His heroism defied the odds!
He was born William Henry Johnson around July 15, 1892 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the U.S. Army reports. Moving to New York as a teen, he worked various odd jobs as a chauffeur, coal laborer and soda mixer before enlisting in the U.S. Army on June 5, 1917. Assigned to the 369th Infantry Regiment during WWI, an all Black unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters, Johnson would go down in history as a fearless soldier and hero for his country.
Headed into battle in 1918, Johnson and his unit were engaged in a battle in France’s Champagne region, Smithsonian Magazine reports. While on sentry duty in the Argonne Forest, he came under attack by German forces. On duty with limited training and enough French to understand basic commands from his superior officers, Johnson ordered his comrade Needham Roberts back to camp to warn the troops. As he hurled his prepped grenades at soldiers, Johnson began a valiant fight for his life and the lives of his fellow soldiers.
Roberts tried to stop and help but was wounded badly, laying in the trenches while handing Johnson grenades. When he ran out, he began aiming his rifle anyway he could to thwart German soldiers. In the process, he sustained multiple injuries, taking bullets to the head and lip while he continued fighting. When his gun jammed, he used the rifle like a bat and when they got up on him, Johnson wielded his knife.
He fought with such ferocity and tenacity that the Germans referred to him as the “Black Death,” his heroic actions saving Roberts from capture and giving French and American forces time to advance, leading to the Germans’ retreat.
“Each slash meant something, believe me. I wasn’t doing exercises, let me tell you,” ” Johnson later recalled.
Johnson passed out due to his injuries but left an enduring legacy on the battlefield. He suffered 21 wounds in hand-to-hand combat, stopped the Germans from crossing the French line, killed four German soldiers and wounded 10 to 20 others through what he described as sheer instinct.
“There wasn’t anything so fine about it. Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that,” Johnson previously told reporters.
His heroism did not go unnoticed and Johnson would go on to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, one of France’s highest military honors. At home though, it would take much longer, his contributions not fully honored until decades later. He passed away in 1929 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1996 he was posthumously honored with the Purple Heart and received the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. In 2015, almost a century after his monumental battle, Johnson posthumously received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama, finally acknowledging his extraordinary bravery and sacrifice.
A hero among heroes, Johnson’s courage and resilience in the face of danger challenged prevailing stereotypes faced by Black soldiers. His fearless actions on the battlefield and remarkable story are a testament to the valor and determination of Black soldiers who oftentimes didn’t get the honor they deserved for their contributions.
As we commemorate the life and legacy of Henry Johnson, let us also recognize the countless Black soldiers who displayed unwavering courage and dedication to the defense of our nation throughout history. Their sacrifices contributed to the freedoms we enjoy today and we are ever grateful for their service.
Cover photo: Meet Henry Johnson, the heroic WWI soldier nicknamed “Black Death”/Sgt. Henry Johnson, Feb. 12, 1919/Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army/Public Domain