While on patrol in a French forest in 1918, the then-private single-handedly fended off an attack from two dozen German soldiers, defending himself and his wounded fellow sentry with his gun, then a club, then nothing but a bolo knife and his bare hands. Johnson’s grit saved him and his partner from being taken prisoner and prevented the Germans from breaking the French line.
Briefly, he was showered with glory. The French gave him the Cross de Guerre avec Palme, their highest award for valor. President Theodore Roosevelt called him one of “the five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I. The U.S. Army even used his image to sell victory stamps (“Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?” the advertisements asked). His admirers called him “black death” and filled the streets to cheer his regiment on their return.
Though hailed as a hero during the war, Sergeant Henry Johnson was almost completely disabled from his wounds. Subject to the racially discriminatory administration of veterans’ benefits, he and many other black veterans were denied medical care and other assistance. After he publicly objected to the mistreatment of black veterans, Sergeant Johnson was discharged with no disability pay and left to poverty and alcoholism. Henry Johnson, patriot and war hero, died penniless and alone in 1929 at just 32 years old.
Henry Johnson makes an appearance in my new book, THE LAST HELLFIGHTER, and there is a scene with Ben Harker mourning his passing.