color photo of Sergeant Henry Johnson in uniform wearing his croix de guerre medal.
Sergeant Henry Johnson of the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment wearing the Croix de Guerre on the 12th February 1919. Colorization by Mads Madsen

On May 14, 2015, then President of the United States Barack H. Obama presided over the Medal of Honor ceremony at The White House in Washington, D.C.. During the ceremony, President Obama honored the late Sgt. William Henry Johnson for his service in the United States Army during World War I decades after his death. In his speech honoring Sgt. Johnson, President Obama stated, “The least we can do is to say, we know who you are, we know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.” Although Sgt. Johnson was not there to receive his award, the United States, finally made the realization that Sgt. Henry Johnson deserved to be recognized for his service to this great country.

Henry Johnson was born William Henry Johnson in Winston-Salem, North Carolina around the year 1882. He enlisted in the United States Army on 5th June 1917, and joined other Black servicemen in the New York National Guard 15th Infantry Regiment based out of Harlem, New York, which would later become the 369th Infantry. The group was sent to battle in France in 1918 and fought with a French Army unit during combat missions. While Sgt. Johnson’s Infantry was left to be autonomous, many of their fellow White American soldiers did not want to and refused to fight along with Black soldiers. However, the French army welcomed the 369th Infantry and had no problem to be amongst them.

Henry Johnson in military uniform in 1917.
William Henry Johnson photographed in uniform in 1917.

When Sgt. Henry Johnson and his infantry departed for France, there was an unplanned start. Once they left the US, the ship they were on suffered many malfunctions. They tried to leave multiple times but had to backtrack due to severe weather. A large snow storm caused poor visibility for the ship’s captain and they turned back to the US several times to avoid any incidents. During the snow storm and while they were stopped and still on US soil, they were actually hit by another ship, due to their low visibility. There were damages to their ship, but by this time, Sgt. John’s team and leader were frustrated just wanted to get to France. They repaired the damage, and when it was all clear, finally took trip to France.

Johnson’s regiment was assigned to Outpost 20 in Champagne, France. On the 14th May 1918, Sgt. Henry Johnson and his regiment was under attack by German soldiers. In one of his most courageous acts, Johnson, outnumbered by the Germans, used his fists, grenades, and rifle to defeat them. Due to this brave act, he rescued and saved the lives of his fellow soldiers, and earned the nickname “Black Death”. 

In later life, Henry Johnson was declared to have a “permanent and total disability” as a result of tuberculosis. He died on the 1st July 1929, and was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery where he still remains today. 

Johnson was given many awards during and after his life. In 1996, he was awarded the Purple Heart by then-President Bill Clinton. He also received the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest award for bravery, The Distinguished Service Cross, and the Medal of Honor in 2015 among many others.

President Barrack Obama awarding Sgt. Henry Johnson the Medal of Honor. Accepting on his behalf is Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard.

Sgt. Henry Johnson is still honored and admired by the military and many other prolific people today. His life and battle style are still talked about today in publications and classrooms, making him one of the most profiled, servicemen from the United States Army and Military.  

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