This Day In History: May 15th
When thinking about what a battle is, one would typically imagine soldiers fighting against each other, but in the case of New York Guardsman, Henry Johnson, he was forced to go into battle alone. Henry Johnson fought off more than a dozen German soldiers on the night of May 15, 1918, and successfully stopped the soldiers from entering campgrounds.
Johnson was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina during the 1890s, and moved to New York as a teenager. He worked a variety of odd jobs before deciding to enlist in the army during World War I. He was only 5-foot-4-inches and weighed 130 pounds. Johnson was assigned to New York National Guard’s former 15th Infantry which was a segregated African-American unit. He trained for months until being deployed to France in the unit deployed to France.
The unit was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment after reaching Europe. The soldiers also earned the nickname of the Hellfighters from Harlem. On the night of May 15th, Johnson and a fellow soldier, Needham Roberts, were tasked with the responsibility of guarding the area for the night. However, enemy soldiers with an estimated 20 or more troops were seeking to capture African-American soldiers to eliminate the camp and learn about the unit.
Johnson and Roberts were alerted by shots and the sounds of wire cutters. He instantly prepared for battle by opening a box of grenades and instructed Roberts to gather back up. Unfortunately for Johnson, the enemy soldiers began throwing grenades and Roberts was unable to get help after being wounded in the arm and hip.
Despite being outnumbered, Johnson initially fought back with grenades and his rifle, but when all else failed he relied on his army-issued knife. Johnson successfully stopped the German soldiers from approaching French territory, but he suffered 21 wounds in the process. Once news of Johnson’s actions spread, the men were glorified and became the first U.S. soldiers to earn the French Croix de Guerre, which is the country’s highest military honor.
Johnson returned home a hero and was recognized by President Theodore Roosevelt as one of the bravest soldiers to serve in WWI. Although Johnson survived his injuries, once he returned home it made it difficult for him to find civilian work. Johnson died in 1929 and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2015.