At Long Last

Medal of Honor at Last for Black WWI Veteran

After almost a century, Henry Johnson, nicknamed the ‘black death’ for his heroism in the Argonne, will be fully honored.

05.31.15 10:45 AM ET

Henry Johnson, all 5-feet-4 of him, was given the name “black death” for his valor in the Argonne forest during World War I. Cries of “Oh, you Black Death!” at a homecoming parade in Harlem greeted his return to the U.S. after the war. But Johnson’s legend quickly faded. He was too black to be an American hero and too crippled by war to hold his old job. He died in 1929, just over a decade after the war ended, destitute and unheralded.

Henry’s son, Herman Johnson, was raised by a great aunt and uncle. He knew his father only from occasional meetings in public parks and later visits to VA hospital rooms. After his father’s death, there wasn’t even a grave for Herman to visit.

As far as Herman knew, his father’s remains lay unmarked somewhere in a pauper’s field.

Until the past few decades there was no official award recognizing the man they called “Black Death.” Nothing in the government or military record books to preserve the legacy of a man Teddy Roosevelt had called one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I. So, in his later life, the younger Johnson fought, joined by senators and military veterans, to have the military award his father the commendations that he’d been denied during his short life. “Fighting for your country is an honor, but they would not give black people any honors,” Johnson said shortly before he died.

Both the Johnson men are dead now but Herman’s daughter, Tara Johnson, will be at the White House this week to see her father’s hopes realized.

On June 2, nearly a century after Henry Johnson made his legend fighting in Europe, President Obama will posthumously award him the Medal of Honor. Along with Johnson, the president will present the Medal of Honor to Army Sergeant William Shemin, a Jewish World War I veteran.

In the years that they have waited for this recognition, the Johnson family has kept up its tradition of military service. “Grandfather was World War I,” Tara Johnson said. “Dad was a Tuskegee Airman, my cousin Herman was a U.S. Marine, and my son DeMarqus was with the first Marines in Fallujah, Iraq.”

Her grandfather, Henry Johnson, left North Carolina in his teens and headed for Albany, N.Y., looking for steady work. After bouncing around as a laborer, he took a job as a Red Cap porter, one of the few positions at the time that promised some upward mobility to black Americans.

In 1917, the year President Woodrow Wilson entered the U.S. into World War I, Johnson joined the military. He volunteered in the 369th Infantry regiment, an all-black unit of the New York National Guard. For their first year of service the soldiers of the 369th were, at best, an afterthought for the Army. The men who would later take the name Harlem Hellfighters were subjected to racist abuse and assigned to perform “labor service duties” while white units received combat training.

It wasn’t until the 369th was transferred from the command of the segregated U.S. Army to the French army that its soldiers were sent into battle. Under the French, the 369th stayed under fire on the front lines for 191 straight days. That, and the high rate of casualties they sustained as a result, led prominent black intellectual and civil rights leader W.E.B. Dubois to accuse the French of using them as fodder.

Shortly after they were placed under French command, Johnson and the other Hellfighters were sent to man the French lines in northeastern France. In the early hours of May 14, 1918, Johnson and another soldier, Needham Roberts, were on guard duty when German snipers began firing on their outpost.

“There isn’t so much to tell,” Johnson told an interviewer in New York after the war when he described what happened next after the German snipers opened fire.

“…I began to get ready. They’d a box of hand grenades there and I took them out of the box and laid them all in a row where they would be handy… the snippin’ and clippin’ of the wires sounded near so I let go with a hand grenade. There was a yell from a lot of surprised Dutchmen and then they started firing. … A German grenade got Needham in the arm and through the hip. He was too badly wounded to do any fighting so I told him to lie in the trench and hand me up the grenades. Keep your nerve I told him. All the Dutchmen in the woods are at us but keep cool and we’ll lick ’em. … Some of the shots got me. One clipped my head, another my lip, another my hand, some in my side, and one smashed my left foot so bad that I have a silver plate holding it up now. The Germans came from all sides. Roberts kept handing me the grenades and I kept throwing them, and the Dutchmen kept squealing but jes’ the same, they kept comin’ on. When the grenades were all gone I started in with my rifle.”

