Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.
Sergeant Henry Johnson was born in 1892 in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and raised in Albany, New York. He spent his early years as a porter, a driver, a laborer, and even a soda mixer, and in 1917 Johnson enlisted in the Army. At only 5 foot 4, and 130 pounds, he wasn’t the biggest or the strongest, but he was a fighter.
Less than a year later he would distinguish himself as one of the first American heroes in World War I. Due to segregation, Johnson was assigned to the all-black 15th New York Infantry Regiment. By the time Johnson arrived in France, the 15th had become the 369th Infantry Regiment. There, it formed a brigade with a French army unit, fighting on the front in Argonne Forest. The segregated nature of the US armed forces typically relegated units like Johnson’s to support and service roles, but here, they would be sent into hell, eventually earning the moniker, “Hellfighters from Harlem”.
World War I was dominated by barbaric trench warfare and devastating new weapons like machine guns, Chlorine gas, and tanks. The night of May 15th, Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were on watch overlooking a bridge spanning the Aisne River. ~ They were spurred into action as shots were fired and their barbed wire barrier was cut. Grenades landed around them as Roberts attempted to warn their comrades. Roberts was wounded, leaving Johnson to fight alone against two dozen German soldiers. He kept them at bay with grenades, then with his French Labelle rifle. The Germans flooded the trench. Johnson swung his rifle and dropped one, then saw two more abducting Roberts. Johnson didn’t hesitate - he charged them with his bolo knife, taking a bullet and 20 other wounds in hand-to-hand combat. He didn’t stop until the Germans fled, leaving his comrade behind.
The French recognized Johnson’s bravery, awarding the two soldiers their highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre. Johnson returned to the US a hero, and in New York, he rode down Fifth Ave with his fellow Hellfighters in a victory parade. Former President Theodore Roosevelt called him one of the five heroes of World War I.
Yet, Johnson didn’t just take home the glory. He also carried with him the horrors of trench warfare. Johnson had multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds, and his left foot was held together by a metal plate. Despite all of this, his discharge papers included none of his injuries. Unable to collect disability, or to work as a porter, Johnson turned to drinking and died penniless in 1929. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with military honors.
Almost 100 years after his heroic actions in France, Johnson was finally recognized for his bravery. In 2015, he was posthumously awarded the medal of honor. At a White House ceremony, President Barack Obama said this about Johnson: “‘We know who you are, we know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.’”
The Medal of Honor podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts.
Declan Rohrs is our producer, León Pescador is our associate producer, Nathan Corson is our engineer, and I’m Ken Harbaugh.
We are proud to support the National Medal of Honor Museum. To learn more, and to support their mission, go to mohmuseum.org. Thanks for listening.