Sgt. William Henry Johnson

Black Americans, particularly those interested in the military with family members having served in the armed forces, will welcome news that several U.S. Army bases are being renamed to honor African American war heroes and sheroes.

Two of the nine bases have a special resonance for this writer since Fort Rucker in Alabama is where my father spent some time, along with the noted Judge Bruce Wright, Keith Wright’s father. And Fort Polk in Louisiana is where I did basic training. It will be named for Sgt. William Henry Johnson, the World War I hero who, with Needham Roberts, another member of the legendary Hellfighters of Harlem, distinguished himself against a squadron of German soldiers. Johnson, at one time armed with only a bolo knife, subdued a gaggle of enemy troops.

Both were awarded the Croix de Guerre from the French government for their bravery under fire, and Johnson later would be awarded a Medal of Honor. Johnson and Roberts have been profiled here before as have Lt. Col. Charity Adams, who will share her name with Lt. Col. Arthur Gregg in the renamed base at Fort Lee, Virginia.

Johnson was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1912 and moved with his family to New York City in 1917 just as World War 1 was taking shape as well as the American draft board. As a member of the 369th Regiment that included Noble Sissle, the talented musician who partnered with pianist Eubie Blake to write a corpus of memorable songs, Johnson and his comrades were sent to Spartanburg, South Carolina for basic training. Normally, you got six weeks of basic military drilling before being dispatched to other bases, but the Hellfighters, refusing to buckle under the Jim Crow laws, were soon deployed to Europe and into the heat of battle weeks in advance of basic instruction.

Things were no better at Fort Polk, where I had my introduction to Army life, and racist officers and NCOs who did everything possible to provoke you into action that would inevitably lead to the stockade. The only relief from the drudgery and relentless harassment from them was a weekend pass to Leesville where “ladies of the night,” 2.5 beer and a jukebox took your mind for a moment off the advanced infantry training and preparation for your graduation to Vietnam.

Johnson would have probably been just as defiant at the fort to be named in his honor as he was in Spartanburg, and he apparently relieved some of his anger on the battlefield in combat against the German forces. Several years ago in this column, I wrote this about Johnson’s heroics: On a spring night in 1918, he 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, Johnson captured 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.

Johnson suffered 21 wounds during the encounter, and his act of valor earned him the nickname “Black Death” and several commendations, including the Croix de Guerre, the highest honor for a soldier in combat and a first for an American soldier. Over the years, Americans have learned of the gallantry and bravery of Sergeant York, Audie Murphy, and other white military heroes, but Johnson and Needham’s story of valor is just as worthy of films, books, and articles. In fact, it was an article that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post by Irvin Cobb that highlighted Henry’s amazing feat.

When the war was over, Johnson was one of hundreds of returning soldiers who marched in a victory parade in Manhattan that ended in Harlem. There is a photo in the James Van Der Zee collection of Johnson and Needham Roberts posing in his shop, each decorated with the medals that saluted their bravery during the war. Because of their celebrity, they were often asked to speak at various events, which helped them financially and further endeared them in the hearts and minds of Americans. But not all was rosy for listeners who turned out to hear them, and one memorable occasion Johnson graphically depicted the abuse they suffered from white soldiers who refused to fight alongside them. As expected, a backlash emanated for Johnson to be arrested for wearing a uniform beyond the prescribed date of his commission. The move also led to the termination of his paid engagements.

The cancellation of his speaking tour was hurtful both from a fiscal and emotional standpoint, both of which contributed to his declining health and prosperity. It is still debated the extent to which he received “permanent and total disability” from the Veterans Administration as a result of his tuberculosis. According to Veterans Bureau records, Johnson was awarded monthly compensation and regular visits by Veterans Bureau medical personnel until his death on July 1, 1929. He was only 36 and is interred in the Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1996, Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart by President Bill Clinton. He received a Medal of Honor in 2015 from President Barack Obama. A number of honors commemorating his life and legacy have been given, including a monument erected in Albany, New York’s Washington Park in 1991; and a section of Northern Boulevard was renamed Henry Johnson Boulevard. In December 2004, the Postal facility at 747 Broadway was renamed the “United States Postal Service Henry Johnson Annex.” On Sept. 4, 2007, the Brighter Choice Foundation in Albany dedicated the Henry Johnson Charter School. Johnson’s granddaughter was in attendance. In December 2014, the City School District of Albany established a Junior Reserve officers’’ Training Program (JROTC) at Albany High School named the Henry Johnson Battalion in honor of Johnson. Currently the program enrolls over 100 cadets.

In 2017, Albany, N.Y. area PBS station WMHT aired a documentary about Henry Johnson entitled “Henry Johnson: A Tale of Courage.”

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