Hero embodies warrior spirit at historic redesignation ceremony

By Angie ThorneJune 14, 2023

Hero embodies warrior spirit at historic redesignation ceremony
1 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Unit commanders, flag bearers and the honor guard stand at ease as the ceremony progresses at the redesignation ceremony June 13 at Warrior Field. (Photo Credit: Angie Thorne) VIEW ORIGINAL
Hero embodies warrior spirit at historic redesignation ceremony
2 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Leadership uncases the new Fort Johnson colors at the redesignation ceremony June 13. (Photo Credit: Angie Thorne) VIEW ORIGINAL
Hero embodies warrior spirit at historic redesignation ceremony
3 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Gen. Daniel Hokanson, National Guard Bureau chief, speaks at the Fort Johnson redesignation ceremony June 13. (Photo Credit: Angie Thorne) VIEW ORIGINAL
Hero embodies warrior spirit at historic redesignation ceremony
4 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Brig. Gen. David W. Gardner, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Johnson commanding general, speaks to the audience at the redesignation ceremony June 13.  (Photo Credit: Angie Thorne) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT JOHNSON, La. — The Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk became JRTC and Fort Johnson at a redesignation ceremony June 13. Government officials, Army leadership, distinguished guests and members of the community attended the ceremony celebrating the historical name change of the Army’s premier combat training facility.

The installation, nestled along the boarder of Louisiana’s Kisatchie National Forest, was born Jan. 10, 1941, on the eve of America’s involvement in World War II. The newly christened Camp Polk began its long history of service by answering the Army’s call during the Louisiana Maneuvers.

Brig. Gen. David W. Gardner, JRTC and Fort Johnson commanding general, spoke at the ceremony and said the maneuvers were one of the greatest practice battles in U.S. history.

“The linked and nearly continuous mock battles had one purpose: to prepare 350,000 American Soldiers for the world war that had begun in Europe and was threatening to spread around the globe,” he said.

The essence of Camp Polk’s reason for being was summed up by Gen. George C. Marshal.

“He spoke the words that would become symbolic of Fort Polk’s mission, then and now. ‘I want the mistakes made down in Louisiana, not over in Europe, and the only way to do this thing is try it out, and if it doesn’t work, find out what we need to make it work.’ More than 80 years later, that idea is still at the forefront of our mission,” Gardner said.

After WWII, Camp Polk closed and opened several times to answer the nation’s call. In June 1950 it once again teamed with Soldiers training for the Korean War. In 1955, Camp Polk was redesignated as Fort Polk in preparation for Operation Sagebrush (the largest training maneuvers held since the Louisiana Maneuvers). More than one million Soldiers trained at Fort Polk during the Vietnam War. In 1993, the Joint Readiness Training Center moved from Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, to Fort Polk, thus beginning the installation’s current role as the Army’s premier combat training center.

“At this very moment, Fort Johnson is training America’s Soldiers to fight and win our nation’s wars. The 44th Infantry Brigade, from the New Jersey National Guard, which is part of the 42nd Infantry Division (The Rainbow Division) from the New York National Guard, just completed their fight against the formidable enemy — the mighty Geronimos,” Gardner said.

The installation’s motto is Forging the Warrior Spirit, which encompasses a Soldier’s courage, bravery, discipline, commitment, adaptability and sense of purpose.

“As Army Soldiers, we dedicate ourselves to the defense of freedom, the protection of our nation and the well-being of our fellow citizens. This sense of purpose infuses every action we take, giving us the strength and resolve to persevere, even when the mission is arduous,” Gardner said.

Sgt. William Henry Johnson embodied the warrior spirit in its purest form. Johnson was a member of the all-Black New York National Guard 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters. He was referred to by President Theodore Roosevelt as one of the five bravest Americans to serve in World War I.

When an unexpected German raiding party attacked his position, Johnson and his comrade faced the enemy without support. Johnson threw grenades until he ran out, fired his rifle until he spent his ammunition, charged the enemy using his rifle as a club and, finally, drew his bolo knife to fight the raiders a close quarters.

“Ultimately, Johnson single-handedly engaged approximately two dozen men and sustained 21 separate wounds in hand-to-hand combat. His actions saved his comrade, sounded the alarm and secured his unit’s safety and position,” Gardner said. “Johnson became the United States’ first hero of the Great War, immediately receiving the French Croix De Guerre for his actions. He was one of the first Americans to ever receive the award.”

Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996, Distinguished Service Cross in 2002 and the Medal of Honor in 2015.

“The warrior spirit that burned within Sgt. William Henry Johnson now inspires generations of Soldiers that call JRTC and Fort Johnson home, as well as those that travel here from across the nation and world to train,” Gardner said. “Johnson’s story is a testament to the indomitable warrior spirit that is the lifeblood of the United States Army. May we all forge the warrior spirit within ourselves, honoring the sacrifices of those like Johnson, and carry it forward with pride, honor and unwavering dedication.”

Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, National Guard Bureau chief and a guest speaker at the redesignation ceremony, told those in attendance that at pivotal moments in history and battle, Guardsman are there.

“They train, they fight, they fulfill their oath. They are warriors. They are heroes … That is why I’m proud this place — The Home of Heroes, Forging the Warrior Spirit — bears the name of a Guardsman: Sgt. William Henry Johnson,” Hokanson said. “I’d like to thank the Naming Commission for commemorating Sgt. Johnson’s courage, strength and readiness and recognizing the historic contributions of our citizen-Soldiers.”

Mark Leslie, Fort Johnson Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security director, attended the ceremony.

“If you have read Sgt. Johnson’s citation for the Medal of Honor, then you know there is no doubt he embodies the warrior spirit. The man fought like a lion and was wounded 21 times. Think about that, 21 times and he kept fighting. Our Army, Soldiers and this installation should not only be proud, but feel privileged to bear Sgt. Johnson’s name and keep forging the warrior spirit for generations to come,” Leslie said. “When we come in the gates of this installation we are greeted with a sign that says, Welcome to the Home of Heroes. How appropriate is it that we will now be memorializing a true hero?”

Hokanson said the Soldiers that pass through these gates, whether regular Army, National Guard or the Army Reserve, will emerge with lessons they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

“They are transformed. They are forged and honed as warriors. They go forth with the spirit of Sgt. William Henry Johnson and all who upheld their oath with courage and honor,” Hokanson said.

Retired New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson attended the redesignation ceremony. Wilson accepted the Medal of Honor on behalf of Johnson in 2015. Wilson trained at Fort Polk years ago as an artillery Command Sergeant Major.

“That was hard training, but to come back here now at the redesignation ceremony for Fort Johnson is amazing,” Wilson said. “He (Johnson) is a personal hero to me. He grew up like I grew up. He was part of the Army and faced challenges and overcame them. If he was here today, he would have a big smile on his face knowing that his story and legacy is being carried on.”

Tara Johnson, Johnson’s granddaughter, was also in attendance. Tara said she and her family were elated and honored to have Johnson recognized in this way.

“When granddad came back to America after the war and they had that ticker tape parade for him, he didn’t look at like he was the first African American guy sitting on a car, waving and having people cheer him on. He thought of himself as a Soldier and nothing more than that. He was honored,” Tara said. “Now that this is Fort Johnson, his name is going to be remembered. The Soldiers that are training here are going to know his story and understand his dedication this country. “

Fort Polk has answered the Army’s call since 1941. The installation has trained millions of America’s men and women to deploy, fight and win the nation’s wars for more than 80 years. That legacy will continue as Fort Johnson.