American units from World War I.
Despite returning home as “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war” according to President Theodore Roosevelt, and being welcomed home to great fanfare in the 1919 New York City Victory Parade honoring the Harlem Hellfighters — led by the recently promoted sergeant — Johnson’s life quickly fell into disarray.
He had dozens of bullet and shrapnel wounds, and his left foot had been so severely injured that a metal plate and a few screws were all that held it together, none of which had been recorded in his discharge papers.
Because of this, Johnson was not only denied a Purple Heart but also a disability allowance. He died in 1929, destitute and alone after his injuries prevented him from holding down a job long enough to take care of his wife and her children.
After leaving with his mother as a child, Johnson’s late wife Edna’s son, Herman Johnson — himself a Tuskegee Airman — spent years believing that Henry Johnson had been buried alone and forgotten in a pauper’s graveyard in New York. But instead, the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs discovered in 2001 that Johnson had actually been buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in July, 1929.
“Learning my father was buried in this place of national honor can be described in just one word — joyful,” Herman Johnson said as he stood at his Henry’s grave in 2002. “I am simply joyful.”
Sgt. Henry Johnson had not only been buried with the honors owed him, but in 1996 he was awarded the Purple Heart that had been so erroneously denied him upon his return home. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002 following efforts spearheaded by Herman Johnson to get Henry’s heroism recognized.
And, in 2015, Sgt. Henry Johnson was finally posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by then-President Barack Obama for his actions that infamous night in France nearly 100 years prior.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran, Penn State alumna and Master's candidate at New York University for Business and Economic Reporting.