Harlem Hellfighter's valor in battle inspires Americans

By David VergunJune 1, 2015

Harlem Hellfighter's valor in battle inspires Americans
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, May 29, 2015) — The German soldiers, who overran his position, fled in fear as Pvt. William Henry Johnson wielded his bolo knife, hacking away at them after expending his bullets.

The French and American Soldiers, he served with on the battlefields of France during World War I, were in awe of him following that epic struggle.

Harlem Hellfighter's valor in battle inspires Americans
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Johnson, an African American, was born in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He moved to New York as a teenager, where he worked in various jobs as a chauffeur, soda mixer, laborer in a coal yard and a porter at Albany's Union Station.

A mere two months after Congress declared war on Germany, June 5, 1917, Johnson enlisted and was assigned to Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment - an all-black National Guard unit, which would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division, American Expeditionary Forces.

Johnson was rather small when he enlisted - five-four and 130 pounds. The Literary Digest reported that his wife Edna, who called him Bill, once said: "Bill ain't big, nor nothin' like that, but oh, he can go some!"

Edna's summary of Bill was prescient of events, which were soon to transpire.

When the 369th deployed to France the following year, Johnson and his unit were brigaded with a French army colonial unit in front-line combat on the western edge of the Argonne Forest in France's Champagne region.


Johnson and a fellow Soldier were pulling sentry duty at night in the vicinity of the Tourbe and Aisne Rivers, northwest of Saint Menehoul, May 15, 1918.

A German raiding party of at least a dozen soldiers attacked their forward position, opening up with intense small-arms fire.

Despite receiving significant wounds, Johnson mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties, according to the White House Medal of Honor announcement for Johnson and Army Sgt. William Shemin, who also fought during World War I, May 14, 2015.

Although badly hurt himself, Johnson ignored the pain and bleeding to assist his fellow wounded Soldier, who was in immediate danger of being taken prisoner.

"Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat," according to the announcement.

At the time, Johnson was wielding a bolo knife, which he used to great effect after firing all the rounds from his Lebel rifle. He quickly dispatched the enemy soldier with the knife, thereby saving his fellow Soldier from being taken captive. The other enemy soldiers, who had witnessed Johnson's ferocity in battle, fled back to their lines.

"Displaying great courage, Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated," the White House announcement said.

Harlem Hellfighter's valor in battle inspires Americans
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Besides inspiring his fellow American and French Soldiers, Johnson's deeds of courage and commitment inspired African Americans back home, especially in New York, said Stephen Harris, author "Harlem's Hell Fighters," a 2003 book about the 369th, which was often referred to by that moniker.

When Johnson and others from his unit returned to the United States, they rode in a victory parade down New York City's Fifth Avenue and into Harlem. About a million showed up to welcome the Soldiers back, Harris said.

Although Johnson would never live to see his Medal of Honor, which will be presented to him posthumously by President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony, June 2, he did receive an equivalent award - the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, that nation's highest award for valor. He became one of the first Americans to receive the award during the war.

When Johnson was discharged from the Army, Feb. 24, 1919, he had attained the rank of sergeant. He returned home to Albany, but was unable to be employed at his pre-war porter position due to the severity of his 21 combat injuries.

He died July 5, 1929, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, in Section 25, Grave 64.

In 1996, Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and in 2002, the Distinguished Service Cross.

Related Links:

Army News Service

Two World War I Soldiers to receive Medals of Honor

Army.mil Medal of Honor: Sgt. Henry Johnson

Army.mil: Human Interest News

Army.mil: Stories of Valor

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