Henry Johnson (1892-1929)

Black and White photo of African American man in World War One uniform from the chest up.
Henry Johnson

U.S. Army

Quick Facts
Medal of Honor Recipient and World War One Buffalo Soldier
Place of Birth:
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Date of Birth:
July 15, 1892
Place of Death:
New Lenox, Illinois
Date of Death:
July 1, 1929
Place of Burial:
Arlington, Virginia
Cemetery Name:
Arlington National Cemetery

Henry Johnson was born on July 15, 1892, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In his early teens, Johnson and his family moved to Albany, New York. He held various jobs including soda mixer, coal-yard laborer, chauffeur, and redcap porter at Albany’s Union Station. 

Johnson enlisted in Company C, Fifteenth New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment on June 5, 1917. The Fifteenth New York was originally founded in 1913 in the New York Army National Guard. In line with the military’s racial segregation policies, the unit was all-Black. Once the United States entered World War I, the Fifteenth New York was called into federal service and redesignated the 369th Infantry Regiment. The 369th Infantry was assigned to the 93rd Division, which was one of two divisions comprising African Americans. General John J. Pershing, American Expeditionary Force commander, avoided placing the 369th Infantry or other Black units on the front lines, reflecting the military leadership’s view that African Americans could not be effective combat soldiers. They were deployed in logistics and support roles.

In March 1918, General Pershing assigned the 369th Infantry to the beleaguered French, who needed combat troops and were accustomed to deploying their own Black colonial troops. While the Americans warned the French not to treat the 369th Infantry and other African Americans the same as white troops, the French ignored this advice and welcomed the 369th Infantry into their fighting force. After training the men with French weapons, the French sent the 369th Infantry to the Argonne Forest in the Champagne region. 

The transfer to the front lines in the Argonne Forest was the beginning of 191 days straight in the frontline trenches during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The Germans fighting against them called the 369th Infantry men “Hollenkampfer,” meaning Hellfighter. This is how they received the nickname Harlem Hellfighters. They called themselves the Harlem Rattlers, after the snake on the Revolutionary War-era Gadsden flag.

On the evening of May 14, 1918, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, a fellow soldier in the 369th Infantry, had observation-post duty forward of the main line. About 2 a.m. on May 15, Johnson and Roberts saw approximately 25 German soldiers approaching their position. They soon engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat with the Germans. Leaving the cover of his position, Johnson used his gun as a club and his bolo knife when he ran out of bullets. He saw two German soldiers trying to capture his comrade and managed to prevent them from capturing Roberts. Both men sustained severe wounds. 

The Germans took heavy casualties and retreated before French reinforcements arrived and evacuated Johnson and Roberts to an aid station behind the main lines. During the battle, Johnson received 21 wounds. It is estimated that he killed four Germans and wounded 10 to 20 others.

For his actions on May 15, 1918, Johnson was awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest award for valor. He was one of the first Americans to receive this honor. The French orders, dated May 16, stated that Henry Johnson “gave a magnificent example of courage and energy.” Johnson was also dubbed “Black Death” for his fierce fighting that night. 

Johnson returned home with the rest of the 369th Infantry in February 1919 to a hero’s welcome. During the 369th Infantry’s victory parade in New York City he led his unit as it marched up Fifth Avenue. Still recovering from his wounds, he traveled in an open car, waving to the spectators. During this time, the government used Johnson’s image to sell victory stamps and on Army recruiting materials. 

Despite his valor, the Army discharged Johnson shortly after his return home. His discharge papers made no mention of his wounds or the valor he displayed. He did not receive disability pay after the war. After his discharge, the government and the American people forgot him. 

Johnson returned to Albany, where he resumed his job as a redcap porter. Because of his injuries, work was difficult, and he was not able to support himself and his family. These hardships led to the breakup of Johnson’s marriage. His wife and children left him; he died alone and penniless on July 1, 1929, in New Lenox, Illinois. He was given a full military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery and was buried in Section 25, Site 64.

In the 1990s, Johnson’s story was rediscovered during a reexamination of African Americans’ World War I military records. In 1996, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Johnson the Purple Heart. In 2002, the U.S. Army awarded Johnson the second-highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross. Finally, on June 2, 2015, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Johnson the Medal of Honor during a White House ceremony.

Johnson’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
“Private Henry Johnson distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of heroism at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a member of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93d Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces on May 15, 1918, during combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the Western Front in France. In the early morning hours, Private Johnson and another soldier were on sentry duty at a forward outpost when they received a surprise attack from a German raiding party consisting of at least 12 soldiers. While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Private Johnson mounted a brave retaliation, resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier was badly wounded and being carried away by the enemy, Private Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage the two enemy captors in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and gravely wounded himself, Private Johnson continued fighting, defeating the two captors and rescuing the wounded soldier. Displaying great courage, he continued to hold back the larger enemy force until the defeated enemy retreated leaving behind a large cache of weapons and equipment and providing valuable intelligence. Without Private Johnson’s quick actions and continued fighting, even in the face of almost certain death, the enemy might have succeeded in capturing prisoners and the outpost, without abandoning valuable intelligence. Private Johnson’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93d Infantry Division and the United States Army.”

On June 13, 2023, Fort Polk, Louisiana was named Fort Johnson in honor of Sergeant Henry Johnson.

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument

Last updated: July 17, 2023