Badass of The Week: Henry “Black Death” Johnson

Henry Johnson enlisted in the army in 1917 and was assigned to 369th Infantry Regiment of New York National Guard the first all African-American unit, later nicknamed; The Harlem Hellfighters.


In 1918, the Hellfighters were in France and only used for menial tasks from unloading ships to digging holes, all because they were black. French Officers saw something in the unit so the US Army loaned the Hellfighters to the French Army. About a week later; Sgt. Johnson and his friend Pvt. Roberts were pulling security one night in the trenches, when about a platoon of Germans (around 30 men) rushed the two Hellfighters. They both caught shrapnel from grenades, Johnson was shot in the chest with a shotgun, and Roberts was shot twice with a pistol. The Germans rushed into the trench and grabbed Roberts to take as prisoner. Sgt. Johnson got up, and chased after them, firing his rifle killing and wounding multiple Germans, he was also shot multiple times during the exchange of fire. When his rifle jammed, he rushed the germans and beat one to death with his rifle’s butt stock, breaking it in the process. He then pulled out his French Bolo knife and began his assault on the German positions, killing 24 Germans with his knife and bare hands. He then found his friend Pvt. Roberts, and dragged him back to safety. The following morning friendly reinforcements showed up to around 30 dead Germans, and the two Hellfighters singing songs around a campfire. After this, Sgt. Johnson was given the nickname “Black Death”.


For his actions, Sgt. Johnson was awarded the Croix De Guerre (Palm and star) by France for heroism and valor. Sgt. Johnson later died of myocarditis in 1929. In 1996, he was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart. In 2002, he was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, the US’s second highest honor. In 2015, nearly 100 years later, Sgt. Johnson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.


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