We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France

Henry Lincoln Johnson, DSC WWI

Young African-American soldier in overseas cap, wearing a Croix de Guerre medal

Henry Lincoln Johnson

A few years ago, while helping edit articles on Wikipedia, I happened across Henry Lincoln Johnson. In the months after the US declared war on Germany (6 April 1917), Johnson enlisted in the 15th New York Infantry Regiment in the National Guard. The 15th was based in Harlem and after it had been renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment, it earned the nickname, the Harlem Hellfighters.

Prior to the Korean War, all US Army units were segregated. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces of the United States. Despite performing well when well-led and even sometimes when not well-led, African-American units were considered unreliable in combat and often shifted to non-combat duties (even to the extent of disbanding units such as the 9th Cavalry Regiment to form “Port” companies for use as longshoremen in North Africa during World War II). As shown in the excellent film, Glory, the 54th Massachusetts fought valiantly at Fort Wagner during the Civil War and there are many other instances of effective fighting by the US Colored Troops. However, at the Battle of the Crater, we can see the kind of leaders that sometimes ended up in charge of such units. Their commander was reportedly drunk at the time of the battle and absent from the field. Many times, the officers assigned to such units were poor officers who loathed the assignment, considering it a slight. Even if they’d been good officers, their attitudes would have ruined their ability to command.

So, during World War I, the 92nd and 93rd Divisions were made up of entirely African-American troops and higher commands were loath to use them. However, the French Army, which had long experience with African soldiers and knew that they could be excellent troops, were more than happy when the 369th was offered to them as an attachment. They equipped them with French helmets, issued them the larger French belts and put them in the trenches to fight. They fought vigorously, really earning their nickname, the Harlem Hellfighters. One critical advantage the Hellfighters had was a dedicated, enthuisiastic corps of officers, partly due to the fact that it was among the first units to also have African-American officers, who felt no disrespect in their assignment.

WWII recruiting poster, featuring Johnson

95 years ago today, on the night of 14 May 1918, Sgt. Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were on guard duty (or perhaps posted out front at a listening post?) when they were attacked by a 24-man German patrol. They fought them off, first, exhausting their ammunition and then fighting hand-to-hand, Roberts using his rifle as a club and Johnson using a bolo knife. Both were awarded the Croix de Guerre by France for bravery and the Purple Heart by the United States for their wounds.

Now, the Army had not ignored Johnson’s actions, nor had they forgotten them, despite the fact that he received no American medal for his actions. During WWII Johnson was featured in Army recruiting materials, in order to inspire African-Americans to enlist.

79 years later, in June of 1996, Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. There are efforts to have his award upgraded to a Medal of Honor and I think them entirely appropriate.

Johnson died in 1929, penniless and estranged from his wife. His son, Herman A. Johnson, was an fighter pilot and an officer in World War II, serving with the famed Tuskegee Airmen.

It was long thought that Johnson had been buried in a pauper’s grave in Illinois, but Henry Lincoln Johnson is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, in Section 25, Grave 64.

Henry Lincoln Johnson Grave

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[…] As I noted last May, Henry Lincoln Johnson was eventually awarded the DSC, posthumously, for his actions in WWI. Now, the Secretary of Defense has recommended that Johnson be awarded the Medal of Honor. […]

Pingback by Johnson approved by SecDef for Medal of Honor | We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in ... France

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