Henry Johnson was born in 1897 in Alexandria, Virginia. He later moved to Albany, New York in his early teenage years. While in Albany Johnson worked as a red cap porter at the Albany Union Station.
In June of 1917 Johnson enlisted in the United States Army, and was made part of the all black New York National guard 15th Regiment. This was later re-designated the 369th Infantry Regiment when called into federal service. During World War I Johnson's regiment was sent to France, however they were stuck doing laborious duties instead of combat training. General John J. Pershing eventually "loaned" the 369th infantry to the French Army, because white american soldiers claimed that they refused to fight beside African American soldiers even though they were all citizens of the United States.(“Henry Johnson (World War I soldier),” 2016)
In early 1918 the French sent the 369th infantry to the edge of the Argonne Forest in France. On the night of May 4, 1918, Johnson and private Needham Roberts were outfitted with French military garb and placed on sentry duty. While on sentry duty Johnson and Roberts came under sniper fire from a German raider party. After being hit by a German grenade, Roberts was only able to fight back by supplying Johnson with grenades that he was lobbing at the incoming German attackers. After running out of grenades Johnson began to fire with his rifle, but it wasn't long before it jammed and was rendered inoperable. By this point the Germans had surrounded Johnson and Roberts. Johnson then began to use the butt of his rifle as a club until it splintered. The Germans then began to attempt to take Private Roberts prisoner and Johnson charged at them with his only weapon left, which was his bolo knife. Johnson was able to fight off Roberts' captors and soon after, French and American reinforcements arrived driving off the rest of the attackers. In the hour that the battle lasted, Johnson received 21 wounds, and reportedly killed 4 hostile soldiers and wounded 10 to 20 more. Johnson and Roberts both received the French military award of the Croix de Guerre, however Johnson's included the Gold Palm for extraordinary valor.
Upon returning home Johnson returned to work as a railroad porter. Johnson's discharge papers did not mention his many wounds he received in combat. As a result he was not able to receive any disability pay, and his injuries made it difficult for him to work. Johnson quickly began to descend into alcoholism an poverty. Johnson's wife and his children left him and in 1929 Henry Johnson died at the age of 32.
However in 1990 the story of Henry Johnson began to resurface, and Albany erected the Henry Johnson memorial in Washington Park. In 1996, after long and hard fought battles by Johnson's son and New York politicians, President Bill Clinton awarded Johnson the Purple Heart. In 2002, Johnson was awarded the nation's second highest honor by the Army, the Distinguished Service Cross. Advocates for Johnson did not stop there however. They continued to fight for what they felt Johnson deserved, but was denied based on the color of his skin. There work payed off when on June 2, 2015 Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama. (Pruitt)