How the Story of This Medal of Honor Recipient Wounded 21 Times Was Almost Lost to History

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Pvt. Henry Johnson, shown circa 1919, was nicknamed 'Black Death' after surviving 21 wounds, killing 4 Germans and injuring 10-20 others during an encounter in the Argonne Forest in France during World War I.
Pvt. Henry Johnson, shown circa 1919, was nicknamed 'Black Death' after surviving 21 wounds, killing 4 Germans and injuring 10-20 others during an encounter in the Argonne Forest in France during World War I. (New York National Guard courtesy photo)

Henry Johnson had reservations when he and another inexperienced American soldier were called on to serve on sentry duty in northeastern France's Forest of Argonne during World War I. Asked to guard an outpost of troops, Johnson was concerned it was too much responsibility at that stage in his military service.

Still, Johnson told his corporal he'd "tackle the job." He did much more than that. During Johnson and fellow Pvt. Needham Roberts' shift, roughly 20 German troops attacked their position.The odds were overwhelming, but Johnson -- all 5 feet, 4 inches, and 130 pounds of him -- sprang into action. He fought valiantly, kept Roberts from being taken prisoner and successfully fended off the Germans. Johnson killed four enemy soldiers and wounded as many as 20 others, all while sustaining 21 wounds from bullets and shrapnel himself. "There wasn't anything so fine about it," Johnson later recalled. "Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that." Johnson was working odd jobs when he joined the National Guard and was assigned to Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, in 1917. The all-Black unit was rebranded the 369th Infantry Regiment -- forever immortalized as the Harlem Hellfighters -- after it departed for France during WWI.

The regiment's time on active duty did not get off to a very fulfilling start. Soldiers unloaded ships, dug latrines and performed other lowly tasks, and they probably would have continued doing so had they not been tasked with helping the French Fourth Army.

On May 15, 1918, Johnson and Roberts were midway through their four-hour night shift as sentries when Johnson detected the "snippin' and clippin'" of wire cutters on a fence. After instructing Roberts to run and inform the French troops, Johnson lobbed a grenade in the direction of the encroachment -- resulting in a swift response of gunfire and grenades from the Germans. Sensing the danger that Johnson faced, Roberts aborted his assignment. But as he attempted to return to help, he was struck by a grenade that injured his arm and hip. Although his injuries rendered Roberts unable to provide much assistance, he was able to hand Johnson grenades. When those ran out, Johnson picked up his French rifle.

The rifle contained a three-cartridge clip.

"Johnson fired his three shots -- the last one almost muzzle to breast of the Boche [German] bearing down upon him," an account from the New York National Guard said. "As the German fell, a comrade jumped over his body, pistol in hand, to avenge his death. There was no time for reloading. Johnson swung his rifle round his head, and brought it down with a thrown blow upon the head of the German."

After Johnson's rifle jammed when he attempted to insert an American cartridge clip into it, he began out of necessity using it as a club. That caused the rifle to splinter, about the time that Johnson noticed the Germans attempting to capture Roberts.

Johnson grabbed his bolo knife and charged, lunging with his blade and stabbing those who came across his path, including impaling one German in the head. Johnson's fearlessness and aggressiveness shocked the Germans, who retreated as French and American troops approached.

"The raiding party abandoned a considerable quantity of equipment [from which the estimate of the party's strength is made], a number of fire arms, including automatic pistols, and carried away their wounded and dead," a National Guard report found. Johnson killed one German with a grenade, another by rifle fire and two with his knife. He sustained wounds all over his body, including to his head, hand and side. His left foot was shattered. Severely wounded and unconscious, he was transported to a field hospital.

Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York Army National Guard accepts the Medal of Honor on behalf of World War I Pvt. Henry Johnson.
Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York Army National Guard accepts the Medal of Honor on behalf of World War I Pvt. Henry Johnson, who served with the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, at the White House, Washington, D.C., June 2, 2015. (Lisa Ferdinando/Defense Media Activity)

France awarded Johnson, nicknamed "Black Death" after the skirmish, the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm for exceptional valor. But his discharge papers contained no mention of his heroic actions or injuries, depriving him of any awards or disability compensation. "Uneducated and in his early twenties, Henry Johnson had no expectations that he could correct the errors in his military record," according to Smithsonian Magazine.

The recognition that Johnson earned eventually came. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart in 1996, a Distinguished Service Cross in 2002, and the Medal of Honor in 2015.

Unable to hold steady work after he returned to the United States, Johnson died penniless in 1929 at age 36.

It was believed for years that he had been given a pauper's funeral, only for his family to learn his final resting place had been befitting a war hero the whole time.

Johnson is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. "Learning my father was buried in this place of national honor can be described in just one word -- joyful," Johnson's son, Herman, said at his father's grave in 2002. "I am simply joyful."

-- Stephen Ruiz can be reached at stephen.ruiz@military.com.

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