Henry “Black Death” Johnson, World War I hero

Herb Boyd | 8/13/2020, midnight
There is no evidence that Kathryn Johnson, whom we featured last week, had any contact with Henry Johnson during their ...
Henry “Black Death” Johnson

There is no evidence that Kathryn Johnson, whom we featured last week, had any contact with Henry Johnson during their stay in France on the battlefront in and around the Argonne Forest. Both Johnsons were part of the American Expeditionary Force under the command of General John Pershing. Kathryn, along with her associate and comrade Addie Hunton, later wrote about their service during World War I, while Henry was written about for his heroic exploits as a member of the famed Harlem Hellfighters.

An exact date of Henry’s birth is not known, though he told the draft board he was born in Winston Salem, N.C. on July 15, 1892. Not much is known about his early years after he moved to Albany, NY in his teens. For a while he worked as a porter at the Albany Union Station on Broadway. If the year of his birth is accurate, he was 25 when he enlisted in the Army in 1917, becoming a member of the New York National Guard 15th Infantry Brigade, later to be called the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The unit’s basic training was cut short after altercations with white racists in Spartanburg, SC and they were deployed to France. Henry’s 369th regiment, upon arrival in France, went through several mergers and reassignments mainly as laborers before being rushed to the frontline.

But like their stay in the South, their departure from the states was rough and was interrupted several times by inclement weather. A relentless snow storm and an accident of colliding ships further hampered their exit from the harbor. Their ship was severely damaged and the captain wanted to suspend the trip but their commander insisted that the voyage continue. His troops repaired the ship themselves.

Soon, the regiment was joined with the 161st Division of the French Army, and there are conflicting stories about this arrangement, but the consensus indicates that the white soldiers were unwilling to fight alongside the Black troops. An example of the racist treatment they endured occurred with an official document released by the American military warning French civilians about fraternizing with the Black soldiers and that they were inferior human beings. One pamphlet even alleged that the Black troops were akin to apes and had tails. By New Year’s Day, 1918, Henry and his fellow soldiers were on the battle fields of France. And the French citizens and soldiers were glad to have the Black Americans join them in the fight against the Germans.

Once on the frontline with French troops, the Hellfighters were equipped with French rifles and helmets and dispatched to the Argonne Forest in the Champagne region of France. On a spring night in 1918, Henry was assigned to an observation post when a platoon of Germans attacked him. Armed with a few grenades, a rifle that was soon out of ammunition, a bolo knife, and his bare fists, Henry subdued the raiding party. His courageous combat was decisive in rescuing his fellow soldier, Needham Roberts, who had joined him to fight off the Germans before he was wounded.