Honoring Black Leaders in Public Health, Government, and IT: Sergeant Henry Johnson

DLH is celebrating Black History Month by honoring the legacy of African-American leaders in public health, government, and information technology. Click here to view more entries in our series.

Sergeant Henry Johnson is one of the countless African-American names etched into the lore of U.S. military history. His exploits during WWI saved American and Allied lives. But when he returned home following the war, our nation failed to provide the support owed to a hero such as himself.

Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917. He was assigned to Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, an all-black National Guard unit. The unit was ordered into battle in France the following year.

One night while on sentry duty, Johnson and a fellow soldier were set upon by a German raiding party consisting of at least 12 soldiers. Despite sustaining 21 wounds amidst a barrage of gunfire, Sergeant Johnson was able to mount a counter attack, ultimately engaging the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. He prevented German troops from taking his fellow soldier prisoner, and the forces eventually retreated.

Johnson’s valor was widely recognized in the moment. He became one of the first Americans to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest award for valor. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. referred to Henry Johnson as “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war” in his 1928 book, “Rank and File: True Stories of the Great War”.

But when he returned home following the war, Johnson lacked support. Clerical errors meant his discharge records made no mention of his injuries. Johnson was denied a Purple Heart and a disability allowance. Without the resources to appeal, he returned home, hoping to resume his life as a porter at the train station. Unfortunately, his injuries proved too much to overcome. He found it difficult to hold a job and resorted to drinking. He died in 1929 at age 32. 

An American military hero, Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.

Learn more about the life and legacy of Henry Johnson from the U.S. Army.

Sources:

Sergeant Henry Johnson,’ U.S. Army

Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death,’ by Gilbert King

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