Tag Archive for Military

Black Death of the Argonne

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.

Sgt. Johnson is in the back row second from the right.

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.




The Letter and the Speech


Before June 6, 1944 General Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatched a letter to the Allied forces preparing to set out on one of the greatest military operations in history. He reminded them that landing in Europe was more than landing on a beach to fight an enemy. It was a responsibility that free loving people around the world had set on their shoulders. The responsibility to end the tyranny of the fascists. General Eisenhower reminds them that the war had at this point shifted momentum and was now in their favor. He did not say it would be easy. In fact just the opposite. He encouraged their strength, determination, and abilities to defeat the Axis powers. He ends it with a demand that only victory will be acceptable.

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely. But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory! I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory! Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking. — Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

General Eisenhower Behind the Wheel of a JeepOn the backside of history many people do not know that General Eisenhower had prepared another letter. One that he kept tucked away only to be acknowledge if things went terribly wrong for the assault into Normandy. Although the weight of defeat would have surely defeated and haunted him perhaps the rest of his life. He was prepared to take full responsibility.

“Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based  on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”  — Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower