Henry Lincoln Johnson was a 5 foot, 4 inch tall, 130 pound solider who became known as the Black Death. He gained this nickname after a fight with the Germans when he “banged Germans in the dome until the butt of his rifle busted.” How did the first American soldier in World War I to receive the coveted Croix de Guerre die broke and alone at the age of 32?
Johnson was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He appears to have been poor, but details of his early life are not known, including the names of his parents.
Johnson moved to Albany, New York, as a teenager. There he worked variously as a chauffeur, a soda mixer in a drugstore, a laborer in a coal yard, and a railway porter at Albany’s Union Station. During Johnson’s time in Albany, he married a woman named Edna, and the couple had three children. He was a small man, standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighing 130 pounds.
On 6 April 1917 the United States declared war on Germany. On 5 June 1917 Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Army at the Marcy Avenue armory in Brooklyn, New York. His unit was the “Old Fifteenth,” a state National Guard outfit converted for the war into the 369th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army. The 369th was part of of the hastily cobbled together and mostly African American Ninety-third Division of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). They were among the earliest American soldiers in France. Until the selective service draft introduced conscription, African American volunteers were only allowed in the four existing African American regiments in the regular army and in the few African American National Guard units.
Colonel William Haywood, a prominent white lawyer and former public service commissioner of New York, was chosen to head the 369th. Most of the officers were white and Colonel Haywood succeeded in removing all the commissioned African American officers, except for Lieutenant James Reese Europe, the legendary jazz musician, whose band enlisted wholesale into the 369th. Most of the soldiers of the 369th came from Harlem, San Juan Hill (around Fifty-ninth Street in Manhattan), and the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. They received combat training in Spartanburg, South Carolina. For Henry Johnson and his unit, the war almost started on American soil when they came close to a firefight with white Alabama troops stationed nearby. Before, during, and after the war the sight of African Americans in military uniform would be a red flag to southern whites. In Houston, in 1917, members of the African American Twenty-fourth Infantry retaliated against a series of assaults. They killed fourteen whites and wounded eight. The authorities tried them secretly and speedily executed many.
About 150,000 of the 200,000 African Americans who served in the AEF were used as stevedores and laborers. Upon arrival in France on 1 January 1918, the 369th unloaded ships and dug latrines. Those African Americans who eventually saw combat did so in the French army, when French manpower needs became critical. This was after unrelenting harassment from American military authorities in France. There were bloody fights between black and white American soldiers, and AEF headquarters went so far as to release the notorious pamphlet Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops, in which the American military warned French civilian authorities of the alleged inferior nature and supposed rapist tendencies of African Americans.
The 369th was the first African American unit to see combat. Johnson and seventeen-year-old Needham Roberts of Trenton, New Jersey, were on sentry duty during the midnight to 4 a.m. shift on 15 May 1918. According to Johnson’s account, at around 1 a.m. a German sniper opened up from a bush fifty yards away. Johnson anticipated more trouble and therefore opened a box of thirty hand grenades and placed them in a row. About 2 a.m. he heard the Germans cutting the wire that protected his post, so he sent Roberts, in an adjoining sentry post, to alert their troops. Johnson lobbed a grenade and the “surprised Dutchmen” began firing, so he recalled Roberts. Roberts was soon incapacitated by a German grenade. Two Germans tried to take Roberts prisoner but Johnson beat them off. Roberts could not stand but he sat upright and passed grenades to Johnson.
With grenades exhausted Johnson grabbed his rifle. He inserted an American clip in his French rifle but it jammed. He then “banged them on the dome and the side and everywhere I could land until the butt of my rifle busted.” Next he resorted to his bolo knife. “[I] slashed in a million directions,” he said. “Each slash meant something, believe me.” He admitted that the Germans “knocked me around considerable and whanged me on the head, but I always managed to get back on my feet.” One German was “bothering” him more than the others, so he eventually threw him over his head and stabbed him in his ribs. “I stuck one guy in the stomach,” Johnson continued, “and he yelled in good New York talk: ‘That black ____ got me.'” Johnson was still “banging them” when reinforcments arrived and repulsed the Germans. Johnson then fainted from his twenty-one wounds. The fight had lasted about one hour.
Johnson and Roberts were taken to a French hospital. Johnson had wounds to his left arm, back, feet, and face, most of them from knives and bayonets. Doctors inserted a steel plate into his left foot. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he philosophized. “Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.”
With daylight the Americans found four dead Germans on the battlefield and evidence of perhaps as many as thirty-two more involved in the fight. The Germans had probably dragged away several of their dead. The Americans also found thirty-eight bombs, rifles, bayonets, and revolvers. The Germans are said to have thereafter designated African American troops the “blood-thirsty black men.” The French dubbed them “hell-fighters”; the 369th would henceforth be known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”
The French awarded Johnson and Roberts the Croix de Guerre with a special citation. Johnson also got a golden palm on his ribbon for “extraordinary valor.” This was France’s highest award for bravery and he was the first American to receive it. The entire French force in the area lined up for the occasion. Both Johnson and Roberts were promoted to sergeant.
