How a black railway porter from New York became the first American to win the Croix de Guerre

“Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?”

– US Army slogan to sell Victory War Stamps

Henry Lincoln Johnson is the definition of under-appreciated. One of the heroes of World War I, his outstanding act of bravery and dedication to a fellow soldier is really quite remarkable.

In the years prior to his finest hour, Johnson was earning a living as a rail porter at Albany Union Station. Standing at 5ft 4 and weighing 130 pounds, the former chauffeur and coal labourer was by no means a born soldier but he was quick to sign up when President Woodrow Wilson declared war against Germany in 1917. Johnson enlisted at the Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn and was soon sent to Carolina for training, leaving his wife Edna and three children behind.
Johnson was assigned to the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, which was later renamed the 369th Infantry. This was the first African-American regiment of the war and it was here that he would first meet his great friend Needham Roberts.

The early days of military service didn’t go smoothly as brawls regularly broke out between black and white troops. When they sailed over to French soil, life didn’t get much better as the two privates and their company were slapped with menial tasks such as digging latrines. Being African-American, Johnson and Roberts were subjected to segregation and their Labor Unit was given the worst tasks that their commanders could think of.

Henry Lincoln Johnson wearing his Croix de Guerre in 1919

When the time finally came for frontline duty, the rest of the US forces reportedly refused to fight alongside the African-American regiments. The company was determined to contribute as much as possible to the war effort so the decision was made to put the 369th, or the ‘Black Rattlers’, under the operational control of the French Fourth Army, who were short of troops in the fight against the German Empire. A notorious document called ‘Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops’ was even given to the French to dispel any negative tales they had been told from the other US divisions.

The company was stationed at Outpost 20 in the Argonne Forest in north-eastern France. Johnson and Roberts were given French helmets and weapons and learned basic French so they could understand their new comrades.

May 1918 saw fresh German offensives into Northern France and it wasn’t long until the men were pressed into action. On the night of 14 May, Privates Johnson and Roberts were on the midnight to 4am shift on double sentry duty, when they heard the sound of wire cutters on the camp’s perimeter fence. They were then forced to take evasive action as they were shot at by sniper fire. Opening up a box of 30 grenades, the men readied themselves for battle.

“Our coloured heroes” lithograph showing Johnson’s courage, 1918

While Johnson hurled the projectiles at the oncoming raiding party, Roberts sprinted back towards the main camp for backup. However, after seeing between 20 and 40 men advancing on Johnson, he turned back to help his friend. They returned fire but in no time ferocious hand-to-hand combat had broken out.
Roberts, who had been struck more seriously than Johnson, was unable to fight effectively with wounds to his arm and hip. He still managed to make himself useful by handing grenades to Johnson who threw them over the parapet.

Soon they ran out of projectiles and in the confusion Johnson tried to arm his French rifle with a US cartridge, jamming the mechanism. Drawing his nine-inch double-edged bolo knife from his belt, Johnson fought on despite grenade and shotgun wounds. He later recalling:

“Each slash meant something, believe me; I wasn’t doing exercises, let me tell you”

In the heat of battle, Johnson noticed Roberts being carried away by the Germans. Determined not to let his good friend become a prisoner of war, he made his way towards him using his broken rifle as a club and even his fists. His dogged defence and total disregard for his own life kept the German soldiers at bay until they heard the distant advance of French and US troops and made a hasty retreat. The skirmish had lasted about an hour and the two men were then forced to wait it out until morning broke and reinforcements arrived. Johnson cared for Roberts for hours ensuring that his 17-year-old buddy could fight another day, but his act of gallantry had taken its toll on the weary Albany native and as help reached them, he collapsed absolutely exhausted.

Members of the 369th Infantry serving in the trenches in France, 1918
Members of the 369th Infantry serving in the trenches in France, 1918

Waking up in the morning light of a French field hospital, Private Johnson learned that he had killed four Germans, including one lieutenant, and had wounded between 10 and 20 more. He had successfully protected the French line but had received a total of 21 wounds from gunshots and grenade blasts. Back on the battlefield, a patrol from 369th Company found that the German’s blood trailed back almost to his own lines. This was the carnage that the young American had caused and the name ‘Hellfighters’ would now stick with the company forever. As for Johnson, he was given the nickname ‘Black Death’ for his ferocity in battle.

Indebted to their efforts in saving the camp, the French military hierarchy awarded the two men with the Croix de Guerre military decoration. France’s highest award for bravery, this was a massive honour to the two privates who were the first Americans to receive the medal and were both promoted to sergeant. Johnson was additionally given a golden palm wreath on his ribbon for ‘extraordinary valour’.

After the defeat of the Triple Alliance, the Hellfighters returned home to be greeted by a parade in New York. Johnson rode in an open-top Cadillac, but the parade would be the limit of his rewards. The hero was denied a disability pension and was even refused a Purple Heart, a US military decoration given to those wounded in service.

The 369th march down Fifth Avenue after their return from France
The 369th march down Fifth Avenue after their return from France

Johnson was given a hero’s welcome by the people of Albany, and the Fort Orange Club (a prestigious venue in the area) hosted a tea for his wife, Edna. Pictures of Johnson and Roberts sold in great number and were even used as recruitment tools, as the men lectured the youth on their war experiences.

Life was seemingly good for the Johnson family but in private, the great man was struggling. After being denied work back at the Union Station due to his wounds, he found it difficult to get another job. Uneducated and in his early twenties, Johnson, like many of the other returning soldiers, could not overcome the trauma and injury he had suffered in France. The turmoil eventually drove him to hit the bottle and soon his wife and children left him behind. He died penniless in 1929 aged 32.

Herman Johnson, Henry’s son, managed to locate his father’s grave 63 years later in Arlington National Cemetery. The discovery helped the memory of Johnson gain momentum and soon a movement was raised to award him higher honours. In 1996 he was awarded the Purple Heart and in 2003 the Distinguished Service Cross and, finally in 2015 the moment came when the World War I hero was given what he had always deserved, the Medal of Honor, ensuring that the efforts made by Henry Johnson in the spring of 1918 have finally been appreciated.

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