Henry Johnson was a United States Army soldier who performed heroically in the first African American unit of the United States Army to engage in combat in World War I. Henry Johnson enlisted in the United States Military on June 5, 1917, joining the all-black New York National Guard 15th Infantry Regiment, which, was redesignated as the369th Infantry Regiment based in Harlem, New York.
General John J. Pershing "loaned" the 369th to the 161st Division of the French Army. General Pershing warned the French about the immoral and inferior nature of the African American troops. The African American troops suffered a massive amount of harassment from white soldiers. The French Army and people were happy about welcoming the new reinforcements.
The 369th Infantry regiment, later nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters,” were the first to arrive in France, and among the most highly decorated when it returned. The 369th was an all-black unit under the command of mostly white officers.
The French Army assigned Johnson's regiment to Outpost 20 on the edge of the Argonne Forrest in the Champagne region of France. They had French rifles and helmet’s, they wore American uniforms and their issued bolo knives. On watch with fellow officer Needham Roberts, of Trenton N.J., Johnson heard a sound in the bushes. He instructed Roberts to alert the other soldiers but when Roberts went to leave, he was hit and wounded.
They were attacked by a large German raiding party, which may have numbered up to 36 soldiers. He used grenades, fired his gun, use the butt of his rifle to club the German soldiers and even his bolo knife in hand-to-hand combat and finally his bare fist. Johnson was able to keep the Germans at bay until help arrived. He rescued Roberts from being captured and saved the lives of his brothers in arms.
He killed some soldiers and wounded others. He ended up with 21 wounds during the fight. he fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, killing multiple German soldiers and rescuing a fellow soldier; Johnson received 21 wounds. His heroics were brought to the nation's attention by media coverage later that year. In 1918 the French awarded Johnson with the Croix de guerre with star and bronze palm.
He was the first U.S soldier in World War I to receive that honor. When he returned home, he did not receive any kind of help or disability due to his injuries and could not go back to his work. It reminded me of the Vietnam vets who had a hard time adjusting back to civilian life.
Johnson died, poor and forgotten, in 1929. There was a long struggle to achieve awards for him from the U.S. military. He was finally awarded the Purple Heart in 1996. In 2002, the U.S. military awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross. On June 2, 2015, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama in a posthumous ceremony at the White House.