This is an updated version of a story originally posted on February 23, 2012


Medal of Honor awarded to Pvt. Henry Johnson by President Obama, June 2, 2015

As often happens, while looking for other things I find something that I didn’t know existed. This one comes just in time to wrap up Black History Month. It is a truly astonishing story, lost in the veils of time.

First, I stumbled upon the picture below on Digital Forsyth. The caption says ‘This photograph is inscribed, “Parade of Colored soldiers World War co Liberty & 7th St.” ‘BlkVetsParadeLiberty@7th1919?.jpgGoing by the terrain, that looks about right to me. But I have learned the hard way that inscriptions on photographs are often wrong. We’ll have a perfect example of that, involving soldiers of the same war, soon. The background of this photo is faded out, but if we put it in PhotoShop and darken it a bit, we can see a building in the background.BlkVetsParade002.jpgThe green arrow points to the unmistakable bell tower of Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church, at the corner of Sixth and Liberty. The house in the foreground was at the northeast corner of Liberty and Seventh, the only one on the short, angled block. It belonged to the late Mathias Masten, a well known engraver who free lanced for several jewelry companies in the area. The children on the deck above the porch are probably his grandchildren.

I wanted to know more about this picture, but quickly discovered that no one has published any research about black troops from Winston-Salem in World War I. Not a single word. So I resorted to Google to see if anything came up there. It didn’t. But Henry Johnson did.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Who is this man and why is he smiling? Could it be that big old cross with the gold palm hanging on his chest?


Henry Johnson was born in May, 1892, the son of Isaac and Maggie Johnson, a day laborer and a housemaid, and grew up on Depot Street in the town of Winston, NC in the late 19th and early 20th century. When he was in his teens, his father found a steady job and moved the family to Albany, the capitol of New York.


Click image to view full size


If there is anything I like better than a map, it is an image that shows what was on the map. The 1891 Birds-eye View of Winston and Salem does exactly that. Fortunately, all of the buildings that played a part in Henry Johnson’s life were already standing when the birds-eye was made the year before his birth. So have a look. Click on the image for full size.

There, while working as a chauffeur, laborer and railway porter, Henry married and had three children. He was only 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed about 130 pounds, but, as we shall see, he was about as big a man as anyone can be.

On 6 April 1917 the US declared war on Germany. Two months later, Henry Johnson enlisted in the US Army. He was assigned to the brand new segregated 369th Infantry Regiment. The officers were white, the troops were black.

The 369th received its basic infantry training in Spartanburg, SC. While there, they came very close to getting into their own war with a white Alabama regiment, whose members resented the fact that a bunch of young black guys were wearing US Army uniforms. The Alabama regiment never saw a moment of combat. The 369th certainly did.

On 15 May 1918, Henry Johnson and seventeen-year-old Needham Roberts of Trenton, New Jersey, were on sentry duty well in advance of the American lines. At around 1 a.m. a German sniper opened up from a bush fifty yards away. Johnson anticipated more trouble, so opened a box of thirty hand grenades and placed them in a row nearby. About 2 a.m. he heard the Germans cutting the wire that protected his post, so he sent Roberts, in an adjoining sentry post, to alert their troops. Johnson lobbed a grenade and the “surprised Dutchmen” began firing, so he recalled Roberts. Roberts was soon incapacitated by a German grenade. Two Germans tried to take Roberts prisoner but Johnson beat them off. Roberts could not stand but he sat upright and passed grenades to Johnson.

With grenades exhausted Johnson grabbed his rifle. He inserted an American clip in his French rifle but it jammed. At that point, a German platoon rushed him and the fighting became hand-to-hand. He then “banged them on the dome and the side and everywhere I could land until the butt of my rifle busted.” Next he resorted to his bolo knife. “[I] slashed in a million directions,” he said. “Each slash meant something, believe me.” He admitted that the Germans “knocked me around considerable and whanged me on the head, but I always managed to get back on my feet.” One German was “bothering” him more than the others, so he eventually threw him over his head and stabbed him in his ribs. “I stuck one guy in the stomach,” Johnson continued, “and he yelled in good New York talk: ‘That black —— got me.'” Johnson was still “banging them” when his friends arrived and repulsed the Germans. Johnson then fainted. The fight had lasted about an hour.

Johnson and Roberts were taken to a French hospital. Johnson had a total of 21 wounds to his left arm, back, feet, and face, most of them from knives and bayonets.

With daylight the Americans found four dead Germans on the battlefield and evidence of perhaps as many as thirty-two more killed and wounded who had been dragged away by the Germans as they retreated. The event almost immediately became known as the “Battle of Henry Johnson”.

A few weeks later, the French awarded both Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts their highest medal for bravery, the Croix de Guerre. They were the first US troops in WWI to receive the award. Henry’s had a gold palm attached, the highest possible award.

So you know what happened next. It’s Medal of Honor time from the US side. Not really. Henry and Needham got nothing at all. Not even a Purple Heart between them.

While they were recovering from their wounds, their unit, the 369th Infantry regiment, was undergoing 191 consecutive days of enemy fire, the most of any US unit in WWI. The French gave the entire unit a Croix de Guerre. From that time forth the 369th was known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”. But the US military ignored them.

When WWI ended, there was a huge ticker tape parade down Broadway for the returning troops. The 369th was not invited. But the citizens of New York gave them their own parade, which started in Manhattan and ended in Harlem. Most of the regiment marched. Henry Johnson rode in a car as the star of the show. In Harlem the paper shower turned to flowers.


Henry Johnson on parade, 1919

But after mustering out, black troops didn’t even get disability benefits. Because he couldn’t work on a regular basis due to his wounds, Henry Johnson became dispirited, began drinking, separated from his family and died, destitute and drunk, in 1929 at the age of 37. He was, strangely enough, buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Until recent years, his children did not know that. In 1996, upon executive order of President Clinton, Henry Johnson finally was awarded a Purple Heart. At that point one of his sons, Herman, himself a Tuskeegee Airman during World War II and later a member of the Missouri legislature, began a campaign to get him a well deserved Medal of Honor. That campaign ended in failure in 2003, during the Bush administration, with the award of a Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest honor. That medal was awarded graveside at Arlington. But that fight is not over. Last year Senator Chuck Schumer of New York joined the effort to get Henry Johnson a Medal of Honor.

Until now, no one in Winston-Salem has had any memory of Henry Johnson. But, at least, the citizens of Albany, NY, his second home, finally came to give him his due. On Veteran’s Day, 1996, they erected a monument, with a bust of Henry Johnson, in historic Washington Park in that city.


Thank you for your service, Henry Johnson, one of our own.

Update: On June 2, 2015, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Pvt. Henry Johnson. Last month, the US Army notified Herman Johnson’s family that they were not actually descended from Henry Johnson. In the painstaking process of determining Henry’s eligibility for the Medal of Honor, they were unable to find any valid descendants. The President handed Henry’s Medal of Honor to Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard.

See two other important posts about Henry Johnson here: