Valor Friday- Harlem Hellfighter

| November 2, 2018

Henry Johnson MOHHenry Johnson, who only stood 5-foot-4 and weighed 130 pounds, was the first American to receive the French Croix du Guerre with a Gold Palm for extraordinary valor. (New York Public Library)

Today’s Valor Friday goes to Private Henry Johnson, 5 foot 4 and 130 pounds of American kick-ass. Johnson’s ferocity earned him the nickname, “Black Death,” and France awarded him with the Croix de Guerre with a Gold Palm for extraordinary valor, making him the first American to receive France’s highest award for bravery. Roberts also received the Groix de Guerre. But there’s more.

Henry Lincoln Johnson was in his mid?20s when he left his job as a railway porter in Albany, New York, in June 1917 and joined the Army, eager to do his part in the First World War only two months after America declared war on Germany.

Shortly after enlisting in Brooklyn, New York, Johnson, who stood only 5-foot?4 and weighed 130 pounds, was assigned to C Company of the 15th New York Infantry Regiment, an all-black National Guard outfit that would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment — also known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

The 369th became the first African American regiment to serve with American Expeditionary Forces. Prior to the unit’s formation, African Americans who wanted to serve in combat typically had to enlist in the French or Canadian armies.

The 369th became the first African American regiment to serve with American Expeditionary Forces. Prior to the unit’s formation, African Americans who wanted to serve in combat typically had to enlist in the French or Canadian armies.

Racism encountered by African American soldiers at the time — from white Americans — was incredibly severe. American Expeditionary Forces even went as far as distributing a pamphlet, called the “Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops,” to French civilian authorities, a publication that declared African Americans were inferior and displayed rapist tendencies.

With such a misguided reputation, Johnson’s unit was initially relegated to labor-intensive duties like unloading ships or digging latrines. That was until being ordered into battle in 1918 and assigned to the French Army for the remainder of the war. The French were far less concerned with race than their white American allies.

While serving with French forces during the early morning hours of May 15, 1918, Johnson and 17-year-old Needham Roberts stood watch on the front lines of the Western Front, near France’s Argonne Forest.

At about 1 a.m., the two men began taking fire from a German sniper. Johnson opened a box of 30 grenades and lined them up for quick use. Shortly after, he began hearing “snippin’ and clippin’” cutting sounds as at least 12 Germans made their way through the wire that protected the post. The rest is history.

Henry Johnson
DATE OF BIRTH: July 15, 1892
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
New York, New York

Henry Johnson and William Shemin were initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Both men were members of the African-American “Hell Fighters” of World War I, and in 2015, after review of their actions and decades after their deaths, they were both awarded the Medal of Honor.

Medal of Honor
DURING World War I
Service: Army
Division: 93d Division, American Expeditionary Forces


The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to Private Henry Johnson (ASN: 1316046), United States Army. Private Henry Johnson distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of heroism at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a member of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces, on May 15, 1918, during combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the Western Front in France. In the early morning hours, Private Johnson and another soldier were on sentry duty at a forward outpost when they received a surprise attack from the German raiding party consisting of at least 12 soldiers. While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Private Johnson mounted a brave retaliation, resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier was badly wounded and being carried away by the enemy, Private Johnson exposed himself to great danger by advancing from his position to engage the two enemy captors in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and gravely wounded himself, Private Johnson continued fighting, defeating the two captors and rescuing the wounded soldier. Displaying great courage, he continued to hold back the larger enemy force until the defeated enemy retreated, leaving behind a large cache of weapons and equipment and providing valuable intelligence. Without Private Johnson’s quick actions and continued fighting, even in the face of almost certain death, the enemy might have succeeded in capturing prisoners in the outpost and abandoning valuable intelligence. Private Johnson’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Infantry Division, and the United States Army.

Different times, change comes albeit slowly. It was my privilege to serve with my brothers and sisters; the only color was Navy Blue.

Henry Johnson MOH

Category: Real Soldiers, The Warrior Code

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Disarming smile.


I’m always humbled reading these stories how a man or woman, facing severe prejudice, still stands up and defends the country they love.

Well done, sir.

I wonder if he returned to his job as a porter and endured more racism from jerks who would have fainted if they heard they were insulting the recipient of the Medal of Honor.


From elsewhere on the net: “Johnson’s discharge papers made no mention of his many wounds, and he received no disability pay after the war. Johnson returned to Albany, and to his job as a railroad porter, but his injuries made it difficult for him to work, and he soon began to decline into alcoholism and poverty. His wife and children left him, and he died penniless in 1929 at the age of 32. As far as anyone in his family knew, he ended up in a pauper’s grave in Albany. “Starting in the 1990s, however, Johnson’s story began gaining more recognition. Albany erected a monument in his honor, and a campaign was launched to get the United States government to posthumously recognize Johnson for his service. Spearheaded by Johnson’s son Herman—who was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II—and New York politicians including Senator Chuck Schumer, the efforts gained ground over the years, and in 1996 President Bill Clinton awarded Johnson a Purple Heart. In 2001, historians from the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs confirmed that Johnson had in fact received a burial with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in July 1929, unbeknownst to his family. In 2002, the U.S. Army awarded Johnson the nation’s second-highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross. “Still, Schumer and other Johnson supporters continued their dedicated campaign to win Johnson the recognition they felt he deserved, and had been denied solely because of the color of his skin. After nearly two decades, their efforts were finally rewarded last month when the White House announced that Johnson would receive the Medal of Honor on June 2. Among the new information that convinced the U.S. Army to bestow its highest award was a communiqué from Pershing, written shortly after the Argonne battle, commending Johnson’s performance. As reported by NBC News, one of Senator Schumer’s staffers turned up the previously unknown document in her research, along with firsthand accounts of the battle from Roberts and other soldiers. Herman Johnson passed away in 2004, and Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the… Read more »


Thank you for that.

2/17 Air Cav

No qualms about this feature, but I thought I recalled Johnson’s being featured here some time ago. He was, by Jonn, in 2013.


There were obviously some good genes there for his son Herma to also serve.

Well done, sir. The nation is grateful for your sacrifice.

Wilted Willy

This is great, glad to see he was finally given the recognition that he deserved! This is the only positive thing I have ever seen Schumer do in his career! BZ Private Johnson! May God rest and keep you good Sir!


Real valor, in a quiet man standing head and shoulders above the crowd….

I am glad that this gentleman was given the recognition he deserved, no matter how long it took.

Thanks for this story, Ed, and the Valor Friday add-on is chartered under the Very Good Ideas heading.


A brother from another mother is still my brother.
We all bleed the same color.

Rest in peace, Private Henry Johnson…
see you in Valhalla.

5th/77th FA

^this^…Hell of a warrior. Another example of “not the size of the dog in the fight”. Did remember reading on Johnson’s previous post. Definitely not a member of the “444 double clutchin, mother (tr)ucking transporting Corps. Heard that term from a former member of the 151st MG Battalion when I was a lad. One thing I’m curious about. Had heard that there used to be some other benefits for MOH Awardees, such as appointments to Military Academies or something. Wonder how that still works and how it would affect a Posthumous Award?


Rest in peace Brother and know you will not be forgotten.


A magnificent story of a brave heroic man and a deserving ending of his efforts in conflict.