The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

WWI ‘Harlem Hellfighter,’ relegated by racism, to receive Medal of Honor

Henry Johnson in February 1919. (U.S. Army)

Henry Johnson was the kind of war hero people tell stories about.

While on patrol in a French forest in 1918, the then-private single-handedly fended off an attack from two dozen German soldiers, defending himself and his wounded fellow sentry with his gun, then a club, then nothing but a bolo knife and his bare hands. Johnson’s grit saved him and his partner from being taken prisoner and prevented the Germans from breaking the French line.

Briefly, he was showered with glory. The French gave him the Cross de Guerre avec Palme, their highest award for valor. President Theodore Roosevelt called him one of “the five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I. The U.S. Army even used his image to sell victory stamps (“Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?” the advertisements asked). His admirers called him “black death” and filled the streets to cheer his regiment on their return.

When the war ended, so did the accolades. The modern Purple Heart was not created until 1932, so Johnson did not receive that recognition for his injuries (though he was granted its predecessor, the Wounded Chevron). He wasn’t even given a pension. But Johnson was black and accustomed to being overlooked by the country he’d risked his life for. A 1919 speech he gave condemning racism in the Army didn’t help matters. Johnson returned to his job as a train station porter and struggled to eke out a living the best he could. By the time he died at age 32, destitute and estranged from his family, few knew his name or what he had done. No one was telling his story.

Nearly a century too late, that is about to change. On Thursday, the White House announced that Johnson and another WWI veteran, a Jewish sergeant named William Shemin, will be given the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military award.

The White House didn’t note why it has taken so long for Johnson’s service to be recognized, but Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has long championed his cause, believes racism caused the delay.

“Sgt. Henry Johnson … displayed the most profound battlefield bravery in World War I, yet the nation for which he was willing to give his life shamefully failed to recognize his heroics, just because he was a black man,” Schumer said in a news release. “This century-old injustice finally made right will be a profound gesture that will rectify a sad chapter in American history. And our nation will finally say ‘Thank-you’ to Sergeant Johnson, and the countless other African Americans who put their lives on the line for a nation that failed to treat them with full equality before the law.”

Johnson was born in North Carolina in 1892 but lived most of his life in New York — Schumer’s home state. He moved to Albany as a teenager, cobbling together odd jobs as a chauffeur, soda mixer, laborer in a coal yard and a porter, according to his biography on the Army Web site. In 1917, when the Army began recruiting for an entirely African American regiment called “the Harlem Hellfighters,” Johnson was quick to enlist.

When Johnson and his regiment arrived in Europe, they were put to work on mostly menial tasks, unloading ships and digging latrines.

“They did not think African Americans had the intelligence to think clearly … or the courage,” Max Brooks, author of a graphic novel on the regiment, told NPR.

But by 1918 the situation in France was getting desperate. Gen. John Pershing “loaned” the regiment to the French Army — sending along with them a document called “Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops.” In it, he warned the French about the dangers of relying on “inferior” black troops, according to the New York State Military Museum.

A black soldier lacks “civic and professional conscience” and is a “constant menace to the American,” the letter read.

But the Hellfighters, including Johnson, swiftly proved Pershing wrong. On May 15, 1918, just five months after arriving in France, Johnson and fellow private Needham Roberts were given “French helmets, French weapons and enough French words to understand commands from their superiors,” according to Smithsonian Magazine, and then assigned to nighttime sentry duty.

Johnson thought it was “crazy” to assign untrained men to the task but told the corporal he would “tackle the job,” Smithsonian reported.

Halfway into their shift, Johnson heard “‘snippin’ and clippin’ of wirecutters” — a sign that a raiding party was approaching. Soon he and Roberts were been attacked by between 12 and 36 Germans — accounts vary as to the exact number.

Roberts was hit by a grenade and badly injured, but Johnson continued to fight. He shot toward the Germans until he ran out of bullets, then began using his rifle as a club. When the weapon splintered, he turned to a bolo knife and his bare hands. Badly injured himself, he slashed at his attackers, fending them off as he waited for reinforcements to arrive.

“Each slash meant something, believe me,” Johnson later said, according to Smithsonian.

Johnson suffered 21 wounds during the fight, including a shattered left foot that never quite healed. But the Germans fared far worse: Johnson and Roberts killed four of their attackers and injured between 10 and 20 more.

Irvin Cobb, an American journalist covering the war, later wrote of the fight: “If ever proof were needed, which it is not, that the color of a man’s skin has nothing to do with the color of his soul, these twain then and there offered it in abundance.”

But Cobb’s words may have been overly optimistic. Johnson and the Hellfighters returned home in 1919 to a country embroiled in racial tension. That year’s “Red Summer” rocked the nation’s cities and killed hundreds of people — most of them black.

Johnson was vocal about the racism he’d endured. In a speech in St. Louis in March 1919, he “launched into an angry tirade against the racial prejudice he had encountered from white American soldiers and officers,” according to a 2014 story in the Albany Times-Union.

That controversial St. Louis speech may have hurt his chances at ever receiving recognition, the Times-Union reported. He was investigated by the Military Intelligence Division and the head of a “Negro Subversion” unit recommended that he be stripped of his right to wear the Army uniform.

In that context, Johnson had little reason to believe he could correct the errors in his military record to receive his Purple Heart and pension. His injuries kept him from working, and eventually pushed him to drink, according to Smithsonian. That’s when his wife and children left.

When he died in 1929, Johnson’s family had no idea where to find his grave. As far as any of them knew, he’d been buried in some pauper’s field.

But half a century after his death, interest in Johnson began to resurge. Albany erected a monument to him in the early 1990s. Five years later, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him a Purple Heart. And in 2002, researchers at the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs discovered obscure files showing that Johnson had been buried not as a pauper, but as a soldier, in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors.

“Learning my father was buried in this place of national honor can be described in just one word — joyful,” Johnson’s son Herman said in 2002, according to Smithsonian. “I am simply joyful.”

Herman Johnson won’t be at the June 2 ceremony to receive his father’s medal — according to the White House announcement, Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard will be accepting the honor on Johnson’s behalf. An Army news release says that Johnson has no next of kin.

Correction, June 12: An earlier version of this story reported a frequently misunderstood fact about Johnson’s case. It stated that he was overlooked to receive the Purple Heart, which recognizes injuries in combat. As this new Checkpoint piece notes, history was more nuanced. In reality, the Purple Heart did not exist until 1932, after Johnson’s death, and Army photographs show that he did receive the Wound Chevron, a World War I predecessor of the Purple Heart.