The Harlem Hellfighters were a heroic bunch from the beginning, but this World War I infantry regiment had one man who stood out from all the rest: Private Henry Johnson (1897-1929), a former railroad porter. Johnson and fellow soldier Needham Roberts were on night sentry duty when the base was attacked. Johnson and Roberts repelled the German raid; Roberts was badly injured early on and Johnson managed to keep him from being taken prisoner.
Henry Johnson was born into poverty in the South, and once grown, he drifted north in search of work. By the time the call went out for men to enlist for service in World War I, Johnson was married and living in Albany, New York making his living as a railroad porter.
Johnson wanted to serve and traveled to Brooklyn to sign up; he was assigned to the all-black unit of the National Guard that was to become the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment. At that time, African-Americans could only join some divisions of the military and were relegated to non-combat, support roles.
Initially Johnson and some of the unit worked guard duty in New York (Albany and Rotterdam) until the men were sent to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for combat training. In the South, the men encountered discrimination from the locals, who pushed them from the town sidewalks and refused to sell snacks and cigarettes to them. The Southerners were outraged at the sight of black men in U.S. Army uniforms.
When the 369th shipped overseas, some of the unit were left at the port to unload ships; those who were taken inland were assigned to dig latrines.
Their colonel, a prominent white New York attorney who had also volunteered for the military, fought for the men to be made eligible for combat. When the ruling finally changed, the French were in desperate need for relief units so the 369th was assigned to fight under the French.
Johnson as Hellfighter Hero
The 369th had established camp in the Argonne Forest. On May 15,
1918 Johnson and a fellow soldier, 17-year-old Robert Needham, were assigned to sentry duty, covering the midnight to 4 a.m. shift.
Johnson and Needham heard something in the bushes about 50 yards away and then the sound of what sounded like the snipping of the barbed wire around their encampment. Johnson knew they would need to alert the base and told Needham to go wake the others. As Needham rose to leave his sentry position, he was wounded badly; both men knew he would not make it back to warn the others.
Johnson unpacked a box of 30 hand grenades. Needham was strong enough to pull himself to a sitting position so he could hand the grenades to Johnson. When the grenades ran out, Johnson grabbed his rifle and began firing. He soon ran out of ammunition, so he tried to load his French-assigned rifle with American bullets but the gun jammed. In the dark, Johnson began brandishing the butt of the rifle to whack anyone near him until he could reach his bolo knife. “[I] slashed in a million directions. Each slash meant something, believe me,” Johnson said later.
About an hour after the fight began, other men in the unit appeared and helped fight off the Germans.
At daylight, members of the 369th, along with their French comrades, could finally see what remained of the battle area. They estimated that about 20-35 Germans had approached; four Germans lay dead, and the French were able to recover weapons of many others.
Johnson and Needham were taken to a field hospital; it was determined that Johnson had incurred 21 separate wounds.
Recognition for Heroic Harlem Hellfighters
The Germans began referring to the 369th as “hellfighters” after this battle, and the French amended that to be Harlem Hellfighters.”
Johnson and Roberts were both promoted to be sergeants. They also received France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre. Johnson’s ribbon also featured a golden palm for “extraordinary valor.” He was the first American to receive this high honor from the French government. Recognition from the American government did not come so readily.
Johnson, however, was famous enough at home that someone decided to benefit from his stature. An imposter Henry Johnson began receiving numerous gifts from those who trusted that he was the real “Henry Johnson, War Hero.”
The 369th Infantry was the first unit to return to New York after the war, and a big parade, running from 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, was held in their honor.
While the color of their skin eventually barred them from the Victory Parade held later in the spring, however, this was not an issue for the parade on February 17. All along the way there were multitudes of well-wishers. The reporter for The New York Times (February 18, 1919) wrote that candy and cigarettes were tossed to the men by cheering crowds. Both Henry Frick and Mrs. Vincent Astor were spotted waving flags from upper-story windows of their homes on Fifth Avenue. In Harlem, the outpouring of people was overwhelming. Schoolchildren were given the day so that they could attend and celebrate the men’s homecoming.
Colonel Haywood led his men on the parade route with great pride, but after Haywood, the most famous face in the parade was Sgt. Henry Johnson—the man who became known as the “Black Death.”
At the end of the parade, the 2900 soldiers were packed onto subway car after subway car to travel to 34th Street armory where they were to be honored with a chicken dinner. Their families–desperate to be with them–followed. The reporter from The New York Times wrote: “…the white officers of the regiment …could not have been more courteous or attentive to the visitors….[they held] long conversations with negro mothers wearing gold stars.”
Johnson After Service
Henry Johnson had achieved such fame that former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was writing a book on World War I heroes, called Johnson one of the five bravest Americans to serve in that war.
Initially the military capitalize on his heroism; they used him in recruitment posters, and they had him travel the country to help sell Victory War stamps. “Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?” was the campaign they launched.
Johnson returned to Albany and tried to resume his job as a Red Cap porter, however, the injury to his left foot was severe enough that he found he could not continue his job. What’s more, no one had properly filled out his discharge papers to reflect in injuries. This meant he received no disability benefits.
Johnson knew this was wrong but his lack of education kept him from standing up for himself. He soon began to drink heavily, and by 1924, his wife and children had left him.
In 1929 he died destitute. He was 32 years old. Despite his lack of family, someone realized that Johnson deserved a military burial; and he was interred in Arlington Cemetery.
What Happened to Johnson?
Years later, his son Herman (1916-2004), a Tuskegee Airman during World War II who settled in Missouri and went on to serve in state government (Missouri House of Representatives 1968-72), was investigating his father’s military service.
As the younger Johnson learned about his father’s military achievements, he campaigned for his father to receive the honors due him. Herman knew he was eligible for a Purple Heart, and Herman nominated Henry for a Medal of Honor, the military’s highest honor. He assumed his father was buried in a pauper’s grave in Albany since no one had been around to take care of him.
Based on the work done by Herman Johnson, the Purple Heart was granted to Henry Johnson posthumously (June 25, 1996). However, the Medal of Honor application stalled.
In 2002 Herman Johnson was buoyed by two pieces of good news:
He discovered his father had been buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery, and Senator Chuck Schumer heard about Medal of Honor application and became involved.
Ultimately, the military felt the nation’s second-highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross, was more appropriate to Henry Johnson’s actions, and a ceremony was held in 2003 to present his son with the medal.
Herman Johnson donated the medal to the Albany chapter of the Army National Guard 369th Infantry Regiment so that it could be displayed to tell the story told of what his father had done to further the Allied’s cause.
In 2015, Henry Johnson was awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, posthumously. To read that story, click here.
To read more about the Harlem Hellfighers, click here.