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

 

Medal of Honor awarded to Sgt. Henry Johnson of Winston-Salem, NC by President Barack Obama, June 2, 2015

As often happens, while looking for other things I find something that I didn’t know existed. This is a truly astonishing story, lost in the fog 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.’ ”

Going by the terrain, that looks about right to me. But I have learned the hard way that inscriptions on photographs are often wrong. 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.

 

The 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 sometime in 1892, almost certainly in the Long Branch area of Winston, NC. When he was in his teens, his father found a steady job and moved the family to Albany, the capitol of New York.

There, while working as a chauffeur, laborer and railway porter, Henry probably despaired of ever having a meaningful life.

Note Henry’s “x” on his draft registration card, which tells us that he could not write and probably could barely read

On 6 April 1917 the US declared war on Germany. When Henry registered for the draft a few weeks later, he was still a single man. Two months later, Henry enlisted in the newly revitalized colored 15th regiment of the New York National Guard which was based in Brooklyn. It was, in keeping with the times, a fully segregated outfit. The officers were white, the troops were black.

The 15th 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 men were wearing US Army uniforms. The Alabama regiment never saw a moment of combat. The 15th certainly did. At some point, Henry married a woman named Minnie. We know nothing else about her. Henry and Minnie never had any children. The only time we are allowed to hear her voice, she said that Henry was a small man, but that he could “go some.” Henry was only five feet four inches tall and weighed in at 130 pounds, but as we shall see, he was about as big as any man could hope to be.

Before departing New York, some of the 15th Regiment posed for a photo

Upon arrival in France, the 15th was redesignated as the 369th Infantry Regiment of the 96th Division. Like most black regiments, the 369th was slated to serve as drivers, laboroers and stevedores, because the official stance of US civilian and military leadership was that black men could not fight in organized warfare. The French were astonished. Why would anyone waste trained infantrymen on such menial tasks? They were desperate for bodies to put into the fighting line. So the US agreed to lend several black infantry regiments to the French, who agreed to equip them with rifles and helmets

On 14 May 1918, Sergeant Henry Johnson and seventeen-year-old Needham Roberts of Trenton, New Jersey, were on sentry duty well in advance of the American lines at Outpost 20 in the Ardennes Forest. It was pitch dark. Sometime after midnight on the 15th a German sniper began firing from a bush fifty yards away. Henry anticipated more trouble, so opened a box of thirty hand grenades and placed them in a row nearby. A bit later he heard the Germans cutting the barbed wire that protected his post, so he sent Needham to alert their troops. henry lobbed a grenade and the “surprised Dutchmen” began firing, so he recalled Needham. Needham was soon incapacitated by a German grenade. Two Germans tried to take him prisoner but Johnson beat them back. Needham could not stand but he sat upright and passed grenades to Henry.

With grenades exhausted Henry grabbed his French rifle. He inserted an American clip into the weapon, but it jammed. At that point, a bunch of Germans rushed him and the fighting became hand-to-hand. Henry could not see the enemy, but he could feel them. 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 n—-r got me.'” Johnson was still “banging them” when reinforcements 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 twenty more killed or wounded who had been dragged away by the Germans as they retreated. Henry had defeated an entire German platoon. The event almost immediately became known as the “Battle of Henry Johnson”.

Five days later, General “Blackjack” Pershing, the commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Force, sent the following memo to officials in Washington:

“Reports in hand show notable instance of bravery and devotion shown by 2 soldiers of American colored regiment operating in French sector. Before day light on May 15 Private Henry Johnson and Private Roberts while on sentry duty at some distance from one another were attacked by German raiding party estimated at 20 men, who advanced in 2 groups attacking at once from flank and rear. Both men fought bravely in hand to hand encounters, one resorting to use of bolo knife after rifle jammed and further fighting with bayonet and butt became impossible. Evidence that at least one and probably second German was severely cut. Third known to have been shot. Attention drawn to fact that the 2 colored sentries first attacked continued fighting after receiving wounds, and despite of use of grenades by superior force, and should be given credit for preventing by their bravery the taking prisoner of our men”

The French thought Pershing’s memo was too weak and matter of fact. They heaped praise on both Henry and Needham, then awarded them both the Croix de Guerre. Henry’s had a star and a bronze palm, the highest possible award. They were thus the first American troops in the Great War to receive that honor.

Needham (left) and Henry, moments after receiving the Croix de Guerre

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. The Purple Heart medal would not be introduced until 1932, so for the moment Henry and Needham got only a couple of wound chevrons and no valor medals. Pershing’s staff argued that they were fighting with a French unit, so could not receive American medals.

Nine more of the 171 individual winners of the croix de Guerre from the 369th

The Germans immediately tagged Henry as “Black Death” and began calling his comrades the “Blutlustige Schwartzman”, “bloodthirsty black men”. They had seen all they wanted of the 369th.

