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“Black Death” – Henry Johnson was America’s first World War One hero

By Colin Fraser, June 10, 2016

Henry Johnson was a World War I soldier who singlehandedly beat back a German assault while critically wounded. He was a great American hero and received the highest military honor of two different countries. One of those countries, however, his very own, didn’t bestow that medal until nearly 100 years after his service in WWI.henry johnson

The honor this man deserved was not awarded by the U.S. government upon his return home, because he was black. But that racism was eventually overcome, if only by the undeniable memory of his heroism.

Henry Johnson wearing his Croix de Guerre in 1918Henry Johnson wearing his Croix de Guerre in 1918.In 1917, a young man working as a Red Cap porter at an Albany, New York train station joined the 15th New York National Guard Regiment. Due to U.S. segregation policies, it was an all-black regiment. Due to be shipped out to France as the U.S. declared war on Germany and its allies, the 15th New York was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment and placed within the American Expeditionary Force under General John J. Pershing.

Johnson arrived in France on New Years Day, 1918. The African-American troops of the U.S. Army were harassed, sometimes even killed, by their Caucasian counterparts who would sometimes refuse to fight alongside them. The officers also distrusted them, harassed them, and issued disparaging remarks and pamphlets to French military and civilians about their black soldiers.

Thus, black regiments were very poorly trained and most often assigned to menial labor like carrying supplies and digging ditches and latrines.

The French, however, didn’t nearly conform to the U.S. military’s blind racial prejudice. When their Fourth Army, short on troops, was offered the 369th Infantry Regiment to reinforce their line, they gladly took on the soldiers and put them to use as just that. They were given French rifles and helmets and stationed at Outpost 20 in the Argonne Forest, in France’s Champagne region, just West of the infamous battlefields of Verdun.

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