Henry Lincoln Johnson

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For other people named Henry Johnson, see Henry Johnson (disambiguation).
Henry Johnson
Henry Johnson.PNG
Johnson in 1918, wearing his Croix de Guerre.
Birth name Henry Lincoln Johnson
Nickname(s) "Black Death"
Born 1897
Alexandria, Virginia, U.S.
Died July 5, 1929 (aged 31–32)
New Lenox, Illinois, U.S.
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch Seal of the United States Department of War.png United States Army
Years of service 1917–1918
Rank WW1-Sergeant.svg Sergeant

New York National Guard

Battles/wars World War I
Awards Distinguished Service Cross ribbon.svg Distinguished Service Cross
Purple Heart BAR.svg Purple Heart
Croix de Guerre 1914-1918 ribbon.svg Croix de guerre (Palm and Star)
Relations Herman A. Johnson (son)

Henry Lincoln Johnson (1897 – July 5, 1929) was a United States Army soldier who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart, and the French Croix de Guerre. He was the first American soldier in World War I to receive the Croix de Guerre with star and Gold Palm from the French government.[1][2]

Early life and education[edit]

Johnson was born in Alexandria, Virginia in 1897 and moved to Albany, New York when he was in his early teens. He worked as a redcap porter at the Albany Union Station on Broadway.


Henry Johnson biographical cartoon by Charles Alston, 1943

Johnson enlisted in the United States Army on June 5, 1917, joining the all-black New York National Guard unit, the 15th New York Infantry, which, when mustered into federal service was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment, based in Harlem. This regiment was assigned to the French Army command in World War I because many white American soldiers refused to perform combat duty with this black regiment.[3] This regiment suffered considerable harassment by American white soldiers and even denigration by the American Expeditionary Force headquarters which went so far as to release the notorious pamphlet Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops, which "warned" French civilian authorities of the alleged inferior nature and supposed rapist tendencies of African Americans.[4] Johnson arrived in France on New Year’s Day, 1918. The French Army assigned Johnson's regiment to Outpost 20 on the edge of the Argonne Forest in the Champagne region of France and equipped them with French rifles and helmets.[5] While on guard duty on May 14, 1918, Private Johnson came under attack by a large German raider party, which may have numbered as many as 24 German soldiers.[6] Johnson displayed uncommon heroism when, using his rifle, a bolo knife, and his bare fists,[7] he repelled the Germans, thereby rescuing a comrade from capture and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. Johnson suffered 21 wounds during this ordeal.[8] This act of valor earned him the nickname of "Black Death", as a sign of respect for his prowess in combat.

The story of Johnson's exploits first came to national attention in an article by Irvin S. Cobb entitled "Young Black Joe" published in the August 24, 1918 Saturday Evening Post.[9]

Returning home, now Sergeant Johnson participated (with his regiment) in a victory parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City on February 1919.[10] Sergeant Johnson was then paid to take part in a series of lecture tours. He appeared one evening in St. Louis and instead of delivering the expected tale of racial harmony in the trenches, he instead revealed the abuse black soldiers had suffered, such as white soldiers refusing to share trenches with blacks. Soon after this a warrant was issued for Johnson's arrest for wearing his uniform beyond the prescribed date of his commission and paid lecturing engagements dried up.[11]

In spite of his heroism and multiple injuries (including loss of a shinbone and most bones of one foot), the United States government denied Johnson both a Purple Heart (until 1996) and a disability pension (throughout his life).[12]

Later life and death[edit]

Johnson died in New Lenox, Illinois at the Veterans Hospital, on July 5, 1929, penniless, estranged from his wife and family and without official recognition from the U.S. government. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


The French government awarded Johnson the Croix de Guerre with special citation and a golden palm.[13] This was France's highest award for bravery and he was the first American to receive it.[14]

Former United States President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I.[15]

Interest in obtaining fitting recognition for Johnson grew during the 1970s and 1980s. In November 1991 a monument was erected in Albany, New York's Washington Park in his honor, and a section of Northern Boulevard was renamed Henry Johnson Boulevard.

In June 1996, Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart by President Bill Clinton. In February 2003, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second highest award, was presented to Herman A. Johnson, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, on behalf of his father.[16] John Howe, a Vietnam War veteran who had campaigned tirelessly for recognition for Johnson, and U.S. Army Major General Nathaniel James, President of the 369th Veterans' Association, were present at the ceremony in Albany.[17][18]

In December 2004 the Postal facility at 747 Broadway was renamed the "United States Postal Service Henry Johnson Annex".

On September 4, 2007 the City of Albany dedicated the Henry Johnson Charter School. Johnson's granddaughter was in attendance.

A 1918 commercial poster honoring Johnson's wartime heroics was the subject of an 2012 episode of the PBS television series History Detectives.[19]

As of December 3, 2014, the national defense bill included a provision, added by Senator Chuck Schumer, to award Johnson the Medal of Honor.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.anb.org/articles/20/20-01908.html
  2. ^ http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/citizensoldier/conflicts/WWI/hjohnson.cfm
  3. ^ http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/editorial-henry-johnson-honor-sight-article-1.2043664
  4. ^ http://www.anb.org/articles/20/20-01908.html
  5. ^ http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117386701/?no-ist
  6. ^ http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/editorial-henry-johnson-honor-sight-article-1.2043664
  7. ^ http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/editorial-henry-johnson-honor-sight-article-1.2043664
  8. ^ http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117386701/?no-ist
  9. ^ Cobb, Irvin. "The Glory of the Coming". http://www.gutenberg.org. Retrieved 10 August 2014. 
  10. ^ http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117386701/
  11. ^ Negro with a Hat, The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and his Dream of Mother Africa, Colin Grant. p.113 ISBN 978-0-224-07868-9
  12. ^ http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/editorial-henry-johnson-honor-sight-article-1.2043664
  13. ^ http://www.anb.org/articles/20/20-01908.html
  14. ^ http://www.anb.org/articles/20/20-01908.html
  15. ^ http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117386701/
  16. ^ See General Order No. 9, 18 November 2005, at http://www.apd.army.mil/pdffiles/go0509.pdf.
  17. ^ Henry Johnson, Sergeant, United States Army at www.arlingtoncemetery.net
  18. ^ defenselink.mil
  19. ^ Tukufu, Zuberi. "Our Colored Heroes - History Detectives - PBS". http://www.pbs.org. Retrieved 10 August 2014. 
  20. ^ Grondahl, Paul. "WWI hero Henry Johnson on verge of Medal of Honor". http://www.timesunion.com. Retrieved 3 December 2014. 

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