While Needham and Henry were recovering from their wounds, their unit, the 369th Infantry regiment, was undergoing 191 consecutive days of enemy fire. The French gave 169 other members of the 369th, and eventually, the entire unit, a Croix de Guerre. From that time forth the 369th was known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”. While Henry and Needham were still in the French hospital, a number of fraudulent Henry Johnsons appeared in the US, making paid speaking engagements to tell “their” stories. And at least two women, the names “Edna” and “Ella” come to mind, were doing the same thing while posing as Henry’s wife. A Chicago publisher created a full color poster which inaccurately depicted “The Battle of Henry Johnson” and made quite a bit of money, selling for 25¢ each.

E.G. Renesch poster of the “Battle of Henry Johnson”, 1918. Not very accurate, but certainly dramatic.

The rules of the American Expeditionary Force forbade press releases naming specific units or soldiers. But the rules did not apply to the 369th or other black units…for once their pariah status played to their advantage…on May 21, the “Battle of Henry Johnson” hit the front pages of major newspapers across the nation…Henry became the first US soldier in the Great War known by name to the American public. Three days later, Stars & Stripes published an extensive article in which it pointed out that while the French high command was praising Henry and Needham to the skies, their white regimental commander had been referring to them as “my chilluns”.

The Great War ended at 11:11 AM on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. The US government immediately began rushing our troops home. The progress of each ship was tracked daily by newspapers across the nation. On Wednesday, February 12, 1919, the Swedish American liner Stockholm sailed into New York harbor. As they passed the Statue of Liberty, the 369th band, under the direction of the only black officer in the regiment, Jim Europe,  struck up the “Star Spangled Banner” and all on board trooped to the rail and saluted Lady Liberty. When that moment had passed, the steamer Correction, which had been chartered by the residents of Harlem to greet the 369th at sea, arrived. Jim Europe’s band segued into a series of jazz tunes as many of the 369th’s friends and lovers exchanged greetings across the narrow strip of water separating the two vessels, which sailed side by side to a dock area known as “San Juan Hill” in west Manhatten. The 369th soldiers swayed down the gangplank to the tune of “Darktown Strutters Ball” played by another Army band on shore. They were welcomed deliriously in Harlem, where Lennox Avenue had been extensively decorated from 125th to 145th Streets. The Harlem Hellfighters were home at last.

MS Stockholm

That same day, the anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, Henry Johnson was brought forward at a huge New York press conference to address the crowd. Here is his story in full of the battle that was named for him as reported in an article that began on the front page of the New York Tribune the following day. It is a small masterpiece of the storyteller’s art, condensing a complicated tale into a brief, compelling, yet humble, narrative. Click the image to read his story.

Contrary to popular belief, the 369th was not excluded from any victory parades. In fact, they were one of the first units to return from Europe and so became the first US troops to parade in New York. Unlike later parades, theirs was made up only of the 3,000 members of the Harlem Hellfighters.

The parade beqan at 11:26 AM, February 18, 1919 on Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street in Chelsea. The crowd along the route was estimated at 250,000. Unable to march because of his injuries, Henry occupied the place of honor, riding the parade route standing up, holding a bouquet of white and red lillies, in a 1918 Auburn touring car. About 200 of his wounded colleagues rode in other cars. The healthy troops marched in a tight French style phalanx with fixed bayonets. At 60th Street, New York governor Al Smith and many other dignitaries manned the reviewing stand. By then, the cheers of the crowd were so loud that speeches were fruitless. At 110th Street, the route shifted over to Lennox Avenue, Harlem’s main drag. The troops reformed in the more open platoon formation and by 129th Street friends and lovers began dashing into the ranks to hug and kiss their returning heroes. Harlemites chanted “O-oh, you wick-ed Hen-nery Johnson! You wick-ed ma-an!” By the time they reached the end of the march at 145th Street, flowers were showering on them like rain.

Henry was enlisted to help in the sale of Liberty Bonds and Stamps…street cars were plastered with cards saying “Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans…how many stamps have you licked?” For a time, Henry’s celebrity led to a series of paid speaking engagements, but one day in St. Louis he made the mistake of telling the truth about how black soldiers were treated by their white colleagues, who refused to fight beside them, and racist white backlash ended his days of popularity. He was unable to work because of his wounds and eventually received a military pension. By the early 1920s, he had developed tuberculosis, for which he was hospitalized at Walter Reed and other veteran’s hospitals. He died in 1929 of myocardia and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. When the disastrous treaty that ended “The Great War” reaped its inevitable harvest and the Nazis began to rise in Europe, the US government did not hesitate to exploit Henry once again to recruit black soldiers.

