This World War I Hero’s Courage Took Nearly 100 Years To Recognize [Opinion]

Just as this week marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I, this year would mark the 120th birthday of WWI hero, Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson. While most Americans have never heard of this man, his story is quite possibly the most compelling soldier’s story you will ever hear and one which deserves to be told over and over again.

Henry Lincoln Johnson in his uniform.
Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson {Image by US ARMY/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain]

In the wee hours of May 14, 1918, a German raiding party of at least two dozen soldiers operating in the Argonne Forest set out to capture American soldiers. The Germans came upon a post occupied by Private Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts. Johnson was immediately wounded and Roberts was captured. Johnson then went after the German raiders, firing his French-made Lebel rifle until it jammed, then using it to club the enemy until the butt broke in half.

Johnson managed to grab a grenade from one of the Germans, which he threw into the raiders, killing several of them. He then pulled his knife and dragged the disabled Roberts back to their post, still fighting off Germans along the way.

When French troops arrived a few hours later, they found Johnson and Roberts inside their post laughing and singing songs. They also found dead and dying German soldiers strewn about the ground.

Johnson, who was quickly promoted to the rank of Sergeant, sustained 21 separate wounds during the fight.

Since Sgt. Johnson’s unit was comprised solely of black troops, at the time they were not allowed to fight with U.S. forces. Thus the 369th, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, was attached to the 16th Division of the French 4th Army. Johnson, from Brooklyn, New York, was forced to fight under the French flag though he volunteered for the U.S. Army.

Because of Sgt. Johnson’s almost super-human deeds and his heroism to save his comrade, France awarded him that nation’s highest military honor, the French Croix de Guere with Gold Palm. The citation for the award reads like a rough draft of a Hollywood script.

“Johnson, Henry (13348), private in company C, being on double sentry duty during the night and having been assaulted by a group composed of at least one dozen Germans, shot and disabled one of them and grievously wounded two others with his bolo [knife]. In spite of three wounds with pistol bullets and grenades at the beginning of the fight, this man ran to the assistance of his wounded comrade who was about to be carried away prisoner by the enemy, and continued to fight up to the retreat of the Germans. He has given a beautiful example of courage and activity.”

Upon Johnson’s return to the United States, he received a ticker tape parade along New York City’s Fifth Avenue. After hearing his story, former President Theodore Roosevelt, in his book Rank and File – True Stories of the Great War, proclaimed Johnson to be “one of the five bravest men who fought in World War I.”

Sgt. Johnson awarded France's highest military honor.
Sgt. Johnson wearing the Croix du Guerre [Image by Pvt. Needham Roberts/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain]

While France saw fit to bestow their highest honor upon Johnson, his own country did not respond as quickly.

Eighty years later, as directed by Governor Pataki, the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs submitted an official Congressional Medal of Honor nomination on Johnson’s behalf.

In 2001, Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera approved Johnson’s nomination for the CMH. However, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Henry Shelton recommended he not receive the award due to “failure to follow procedure.” Despite that setback, Gov. Pataki continued to petition President Bush to award Johnson the CMH. However, Bush never responded.

It was not until June 2, 201, that Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, by then-President Barack Obama. The medal was actually presented to Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard, as Sgt. Johnson had no living relatives to accept it on his behalf.

The fact that Johnson did not receive the honor for several decades after his own death is truly maddening when you consider how another American was given the award.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur was awarded the CMH for sneaking away from Corregidor in the middle of the night and abandoning his men, who were then starved and tortured by the Japanese. However, Johnson fought off between 20 and 30 Imperial German soldiers in order to save his fellow soldier, sustaining numerous wounds in the process, and his efforts are largely ignored by his own country.

Though the U.S. government waited nearly 100 years to recognize Johnson’s bravery, they did see fit to use him to help recruit young black men into the Army. They not only paraded him about in 1918, but used his image in a 1976 recruiting poster which declared “Johnson left a trail of destruction a half mile long.”

Sadly, unable to continue his job as a porter on the railroad because of his wounds, he became destitute and an alcoholic. In 1929, he died in an Albany, NY, veteran’s hospital separated from his wife and family at the age of 36.

It was not until the 1990s that Johnson’s son discovered where his dad was buried.

It was a shame that in 1917, when Henry Lincoln Johnson walked into the Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn and signed up to fight for his country, that he was never allowed to fight under his own flag. It was also a shame that like many soldiers, Johnson had great difficulty returning to his life at home because of physical and undoubtedly emotional wounds. It is an even further shame that after 1o0 years, this man’s heroism has not received the same recognition that others have who have done much less.

[Featured Image by Charles Alston/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain]