A century ago, a young African-American soldier singlehandedly fought off a group of German soldiers in the French trenches of the First World War. But his heroism was largely forgotten by an American society ruled by segregation.
In November 1918, the French government’s official gazette, the Journal officiel de la République française, wrote up a list of soldiers who had been mentioned for army honours, including several foreigners. One name stood out: Henry Johnson, an American who “offered a perfect example of bravery and dedication”.
“He was one of two men on the night watch when they were attacked by a group of around a dozen German soldiers. He put one man out of action with a gunshot and seriously injured two others with a knife,” the passage describes. The episode could be straight out of a Hollywood film. The Journal continues, “Although he himself had received three gunshot wounds and injuries from grenades, he still went to the aid of his injured comrade who was captured by the enemy, and continued to fight until the Germans fled”.
“It can seem surprising, even extraordinary, particularly when we know that Henry Johnson was a small man – he was only 1m70, and weighed 58 kilograms,” Thomas Saintourens, author of a history of the regiment of black American soldiers from Harlem, told FRANCE 24. “But there was a very detailed military report carried out by the battalion’s captain, who went back to where it happened the following day. He took a note of the number of German helmets and cartridge cases left behind, as well as the huge puddles of blood. It’s clear that this really happened.”
The dramatic attack happened months earlier, during the night of May 14, in the woods of Hauzy in the Marne region in northeastern France. It was there that the 369th American infantry regiment – nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters – was stationed.
Although given up for dead, Henry Johnson survived his injuries, as did the other soldier he had saved.
The story of his bravery quickly worked its way around the trenches. He was awarded the French military honour the Croix de Guerre, and the rank of sergeant. His name even hit the headlines in North America – no small feat, given that racism was rampant in the US at the time. American reporters based on the frontlines wrote a number of stories about this unusual act of bravery.
"The color of a man’s skin has nothing to do with the color of his soul"
“These weren’t necessarily very open-minded journalists. They were prejudiced against black people. One of the journalists was Irvin Cobb, a very well-known writer for the Saturday Evening Post. But Cobb’s experiences of meeting black soldiers on the frontlines in Europe changed his opinions, and his writing helped to turn Johnson into the first black hero of the First World War,” explains Thomas Saintourens.
Cobb wrote afterwards in a column titled 'The Battle of Henry Johnson', “If ever proof were needed, which it is not, that the color of a man’s skin has nothing to do with the color of his soul, this twain then and there offered it in abundance”.
In 1918, this kind of statement would have been extremely controversial. Racism was institutionalised in America. Although black soldiers had been serving in the American army for a year, the forces were still racially segregated. For army generals, it would have been unthinkable to have black soldiers serving alongside white soldiers. Even before being deployed to Europe, the African-American soldiers of the 369th infantry regiment were subject to racist attacks during their training in military camps in South Carolina. In January 1918, when they arrived on French soil, they were relegated to menial work like loading and unloading shipments and managing food supplies.
A different story in the French army
However, on the French side, things were different. The French army needed more men, and so requisitioned the black American soldiers to fight in the French trenches.
“They found themselves under French command. They wore part of the French infantry uniform, the helmet and the jacket. They were also finally able to carry guns, which had been confiscated from them when they arrived in the country and replaced with spades,” says Thomas Saintourens.
Just like Henry Johnson, the Harlem soldiers proved themselves and earned their ‘hellfighters’ nickname.
The 369th infantry regiment spent 191 days on the Front – a record for an American regiment. Upon their return to New York in February 1919, they were permitted to parade along Fifth Avenue and through Harlem.
Henry Johnson had been given the moniker the ‘Black Death’, and was the hero of the celebrations.
“It’s never too late to say thank you"
In only a few weeks the young soldier – formerly a luggage attendant in Albany’s train station – got his first taste of celebrity. The American army took advantage of his fame and even sent him to do a celebrity tour around different towns. But the fairytale ends there.
“Henry Johnson understood quickly that he didn’t belong. He wasn’t comfortable any more with the propaganda he was meant to be peddling, with this very policed story of American heroism. He felt like a fairground attraction,” explains Thomas Saintourens. “During a conference in St. Louis, he broke – and out spilled the truth about the racism he experienced and the way they had been deliberately placed in the frontline. He said that white people would never have been asked to do that.”
The reactions to his outburst were mixed. Some people were furious, whilst others applauded his honesty.
But Henry Johnson was essentially excommunicated: “He took the first train to Albany and left that day, and was never spoken of again,” says Saintourens.
Johnson’s wife left him and he was left disabled from his injuries. He fell into alcohol addiction and misuse, and died an early death from a heart attack in 1929. He is buried in Arlington Military Cemetery in Washington – but it wasn’t until 2015 that he finally received proper recognition. Barack Obama, who was president at the time, awarded him a posthumous Medal of Honor, America’s highest military recognition.
“We are one nation, one people, and we remember our heros,” Obama declared during the ceremony. “We will never forget their sacrifice and we believe that it is never too late to say thank you.”