If, by then, Henry had become merely a recruiting poster for most, he had not been forgotten by some who mattered. Here is a letter from one of the best known people in the nation to prove that point:

Some years later, Herman Archibald Johnson, a former Tuskeegee airman and Missouri state legislator, said that he was Henry Johnson’s son and began campaigning to get more recognition for Henry. On Veteran’s Day, 1996, the citizens of Albany, NY erected a monument to Henry in Washington Park, the city’s finest. That same year, President Clinton awarded Henry a posthumous Purple Heart. In 2003, Henry was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest honor, which was received by Herman Johnson on Henry’s behalf. After Herman’s death, his daughter, Tara, took up the cause, refusing to quit until Henry also had the richly deserved Medal of Honor. By this time, New York senator Chuck Schumer was involved. He established a website with a petition that people could sign in support of Henry’s quest for the MOH. And his staff put together a massive document which was forwarded to the Pentagon on Henry’s behalf. Finally, on June 2, 2015, President Barack Obama presented Henry Johnson with his Medal of Honor. One might expect that Tara Johnson would have done the honors in the White House. But there is a rule that only a “primary next of kin”, known as PNOK, can receive such an award. And Henry’s final triumph was marred by an unexpected bit of tragedy.

Henry’s monument, Washington Park, Albany, NY

 

Herman Johnson received Henry Johnson’s Distinguished Service Cross

 

Tara Johnson with Senator Schumer

The process for determining PNOK has been standardized in recent times. It follows the well founded basic rules of genealogy, which is the FCPL’s North Carolina Room’s primary objective. For many years, the go to person for making such determinations has been super genealogist Megan Smolenyak (see our post on her here:  https://northcarolinaroom.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/our-22nd-irish-president/). Megan determined that Henry Johnson had no children, and so Herman Johnson was not connected to Henry in any way, which meant that Herman’s daughter Tara was not connected either. Herman had been told that he was Henry’s son, so had been acting in good faith, as had his daughter, but the truth was that Henry had no PNOK. So Henry’s Medal of Honor was handed to Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. President Obama, being a decent person, was appalled at the situation. He invited Tara Johnson to attend the ceremony and even mentioned her role at the time.

Megan Smolenyak

 

President Obama with Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson

The bittersweet end of Henry’s story is not really the end, because even now, there are many sources that contain bogus accounts of Henry’s life and times. And even the redoubtable Ms. Smolenyak made mistakes. In an article in the Huff Post, she was careful to explain that she was referring to Henry as “Sergeant Henry Johnson” even though he was not a sergeant at the time of the “Battle of Henry Johnson”. The only problem there is that the official New York National Guard register states that Henry was appointed sergeant on May 1, 1918, a little over two weeks before the “Battle of Henry Johnson”. So was he a sergeant or not? Elsewhere, she mentions that Henry was born in “Western Salem”, based on a single garbled document, despite the fact that all other documents state clearly that Henry was born in Winston-Salem, Those documents were recorded by other people, because Henry was unable to read or write. Of course, there is a West Salem neighborhood in Winston-Salem, but anyone familiar with the demographics of West Salem in the late 19th century knows that it was a lily white area and that no black children were born there. Henry gave different dates of birth for himself…March, May, July…but the year was usually consistent…1892. And there is never really any doubt about the place…Winston-Salem. I once thought I had found his parents and was able to determine where they lived and where his father worked in the Twin City, only to discover much later that there was another Henry Johnson of the same age who never left Winston-Salem and he was the one that I had homed in on.

The New York National Guard register highlights two “problems”. (1) It clearly states both the dates of Henry’s promotion to sergeant and “The Battle of Henry Johnson”. (2) Ms. Smolenyak apparently misread the initial “hometown” mistake on the form…it does not say “Western”, but “Weston”, which is obviously a simple secretarial problem and not anything that Henry said.

We will probably never know who Henry Johnson’s parents and siblings were or precisely where they lived. But given the predominance of evidence, it is almost certain that they lived in the teeming tenements and duplexes of the Long Branch area. But history is not written in stone. It is a constantly shifting target, always subject to new evidence. What is presented above is the story of Henry Johnson as we know it at this minute. The only certain thing is that this five foot four inch 130 pound man was far bigger than most other men. Thank you, Henry Johnson, for your service.

1918 Croix de Guerre. This one has a star and two palms. Henry’s had only one palm, but that would be enough for most people.

 

Henry on the deck of the Stockholm with a lifeboat in the background. Note the wound chevrons on his right sleeve. The chevrons on the left sleeve indicate overseas service. Both sets of chevrons were gold. We can clearly see the star and the palm on the ribbon above his Croix de Guerre. The device on his shoulder goes with the medal and is known as a fourragère.

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