Lincoln Eyre, a white New York World reporter, broke the story in the United States on 21 May 1918. Irwin Cobb, a white southern writer, wrote a story in the Saturday Evening Post in the summer of 1918. African Americans had performed so splendidly in the war, he said, that from now on the word “n-i-g-g-e-r will merely be another way of spelling the word American.” The poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox praised the stevedore soldiers: “We are the Army Stevedores, lusty and virile and strong. / We are given the hardest work of the war, and the hours are long . . ..”
Johnson’s 369th ended the war with a splendid record and the entire unit received a collective Croix de Guerre. However, they paid the price of high casualties. They were continuously under fire for 191 days, a record for American forces. The African American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois accused the French of initially trying to use them as shock troops, as they had done with their own African troops. Postwar racism also became a problem. The 369th were conspicuously absent from the victory parade in Paris, though the British and French paraded their colonial troops. Some of them were shipped home in cattle boats. As the 369th awaited demobilization in Camp Upton, New York, in 1919, Brigadier General William J. Nicholson sent out an order on 14 February confining them to the one segregated Hostess House staffed by black women.
On 17 February 1919 New York nevertheless put on a lavish ticker tape parade to welcome the 369th home. A quarter of a million people turned out. White badges with the inscription “Welcome, Fighting 15th,” adorned the clothing of the crowd. The 369th left Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue at 11:26 a.m. and marched up Fifth Avenue twenty abreast in a French formation that Americans had not seen before. The New York Police Band provided music at strategic points. Lieutenant James Reece Europe led the Hellfighters’ own band, now one hundred strong. At Sixtieth Street the New York governor Alfred Smith and other dignitaries manned a reviewing stand. At 110th Street the parade swung into Lenox Avenue, Harlem’s main thoroughfare. From 129th Street the crowd could no longer be restrained. The soldiers switched from their massed phalanx to an open formation, which allowed spectators to more easily recognize their fathers, sons, brothers, and friends. Harlemites swarmed the ranks to embrace their loved ones. “Flowers fell in showers from above,” reported the New York World.
And through it all rode Henry Johnson, standing in an open automobile, a bouquet of red and white lilies in his hand. Harlemites chanted, “O-oh, you wick-ed Hen-nery Johnson! You wick-ed ma-an!”
Several persons in the crowd wore armbands memorializing fallen relatives. And the Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee captured a poignant picture of a handsome uniformed veteran, one-legged and on crutches, as he observed the parade from the sidelines. The black nationalist Marcus Garvey was among the Harlem crowds viewing the parade. He returned to his office and wept, overcome by the seemingly vain sacrifices of these men.
The victory parade ended at 145th Street, where the soldiers were rushed into the subway. They were taken to the Seventy-first Regiment Armory at Thirty-fourth Street and Fourth Avenue for a banquet. The 369th was mustered out at Camp Upton the next day. There was no mention of his wounds in Johnson’s discharge papers and he received no disability pay.
Johnson returned to Albany on 24 May 1919, where he enjoyed a brief moment of fame. Pictures of Johnson and Roberts were sold in great number, and both lectured on their war experiences. Johnson and Colonel Hayward shared a platform in Albany. Johnson promoted Liberty Bonds. Albany trolley cars proclaimed, “Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many [Victory War] stamps have you licked?” His image was used as a recruitment tool by the army as late as 1976. Before he got home his wife was sought by reporters and entertained by upscale white women. “Bill (her preferred name for her husband) ain’t big, nor nothing like that,” she supposedly told a New York Times reporter (22 May, 1918), “but boy, he can go some.”
Yet his fame was short-lived and apparently provided little financial benefit. He returned briefly to his railway porter job, but his war wounds made it impossible to resume hard physical labor.
The full details of Johnson’s rapid decline into penury, alcoholism, and early death are not known. He separated from his wife and children in 1924. In 1929 he died an alcoholic and penniless in New York City. He was buried under the name of William Henry Johnson in Arlington National Cemetery on 5 July 1929.
For nearly seven decades his family remained unaware of his burial at Arlington National Cemetery. In the 1990s his son Herman Johnson (A Tuskegee Airman), 369th veterans, and New York State politicians all campaigned for posthumous recognition by the United States. In 1996 Henry Johnson was finally awarded the Purple Heart, routinely given to soldiers wounded in action. Albany named a street for him, and a monument and bronze bust were erected in his honor in Albany’s Washington Park. Efforts to have him awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award, ended in failure. In 2007 a Henry Johnson Charter School opened in Albany.
It has been reported that as of December 2014 new efforts are on the way to have President Obama award Johnson the Medal of Honor.