During the First World War the United States was still a segregated force. Unfortunately, society and the military did not allow black soldiers to serve in front line units with whites. Many of these men were sent to work battalions and rear area support units. This did not mean that they were free from danger or direct engagement with the enemy. There was one man that would prove himself through his valor that all black men are worthy of equal status and treatment as whites. Men like William Henry Johnson would chip away at the racism that would end desegregation in the military by the Korean War.
Johnson joined the New York National Guard in 1917. The 17th Infantry was based in Harlem and would be re-designated the 369th Infantry regiment before heading to France. Like most black units the 369th was relegated to labor services and did not participate in combat training before arriving on the Western Front. The regiment was assigned to the 93rd Division but was handed over to the French Army to help fill gaps due to manpower shortages after. There is speculation that some white units refused to serve alongside blacks and this facilitated the move. There are no documents recording this issue but the French were more than happy to take the 369th in. The French quickly moved them up to the line to Outpost 20 on the edge of the Argonne Forest to help hold the line.
On May 14,1918, the spring before the Armistace, Johnson was on guard duty when he was attacked by a German raiding party of approximately 24 men. He fought them off using everything at his disposal including his rifle butt, a bolo knife, and his fists. He saved many of his fellow soldiers and prevented the capture of another. He was wounded in twenty one places all over his body. Because of his act of bravery he was given the nickname “Black Death”. Johnson and the “Harlem Hellfighters” would go on to distinguish themselves through the rest of the war as a force to be reckoned with.
After returning to the states in 1919 he began touring the country speaking about his experiences. One event in St. Louis ended his tour. During the lecture he began to tell the truth about blacks and whites in the American Army. It was not a pretty picture. He explained the injustices that he and his men were witness to by whites in the war. Word got out about his speech and an arrest warrant was placed on him for wearing his uniform although he was no longer in the military.
William Henry Johnson succumbed to tuberculosis on July 1, 1929. His story had remained a footnote of the war in France. Finally, in 2015 he was given the award he rightly deserved almost 100 years ago. He was enrolled in the hall of American legends when he posthumously received the Medal of Honor. Having no living relatives at the ceremony the award was accepted by the Command Sgt. Major of the New York National Guard.
The Medal of Honor Citation:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to
Private Henry Johnson
United States Army
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:
Private Johnson distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a member of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, American Expeditionary Forces, during combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the Western Front in France on May 15, 1918. 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, Private Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces. Private Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and gravely wounded himself, Private Johnson continued fighting and took his Bolo knife and stabbed it through an enemy soldier’s head. Displaying great courage, Private Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated. Private Johnson’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.