Today we remember: Henry Johnson
On the 6th of April 1917, the United States formally declared war against Germany and entered the First World War.
On the anniversary of this day, we remember Henry Johnson, the first American to receive the Croix de Guerre.
Henry Johnson was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The exact date of his birth is disputed, but when he registered for the World War I draft he gave it as 15th July 1892. In his early teens he moved to New York to find work and was variously employed as a chauffeur, a labourer in a coal yard, a soda mixer in a drugstore and a railway porter at Albany’s Union Station.¹
During this period, Henry married a woman named Edna, and they had had three children together.
On the 6th of April 1917 the United States declared war on Germany and joined the conflict in Europe. Two months later, on June 5th, Henry enlisted into the 369th Infantry Regiment (part of the largely African American 93rd Division of the American Expeditionary Force), who were among the first American soldiers in France. On arrival, however, they were relegated to labour work, unloading ships and trains and digging latrines, the US army being unwilling to assign them to combat after refusal amongst white troops to fight alongside their black compatriots. The French Army, which was critically short of manpower, had no such qualms, so the 369th were eventually detailed to the French 16th Division and moved to the trenches.
On the 15th of May 1918 Henry and 17 year-old Needham Roberts were on sentry duty on the edge of the Argonne Forest. At 2am the pair heard German troops cutting the wire around their post, and they came under attack. Needham was wounded by a grenade and incapacitated, leaving Henry throwing grenades as the Germans flooded the post. When his rifle jammed, Henry was forced fight on with the butt of his rifle, which eventually broke. Seeing a group of Germans dragging Needham away as a prisoner, Henry drew his bolo knife and fought them off, surrounded and at desperately close quarters. The two men held back the entire attacking group until relief arrived and the Germans retreated, whereupon Henry fainted from the twenty-one wounds suffered to his arm, back, feet and face.
That Henry, standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighing just over 9 stone, had saved Needham from capture and fought off such numbers was a feat guaranteed to attract attention. Both men were presented with France’s highest award for bravery, The Croix De Guerre, with Henry also receiving a golden palm for “extraordinary valour”. They were the first American Soldiers to receive the award.
Henry survived the war and returned to America , where the 369th took part in a parade through the streets of New York, with Henry standing in an open top car, flowers in his hand, to cheers and applause. After the war Henry earned a money giving lectures and promoting liberty bonds, but after revealing the abuse and hardships black soldiers had endured from their fellow American troops in a lecture in St. Louis, he lost public support.
With engagements drying up and unable to return to physical labour due to his wounds, Henry’s life began to decline. In poverty and suffering from alcoholism, his marriage collapsed, and Edna left with the children in 1924. The celebrated war hero died penniless in New York at the age of 36, in 1929.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton postumously awarded Henry Johnson a Purple Heart recognising his contribution and courage.
In 2015, he was also posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour by President Barack Obama.
The 369th Infantry Regiment spent a total of 191 days in the trenches and under fire, more than any other U.S. unit. The French government awarded the Croix de Guerre to a total of 170 individual members, and after the war a unit citation was awarded to the entire regiment. Such was their reputation, they became known as “The Harlem Hellfighters”
1. The American National Biography.