Sergeant Henry Johnson: One of the Bravest Americans of WWI

President Theodore Roosevelt called Sergeant Henry Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” of World War I.

Johnson and his buddy Needham Roberts were on sentry duty. Their regiment had been assigned to help reinforce the 4th French Army. It was 2 AM in their trench in the Argonne Forrest, when the two men suddenly came under fire from enemy snipers. Then they heard the sound of barbed wire being cut.

Grenades were lobbed in both directions, and Roberts was severely wounded by an explosion. Out of grenades, Johnson fired his rifle, but took hits in his hands and face.  Enemy soldiers were now in the trench, at least a dozen.

Then his rifle jammed, so Johnson used it as a club, hitting enemy troops until his stock shattered.  He was suddenly hit in the head, and collapsed. Shot multiple times and battered to the ground, Johnson could have quit fighting, but he saw the enemy trying to drag Roberts away as a prisoner.

Leaping up, Johnson pulled his knife and charged back into the fray. This was no ordinary knife, but a bolo: thirty inches of sharp, curved blade. The American took down two more of the enemy before he was again shot in the arm.

Johnson didn’t falter. Instead, he took out another enemy soldier.  That was enough for the infiltrators, and the ones still moving fled back to their own lines.

Johnson had been shot, beaten, stabbed and taken shrapnel from grenades, receiving nearly two dozen serious wounds. For his bravery, he was awarded the highest French Military honor, the Croix Du Guerre. He also earned the nickname, “Black Death.”

Johnson was a member of the Harlem Hellfighters, an African American unit from New York. And as it is with so many American soldiers, his son followed him a generation later into World War II, as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen.