This isn’t a story about guns. It’s about what happens after you’re gun stops working, but before the enemy stops coming. It’s the story of Henry “Black Death” Johnson, a little brother from the South who joined the National Guard in Albany NY, and ended up a hero in France.
May 4,1918. Argonne France. Two Black privates in the 369th Regiment of the United States Army were on alone on sentry duty. Dressed in the uniforms of the French Fourth Army, they were considered to be throw aways by General John Pershing, fit to dig latrines or unload ships, but little else.
The fact that they were serving in French uniform was only the latest in a long line of insults that the soldiers had faced. Since the Civil War, Blacks had to fight for the right to defend their nation. A 1936, a manpower assessment produced at the Army War College described black soldiers as shiftless, dishonest and lazy.”
“Say what you will,” the report declared, “the American Negro is still a primitive human being.” (Anchorage Daily News)
We were considered to be cowards, incapable of appreciating civic duty or national pride. Even though we had displayed considerable valor during the Civil War, the country wasn’t ready to recognize our humanity.
They were comparatively raw troops and were yet subjected to the most awful ordeal…They charged upon fortifications through the crash of belching batteries. The man, White or Black, who will not flinch from that will flinch from nothing… It is no longer possible to doubt the bravery and steadiness of the colored race. It is useless to talk anymore about Negro courage. The men fought like tigers.”
Reporter’s account, as documented in Negros and the Gun by Nicholas Johnson
That night, outfitted in French military uniform, Henry “Black Death” Johnson, of either Alexandria Virginia or Winston-Salem NC, and Needham Roberts of New Jersey, began to draw German sniper fire. Johnson responded by hurling grenades at the advancing German troops. Although Roberts was injured by a German grenade blast, he continued to pass more of the grenades to Johnson.
When they ran out of grenades, Johnson armed himself with his rifle. That too failed him, as he inadvertently loaded a French round into his American rifle in the confusion of battle. By then, the two men were surrounded.
As their position was overrun, Johnson, who stood just 5’4 and weighed 130 pounds, attacked the men with his rifle, swinging it like a club and taking out anyone unlucky or dumb enough to get too close. And when the stock of the rifle splintered on a hapless German, he grabbed his bolo knife.
“Each slash meant something, believe me,” Johnson said later. “I wasn’t doing exercises, let me tell you.”
He stabbed one German soldier in the stomach, felled a lieutenant, and then buried his knife between the ribs of a soldier who had climbed on his back, taking a pistol shop in the arm in the process.
Johnson killed four Germans that night, and wounded anywhere from 10 to 20 more. More importantly, he had saved his friend’s life and held the French line.
“There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said later. “Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.”
The French awarded both Johnson and Roberts the Croix de Guerre, which was France’s highest military honor at the time. In all, 500 members of the Harlem Hellfighters earned the Croix de Guerre during World War I.
When Johnson and his fellow Hellfighters returned to the United States in 1919, they were celebrated with a parade down Fifth Avenue. Thousands came out to cheer them; particularly the small man in the drop top Cadillac which led the procession. Johnson, who had been promoted to Sargent by then, waved a bouquet of red lilacs as the crowd hollered out, “Oh you Black Death.” (The Hellfighters marched in their own parade. The laws wouldn’t permit them to share the same celebration as the returning White troops.)
If you’re looking for a happy ending, stop reading now. Go back to Facebook with the knowledge that “Black Death” Johnson threw Harlem into hysterics.
Afterwards, the Army used his image to sell Victory War Stamps. He was used in recruiting literature and even former President Theodore Roosevelt recognized him as one of the five bravest men to fight in WWI.
Johnson went back to his job as a redcap porter in Albany, New York. The war, however, had taken his toll. He had lost his shinbone and most of the bones of his foot. He simply couldn’t keep a job.
Some sources said that the Army discharge didn’t grant him a disability pension. Others say that he received a disability pension up to his death of tuberculosis in 1929 at the age of 32. At any rate, his life was difficult. By the time of his death, he had separated from his family and descended into alcoholism.
“Black Death” Johnson finally received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2015, only 97 years after that night in Argonne France.