Henry Johnson was the most famous member of the “Harlem Hellfighters,” an all-black National Guard unit that was among the first American forces to arrive in Europe during World War I. Johnson and his fellow African American soldiers spent their early days in the war performing unskilled manual labor before being sent to reinforce the depleted ranks of the French army.
On May 14, 1918, Johnson and another “Hellfighter” named Needham Roberts were serving sentry duty in the Argonne Forest. Just after 2 a.m. the duo was attacked by a detachment of some 20 German troops. Both men had soon been wounded—Roberts so severely that he was unable to stand or shoot—but Johnson held fast and fought back with hand grenades and his rifle. Despite being shot several times, he returned fire until his weapon jammed, and then used it as a club and fought hand to hand until it broke into pieces. When Johnson saw that the Germans were trying to take Roberts prisoner, he drew his one remaining weapon—a bolo knife—and slashed and stabbed several men until the raiding party finally fell back. When the dust cleared, Johnson had inflicted at least a dozen casualties on the Germans and suffered 21 wounds from gunfire and bayonets. Both he and Roberts were later given the Croix de Guerre—one of France’s highest military honors—but Johnson’s heroic stand went unrewarded in the United States until 1996, when he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. He later received the Distinguished Service Cross in 2003.
We honor you, Henry Johnson.