Henry Johnson: The Story of an Unsung Hero

As you know, February is recognized as Black History Month. This is an opportunity to reflect on all of the brave African-American men and women throughout our country’s history. As the Purple Heart Foundation is a veteran service organization, we wanted to reflect on African-American military service throughout history. Specifically one man, Henry Johnson. Henry Johnson may not be a familiar name, but he courageously served this country and was a true hero.

Henry Johnson was born in July of 1892 in North Carolina, later moving to New York. On June 5, 1917, Johnson enlisted in the United States Military. He has originally joined the all-black New York National Guard (369th Infantry Regiment). He later served as a United States Army sergeant in the First African American Unit of the U.S. Army that engaged in combat during the first world war.

Prior to serving as a sergeant, Johnson and the 369th Infantry joined the 185th Infantry Brigade in France. Exactly one year following Johnson’s enlistment, the 185th Infantry Brigade he was with was assigned to the 93rd Infantry Division. Due to apparent racism and disinterest of the white U.S. soldiers, those who had made up the 369th were “loaned” out to the French Army. As Johnson continued to serve, his bravery was more than apparent.

While serving on sentry duty for his company in the Argonne Forest. He ended up fighting off a large German raiding party which was attempting to break through the line. Despite suffering 21 wounds, Johnson was able to kill 4 German soldiers, wound many others, and rescue a wounded comrade. Word of his courageous actions traveled quickly. The French government awarded Johnson the Croix de Guerre, which at the time was France’s high award for bravery. Henry Johnson was the first American to have received it. Following those events and the entirety of his service, Johnson has been referred to as one of the five bravest Americans to have served in World War I by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

Johnson in 1919, wearing his French Croix de Guerre. Note, too, the two wound chevrons on his lower right sleeve.

It’s extremely unfortunate that racism and mistreatment of African Americans were so prevalent during the time of Henry Johnson’s incredible service. There was an arduous struggle to achieve U.S. military decorations for Johnson. Interest in obtaining proper recognition for Johnson grew greatly after the fact. In November of 1992, a monument was erected in his honor in Albany, New York. Johnson was awarded the Purple Heart in June of 1996. A few years later, in 2003, Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest award for valor. On May 14th of 2015, the White House announced that Sergeant Johnson would receive the Medal of Honor. Former President Barack Obama presented this medal, stating “The least we can do is to say, ‘We know who you are, we know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.

That is absolutely true. We remember who you are, Henry Johnson. We recognize the heroism and bravery that you embodied as you served this country. And, we are forever grateful for your service. It is thanks to the dedication of brave men and women, such as Henry Johnson, that we are free. Here at the Purple Heart Foundation, we are committed to honoring all of our heroes. It is our goal to make the transformation from the battlefield to the home front a smooth one for all of our men and women in uniform, Show your support by making a one-time or monthly pledge to ensure they continue to receive the support and benefits they deserve.

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