“Oh, You Black Death”
Meet Henry Johnson, Winner of the Medal of Honor and Once Forgotten Hero
In tribute to Black History Month, I’d like to recount the remarkable story of Henry Johnson, whose craft was war. It was only in the last decade that his bravery from a century before was fully recognized by the United States in the form of a Medal of Honor.
Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on July 15, 1892, Henry was orphaned at a young age and raised in poverty. As a teenager, he quit school and moved to Albany, New York, where he found employment as a Red Cap porter at the train station. When the United States entered World War I, Johnson enlisted in the Army. He weighed a slight 130 pounds and stood only 5 feet, 4 inches tall. He was assigned to the 15th New York Colored Infantry Regiment (later the 369th Infantry Regiment), an all-black unit that became known as the "Harlem Hellfighters."
In early 1918, with only rudimentary training, he arrived in the trenches of France only to face the same racism and discrimination that he endured back home. Often relegated to menial tasks like loading trucks and cleaning latrines, he and his fellow black soldiers had to plead with their officers for the right to engage in combat. Eventually, his regiment was loaned out to the French Fourth Army, which needed every soldier they could find.
On May 14, 1918, 19-year-old Johnson got his wish—and more. On sentry duty with his fellow private Needham Roberts, Johnson was stationed on the western edge of the Argonne Forest. They were assigned to guard a French outpost from midnight to four a.m. They carried French weapons and wore French helmets. As for military training, they continued to be woefully underprepared, a fact that Johnson knew well. Still, he reassured the French corporal, who had assigned them to the sentry shift, that they’d “tackle the job.” In his pre-war life, Roberts was an elevator attendant.
Around two in the morning, Johnson and Roberts came under heavy sniper fire. Preparing for an assault on their position, they set up a row of grenades on the lip of their shallow dugout. Soon after, Johnson heard the distinct “snippin’” and "clipping” of shears cutting through the perimeter fence. They were coming. He urged Roberts to race back to the French outpost to warn them. Roberts crept out of their dugout and started running. Johnson grabbed one of his grenades and tossed it to where the fence was being cut. Its explosion rocked the earth around him. Shouts in German and a hail of gunfire followed. Grenades too. His whole world quickly became enmeshed in sound and fury.
Hearing this melee, Roberts decided to return and help his fellow Hellfighter. As he retraced his steps back to their dugout, an enemy grenade detonated near him. Shrapnel tore through his arm and hip, knocking him down. Grievously wounded, he crawled over to rejoin Johnson in their trench. Bleeding and almost immobile, Roberts could do little more than hand Johnson grenades to hurl at the advancing Germans. There were too many of them to stop. Quickly, the two privates found themselves almost surrounded. They finished the last of their grenades.
With his rifle, Johnson temporarily held off the enemy. He often fired blindly into the darkness. The Germans returned with their own volleys. Johnson was hit several times. One bullet struck his helmet and left him dazed. Still, they came. A German reached the edge of their dugout, and Johnson fired at his breast, the muzzle of the rifle only inches away. He died almost instantly. Frantic to reload, Johnson grabbed an American cartridge clip from his vest and tried to reload his French rifle. The clip jammed, leaving him unable to fire.
Rising from his dugout just as the Germans reached him, Johnson did the only other thing he could do with his rifle: use it as a club. He swung it wildly like a man trying to fend off a pack of wolves. Roberts remained in the trench, helpless to his fate.
Johnson continued to swing his rifle at the Germans, connecting again and again until the stock splintered. Something struck him in the head again, and he collapsed to the dirt. By the time his eyes cleared from their daze, he saw the enemy trying to drag Roberts away. Surging with a mix of fear and rage, Johnson rose again, now with his last weapon in hand—a bolo knife. He ran at the nearest German, hacking and stabbing in a frenzy.
“Each slash meant something, believe me,” Johnson recounted of the hand-to-hand combat. “I wasn’t doing exercises, let me tell you.” He plunged his knife into the stomach of one enemy soldier. Then he knocked an officer aside with his whirling limbs. A bullet cut through his arm, but still, Johnson continued. A German hurled himself onto his back, attempting to wrestle him down. For his trouble, Johnson stabbed him in the ribs. In a brief delay in the onslaught, he was able to reach Roberts and stand to defend him to the last. Johnson was bleeding heavily from numerous bullet and shrapnel wounds all over his body, yet he was not done, nor were the Germans.
Then came the call of American and French voices through the forest. They were converging on their position for a counterattack. With their ambush foiled, the Germans retreated back into the dark woods. The strength in Johnson’s legs finally gave away. He lost consciousness beside Roberts before reinforcements reached them.
Afterward, Johnson was rushed to a field hospital, receiving treatment for the 21 wounds he endured during the fight. Irvin S. Cobb, a war correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post, arrived at the sight of the battle the day after and heard of the pair’s exploits. Johnson had killed four Germans and wounded at least a dozen more. To his readers, Cobb wrote, “If ever proof were needed, which it is not, that the color of a man's skin has nothing to do with the color of his soul, these two then and there offered it in abundance.” Johnson was more subdued in his description of the battle. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it…Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.”
Reports of their bravery spread fast. France awarded Johnson and Roberts their highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre. On his return to the United States, Johnson was hailed as a hero and led a ticker-tape parade in New York City (the crowd chanted “Oh, you Black Death”—his newly minted nickname). The US government even used his portrait in their advertisements for Victory War Stamps with the accompanying tagline: “Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?”
Nonetheless, Johnson was not awarded any additional medals, not even the Purple Heart. When he was discharged, his records contained no mention of his many injuries suffered in combat, including a permanently disfigured foot. This oversight eliminated any chance of his receiving disability benefits. Back in Albany, he was rehired as a train station porter. He married and had three children. Plagued by his wounds, and, no doubt, PTSD, he was unable to keep his job or his family. He took to drinking to numb the pain. In 1929, he died penniless at 32 years old, still estranged from his family. When they finally learned of his death, they could not track down his body and believed he had been buried in a pauper’s field outside Albany. Only later did they learn that the American military had intervened to lay Johnson to rest at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors—a distinction they had certainly not offered him in life.
In 2015, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Henry Johnson the Medal of Honor. This came on the heels of his well-deserved Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest military decoration. His statue now stands at the entrance of Washington Park in Albany. Theodore Roosevelt probably had the highest praise for Johnson, calling him, one of the “five bravest Americans” to have fought in WWI.
Awesome story….we need more like that. Your efforts to bring this to the attention of many is greatly appreciated. Thank You.
Thus is a story that should be told in the classroom at a very young age.
Heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.
You can really pick ‘em! Thank you