Henry Johnson and an Honor Long Overdue


Chad Williams is associate professor of history at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He is the author of "Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era" (UNC Chapel Hill, 2010).

It had already been a long night for Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson.  On May 14, 1918, the two soldiers of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, entrenched with the French Fourth Army in the Champagne region, were responsible for manning an observation post to guard against German ambushes.  At approximately 2:30 am they heard the snapping of wire cutters and fired off an alarm flare.

Suddenly, a German raiding party of twenty soldiers attacked with a flurry of grenades and rifle fire.  Roberts, a seventeen-year-old native of Trenton, NJ was severely wounded, but managed to supply Johnson, a former redcap porter from Albany, NY with grenades to repel the assault.  As the Germans entered the trench, Johnson returned fired, sustaining several gunshot wounds in the process.  When his gun jammed, he resorted to hand-to-hand combat, using his rifle as a club, and then wielding his bolo knife to fend off his German foes and rescue Roberts from being taken prisoner.  After nearly an hour, the Germans had seen enough and retreated.  American reinforcements arrived at daybreak, finding Johnson and Roberts bloody and exhausted from killing at least four German soldiers and wounding perhaps another dozen.

Ninety-three years after the "Battle of Henry Johnson," efforts to properly recognize the most famous black soldier of the First World War have potentially reached a turning point.  For decades, local black activists, veteran organizations, and New York elected officials have urged the Pentagon to bestow Johnson with a posthumous Medal of Honor, thus far to no avail.  However, military documents recently uncovered by the office of Senator Charles Schumer, highlighted by a May 20, 1918 report from John J. Pershing, commanding general of the American Expeditionary Forces, acknowledging Johnson's heroics seem to offer incontrovertible supporting evidence for the military’s highest decoration.  Senator Schumer and other backers, now with renewed confidence, plan to yet again press their case.  If awarded, Johnson would become only the second African American soldier of the First World War to receive the Medal of Honor, the first being Corporal Freddie Stowers, posthumously bestowed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

The nation recently paid fitting tribute to the February 27, 2011 passing of Frank Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of World War I.  The protracted campaign to honor Henry Johnson reminds us that African Americans also played a significant role in the war, a role that has for too long gone unrecognized.  An estimated 380,000 African American soldiers fought and labored in the U.S. Army during the war.  Of the 200,000 black men who served in France, roughly 40,000 saw combat.  Despite enduring systemic racial discrimination, black servicemen performed their civic obligation with dignity.  They also embodied the determination of black men and women for equal citizenship and a racially inclusive vision of American democracy.

As a powerful symbol of these aspirations, Henry Johnson became the pride of black America.  He, along with Roberts, were the first American soldiers to receive the French Croix de Guerre. A mere 5 feet 4 inches and 130 pounds, Johnson was nevertheless elevated to superhuman stature by the African American press and an adoring public eager to demonstrate the bravery of the race.  After the war crowds of well-wishers cheered his name, and black civil rights activists sang his praises.  Henry Johnson imposters even began to pop up across the country.   

But Johnson's time in the limelight would be short-lived.  He briefly capitalized on his fame by making speaking appearances and promoting Liberty Bonds.  However, he ran afoul of the white public, and earned the attention of military intelligence officials, by speaking too frankly about the pervasive racism black soldiers experienced in France.  Moreover, the combined effects of his war injuries and racial discrimination kept him from holding a steady job.  He increasingly turned to alcohol to cope with the physical and psychological trauma of postwar life.  Johnson, penniless and alone, died in Albany in 1929 at the age of thirty-two.  He was unceremoniously buried in Arlington National Cemetery without notification.

Johnson's tragic death and the official disregard of his accomplishments would appear to parallel the seemingly lost history and memory of black participation in World War I.  But African Americans have never forgotten the legacy of black soldiers in the war, just as the legacy of Henry Johnson has remained very much alive.  While scholars have only recently begun to fully reexamine the breadth and complexity of the black experience in the war, the “Battle of Henry Johnson,” along with countless other individual, familial, and collective memories have been passed down from generation to generation. 

These memories have underpinned the long-running efforts to honor Johnson and correct a blatant injustice.  In 1996 the army posthumously awarded Johnson a Purple Heart and, in 2003, Herman Johnson accepted the Distinguished Service Cross on his father’s behalf.  While important, these commendations are not enough.  The Medal of Honor would be a fitting tribute to both Johnson and the legacy of black soldiers in World War I, whose contributions remain just as important today as they did the night of May 14, 1918, when Henry Johnson made history.  

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