Johnson was using the French rifle he’d been given after being placed under the French Army’s command. When he tried to load an American magazine, the French rifle jammed.

“There was nothing to do but use my rifle as a club and jump into them. I banged them on the dome and the side and everywhere I could land until the butt of my rifle busted. One of the Germans hollered, ‘Rush him, Rush him.’ I decided to do some rushing myself. I grabbed my French bolo knife and slashed in a million directions. … They knocked me around considerable and whanged me on the head, but I always managed to get back on my feet. There was one guy that bothered me. He climbed on my back and I had some job shaking him off and pitching him over my head. Then I stuck him in the ribs with the bolo. I stuck one guy in the stomach and he yelled in good New York talk: That black ——— got me. I was still banging them when my crowd came up and saved me and beat the Germans off.”

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He concluded his account of the battle for which he is receiving the Medal of Honor: “That’s about all. There wasn’t so much to it.”

There was so little to it in the official record that despite some early accolades for his bravery, the U.S. military did nothing to formally recognize Johnson’s heroism. He was the first American to receive the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor. Yet, for his valor, Johnson had nothing to show from his own government, not even a Purple Heart for the serious wounds he sustained that kept him hospitalized for months. Because the army kept no record of Johnson’s injuries, he was ineligible for disability benefits after his discharge.

Five years after he returned from the war, Johnson, unable to work because of his injuries, separated from his wife. Alone, Johnson spent his last years in poverty and alcoholism before dying in 1929 at a veterans hospital.

Though his father didn’t raise him, Herman Johnson grew up aware of his legacy. The younger Johnson was as a Tuskegee Airman, and Ivy League graduate before becoming a successful businessman in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was also the president of the NAACP’s local chapter. 

“He never really talked about his father until I was 25 or 26,” Tara Johnson said of the relationship between her father and grandfather, whom she never met. “I think it was just hard for him to talk about having to go to a park to visit him or having to go visit him in a VA hospital.”

It wasn’t until later in his life that Herman Johnson began working to restore his father’s legacy. “His way of honoring his dad was to make sure he had his rightful place in this country,” Tara Johnson said.

Johnson was joined in his effort by John Howe, a black Vietnam veteran from Albany, New York, and by the office of New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

The first recognition for Johnson came in 1996 when President Clinton awarded Johnson the Purple Heart for the injuries he suffered in combat. He’d gone to the grave with his wounds but the paperwork took another 80 years or so.

In 2002 researchers told Herman Johnson that his father, who he believed to be laying in an unmarked grave, had been buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but previously unidentified because the burial paperwork had used a variation on his name.

Shortly before Herman’s death, his father received the second-highest military award, the Distinguished Service Cross. The Medal of Honor submission had been denied citing insufficient evidence.

“Then a miracle happened,” Tara Johnson said. “Senator Schumer’s officer never gave up. His staff kept doing the research and they found the original evidence that would allow them to resubmit.”

The original evidence, discovered by Schumer staffer Caroline Wekselbaum, was a letter written by General John J. Pershing shortly after Johnson’s battle in the Argonne, commending his bravery, and additional citations from Johnson’s peers.

The Medal of Honor application was resubmitted with the new evidence and approved.

After this week’s White House ceremony, Tara Johnson will go back to splitting her time between her business in Kansas City and her family in Toledo, Ohio.

“DeMarqus is the real reason I’m not running my company in Kansas City,” she said. After his service in the Marines, her son “had his first PTSD episode in 2009,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to give him the opportunity that wasn’t offered to my grandfather. It’s a battle. He has more help than my grandfather did but I’m trying to give him the family support that I don’t think my grandfather had.”