Black History Month is observed each year, with stories of achievements and sacrifice of those across history from Black communities around the world.
We see these stories highlighted in various media formats, reminding us how much we owe the Black community when it comes to the many great accomplishments they have bestowed upon society. Being the military storyteller that likes to reflect on the significance of such things, I was drawn to a solitary statue that stands in a New York park to tell my story this month, which has my soul in some turmoil.
The bust of a man with a distant look atop a marble monument gazes out over an Albany city park, in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter, to remind us of the ups and downs of his life’s journey. How easy it is to forget a man who, for a brief time, inspired a nation with his heroics, while at the same time dealing with a world that struggled with its humanity.
Pvt. Henry Johnson, a 5-foot-4-inch soldier weighing 130 pounds, was just one of the men in the all-Black 369th Infantry regiment serving during World War I. African Americans in World War I, especially here in America, were dealing with acceptance issues, as the evil aspect of racism was keeping the very best of our country wondering what it would take to be accepted by the nation they called home. Henry Johnson saw an opportunity, as did many others, when they were given the chance to fight as American soldiers in a far-off land overseas. The Harlem Hellfighters, as they came to be known, trained as American soldiers and became a very poised and polished group of warfighters. As Army soldiers, they looked forward to earning the respect of their fellow American combatants on the battlefields of France.
Sadly, when it came time to deploy to Europe, the narrow-minded command structures of our nation were still being influenced by the bigotry of the times, and a mindset that did not want white troops sharing foxholes with men of color. Faced with a shortage of soldiers, and needing every man who was willing and able to fight, the 396th Harlem Hellfighters shipped out to serve with the French army, who had no problem serving alongside the Black American soldiers. Wearing their American uniforms and issued French rifles, they called themselves the “Black Rattlers” and the French dubbed them “Men of Bronze”. The Army officially recognized the unit by what the enemy called them in World War I — the Harlem Hellfighters. They fought the German army with such skill and determination, that it wasn’t long before their foe gave the outfit its famous nickname, along with many others.
World War I had a brutality to it like no other war. That’s not saying other wars were not brutal — it’s just the fact that the trench warfare of that time period was at a turning point. Weaponry for killing was becoming more dramatic and lethal, and was used in a very inhumane manner. The horrors of war were made manifest in ways the human race could never have imagined.
In the middle of all this carnage was our American Soldier Pvt. Henry Johnson, who would, in a moment in time, perform the acts that would end with his likeness in the form of a statue looking out over America from a New York park, commemorating for the nation and the world the heart and soul of the American soldier.
During the battle that took place on May 15, 1918, in the Argonne Forest at the bridge over the Aisne River, Pvt. Johnson went to extreme measures to protect his unit, rescue an injured soldier, and defend the crossing in a courageous effort.
After his grenades failed to stop the approaching enemy forces, he single-handedly used the butt of his rifle, his bolo knife, and even his hands, killing five German soldiers and wounding many others, as well as rescuing one of his own unit members from being captured. Through it all, Johnson sustained 21 wounds, including being shot numerous times, as he fought off the Germans in a battle that eventually killed many soldiers in the unit. Yet they did succeed and, in recognition of that important day when the French 93rd and its many African American soldiers held off the Germans, Johnson was the first U.S. soldier of World War I to be awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military award for valor.
During the assault, the heart of Henry showed what an incredible soldier he was. He lived up to the mottos of military service “No soldier left behind” and “I’ve got your back” when his watch partner, Pvt. Needham Roberts, was wounded. When the attacking German soldiers attempted to take Roberts prisoner, Johnson rescued him, sustaining even more wounds than he already had. Johnson and Roberts held on, with Johnson continuing to fight and protect his fallen comrade.
It’s been said that nobody ever wakes up in the morning and says, “I’m going to become a hero today.” I’m sure from Harlem to the battlefront, Johnson never thought that the day would come when he would return to the United States alive, much less a war hero. When his unit returned from France to a hero’s welcome home parade, he was riding at the front as the community showed their appreciation for his service and gallantry — never dreaming of what the end of his military service would look like.
Sadly, the America he left was not much different upon his return, and the line “All glory is fading,” had him facing the grim reality that earning lasting respect was still going to be a battle of a different kind, in a country that still had a long way to go in its fight for civil rights — let alone taking care of its combat veterans.
Johnson did return from France to America as a war hero and rose to the rank of sergeant in the Army. Life after the war was short and sad for him. Suffering from ongoing issues due to the many war injuries he had sustained and lacking any military benefits for those injuries, Johnson was unable to hold a job and fell into poverty. Worse yet, his military discharge paperwork somehow did not contain any record of the numerous injuries he had suffered while serving his country and the allies, so neither aid nor recognition was available to him. Sgt. William Henry Johnson died a little more than a decade after returning from the western front of World War I, a mostly forgotten war hero who was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia after his passing on July 1, 1929.
A story like this can leave an individual numb, as the heartbreak of the outcome leaves one pondering how such an inspirational story can end up so badly. Way too many years later the medals and the recognition came, as the Purple Heart and the Congressional Medal of Honor were awarded to Sgt. Johnson posthumously, but that sure does not take away from the headache of his life upon his return from that brutal war, in the country he served with honor.
So now my story here circles back to that statue in the New York park that bears his name, and how it reminds us of where we were and how far future generations will need to go to continue to right the wrongs of the past. Lately, statues have become somewhat of a rally point of protest to the plight that many Americans have suffered in our nation’s history. In my opinion the subject matter of statues is important and needs to be shared with future generations, so as to educate our nation about the struggles we will always have to overcome as a free nation. The statue of Johnson is looking at us, and I wonder how many of us take the time to look at him and say we’re not perfect, but your presence here and your story remind us we have a lot more work to do, and it takes heroes like you to show us the way.
I pray we can continue to make positive changes in peaceful ways, as we share the stories of the many great African Americans that gave so much to this country over our history. Going forward, they deserve timely recognition during their living years, in this country that belongs to all of us.
I salute Sgt. Henry Johnson, the brave men of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters and all the African Americans that served our nation past and present, bringing honor to our nation by wearing its uniform.
Peace, my friends and until next time, Bob out!