Henry Johnson suffered 21 wounds and rescued a soldier while repelling an enemy raid in the Argonne Forest in 1918 but died 11 years later a forgotten man
Henry Johnson returned from World War I and tried to make a life for himself in spite of what he had experienced in a strange and distant land. With dozens of bullet and shrapnel wounds, he knew he was lucky to have survived. His discharge records erroneously made no mention of his injuries, and so Johnson was denied not only a Purple Heart, but a disability allowance as well. Uneducated and in his early twenties, Henry Johnson had no expectations that he could correct the errors in his military record. He simply tried to carry on as well as a black man could in the country he had been willing to give his life for.
Outfitted in French military garb, Johnson and another private, Needham Roberts of New Jersey, were serving sentry duty on the night of May 4, 1918, when German snipers began firing on them. Johnson began throwing grenades at the approaching Germans; hit by a German grenade, Roberts could only pass more of the small bombs to Johnson to lob at the enemy. When he exhausted his supply of grenades, Johnson began firing his rifle, but it soon jammed when he tried to insert another cartridge. By then the Germans had surrounded the two privates, and Johnson used his rifle as a club until the butt splintered. He saw the Germans attempting to take Roberts prisoner, and charged at them with his only remaining weapon, a bolo knife.
Johnson stabbed one soldier in the stomach and another in the ribs, and was still fighting when more French and American troops arrived on the scene, causing the Germans to retreat.
When the reinforcements got there, Johnson fainted from the 21 wounds he had sustained in the one-hour battle. All told, he had killed four Germans and wounded some 10 to 20 more, and prevented them from breaking the French line.
The French awarded both Johnson and Roberts the Croix de Guerre; Johnson’s included the coveted Gold Palm for extraordinary valor. In all, some 500 members of the Harlem Hellfighters earned the Croix de Guerre during World War I, showing France’s appreciation for their sacrifice.
When Johnson and his fellow Hellfighters arrived home in February 1919, they were honored with a parade up New York’s Fifth Avenue. Thousands of spectators lined the route to watch Johnson lead nearly 3,000 troops in an open car towards Harlem, holding a bouquet of lilies. The celebration had a dark side, however: The 369th were given their own parade because they weren’t allowed to join the official victory parade alongside other returning U.S. troops.
Though former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I, and the government used his image on Victory War stamps and army recruiting materials, Johnson’s discharge papers made no mention of his many wounds, and he received no disability pay after the war. Johnson returned to Albany, and to his job as a railroad porter, but his injuries made it difficult for him to work, and he soon began to decline into alcoholism and poverty. His wife and children left him, and he died penniless in 1929 at the age of 32.