June 5, 2017
Today is the first annual Sgt.Henry Johnson Day in Albany, celebrating the life of this distinguished war hero.
He was born William Henry Johnson in Winston Salem, North Carolina. In his teens he moved to Albany, and worked various jobs – as a chauffeur, soda mixer, laborer in a coal yard, and a Redcap porter at Albany’s Union Station.
Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Army, June 5, 1917, and was assigned to Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment – an all-black National Guard unit that would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”.
The 369th Infantry Regiment was ordered into battle in 1918, and Johnson and his unit were brigaded with a French army colonial unit in front-line combat. It was during this service that Johnson came to be a hero. He fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, killing multiple German soldiers and rescuing a fellow soldier while experiencing 21 wounds.
For his battlefield valor, Johnson became one of the first Americans to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest award for valor. Upon his discharge, the Army used Johnson’s image to recruit new soldiers (Sgt. Johnson’s heroics were also used as a recruitment tool in World War II) and to sell Victory War Stamps. (“Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?”) Former President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I.
Johnson returned home from his tour and was unable to return to his pre-war position as a railroad porter, due to the severity of his combat injuries. Johnson’s inability to hold down a job led him to drink. It didn’t take long for his wife and three children to leave. Veterans Bureau records show that a “permanent and total disability” rating was granted to Johnson on September 16, 1927 as a result of tuberculosis. Additional Veterans Bureau records refer to Johnson receiving monthly compensation and regular visits by Veterans Bureau medical personnel until his death.
He died of myocarditis, destitute, in 1929 at age 32 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002; President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015. Sgt. Johnson’s Medal of Honor Citation is found below.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor