WWI Centennial: Americans Victorious at Belleau Wood

Georges Scott, Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Georges Scott, Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 311th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JUNE 6-JULY 1, 1918: AMERICANS VICTORIOUS AT BELLEAU WOOD

“I am writing this—I have force to write this—because I am full of brandy. I am crying hard inside. It is more terrible than any one has written or told.” So began a letter dated June 12, 1918, from Elmer Harden, an American soldier volunteering with the French Army, to his mother. “The battle is still raging on a front of many miles. We are progressing foot by foot," He continued. "It is awful and I’m strangled by the affection in me for my poor comrades—for all the world. It is too awful. Tonight—tomorrow? How can anyone live in this hell?"

Harden’s wrenching letter echoed the feelings of tens of thousands of American soldiers experiencing their baptism of fire in the dramatic days of mid-June 1918. German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff had unleashed his fourth great offensive, Operation Gneisenau, and U.S. Marines and U.S. Army divisions—“devil dogs” and “doughboys”—fought to drive the Germans back from the Marne River in the Battle of Belleau Wood, from June 6-July 1, 1918. By late June the small forest was in Allied hands, and the Americans had proved their fighting mettle to the world (above, an illustration from Collier’s depicting U.S. Marines fighting at Belleau Wood).

OPERATION GNEISENAU

Operation Gneisenau (named for August von Gneisenau, a famous Prussian field marshal) was Ludendorff’s attempt to restore the momentum of his stalled third offensive, Blücher-Yorck, also known as the Third Battle of the Aisne. The movement had conquered a large amount of territory between Reims and Soissons, northeast of Paris, but failed to achieve its main goal of forcing the Allies to draw reinforcements from their reserves north of the Somme, in preparation for a renewed German attack on British forces there.

Map of the Western Front, June 6-July 1, 1918
Erik Sasse

The twin salients created by the tactical successes of Operation Michael in March 1918 and Blücher-Yorck in May held out the alluring possibility of a pincer movement on Paris by the German Seventh and Eighteenth Armies. At the same time, they were an enormous extension of the length of the German lines, threatening to overtax dwindling German manpower. Thus it was imperative to conquer the counter-salient held by the Allies in between, in order to shorten the German lines, seize control of the rail hub of Compiègne—key to sustaining the German supply system in the recently conquered areas—and maybe even set the stage for an advance on Paris.

In the first phase of Gneisenau the German Eighteenth Army would attempt to shatter the right flank of the French Third Army to prepare for a second phase, Hammerschlag (Hammer Blow), against the French Tenth Army, planned for two days later. Together, Ludendorff hoped the two phases would breach the French line, isolating the French First and Third Armies south of the Somme and capturing Compiègne; as in the previous offensive, he also hoped the threat of a breakthrough here would force the French to draw reinforcements from their reserve force behind the British armies in Flanders. At this point he could turn his attention to Paris or return to his original plan of smashing the British, now largely cut off from their French allies.

Gneisenau began at 12:50 a.m. on June 9, 1918, with another massive barrage by 2,276 guns firing 1.4 million shells in the first day alone, about a third of them containing various types of poison gas. Once again, the Germans made successful use of the pioneering Pulkowski method advocated by gunnery officer Georg Bruchmüller—a new mathematical technique that targeted artillery without the need to first “register” them to get the range (essentially practice shots which gave away the element of surprise).

However, this time around the German opening bombardment wasn’t as effective as previous ones, because surprise was now impossible. It was obvious to the Allies where the German blow would fall, and after the bitter experience of the first three German offensives, Allied commander-in-chief Marshal Ferdinand Foch made sure that all the generals under his command obeyed his order to pull most of their troops back from the frontline trenches, holding them in reserve or withdrawing even further in order to stage counterattacks later, in line with the new doctrine of “defense in depth.”

The German infantry went over the top at 4:20 a.m., led as usual by battalions of stormtroopers employing infiltration techniques to break up the enemy’s defenses—but this time the Germans found the French already falling back and regrouping beyond the range of the German heavy artillery. By the late afternoon of the first day, the Germans had advanced up to 6.5 miles in places, a substantial gain by the standards of trench warfare but less than in Operation Michael or Blücher-Yorck; they had also taken only 5000 prisoners, much fewer than the first day’s bag on previous occasions.

The offensive continued to lose momentum on the second day, June 10, as some artillery was transferred from the German Eighteenth Army to the Seventh Army for the Hammerschlag attack, and French divisions began to arrive from other parts of the Western Front. But, crucially, none of these reinforcements came from the French reserve forces behind the BEF, as Foch judged (correctly) that he didn’t need to weaken the front’s northern sector in order to fend off the Germans in the middle. As a result, Allied defenses remained strong in the north, and Foch retained a large reserve force that he could employ in a swift counterattack following future German offensives.

The situation was still serious for the Allies on June 10, as the French 53rd Division disintegrated under German pressure, making it impossible to stage a planned counterattack. But the next day the French began to push back, as Foch authorized the newly appointed Tenth Army commander general Charles Mangin (nicknamed “The Butcher” for his alleged disregard for casualties during Verdun and the Nivelle Offensive) to mount a counterattack against the western flank of the German offensive, about 10 miles northwest of Compiègne. Henri Desegneaux, a French officer, took part in the audacious French assault on German positions near the village of Courcelles-Epayelles on June 11, 1918:

“The enemy has seen our movements and is firing for all he is worth. The whole plain is showered with 105s and 150s. We can clearly distinguish three successive barrages … We think we must be dreaming. Is it possible that they have ordered the division to attack under such conditions? On we go, however, stopping occasionally to check on the men and to inspect the horizon … We are in the thick of the barrage, clods of earth are flying in all directions, fire and smoke swirl around us, we hasten to cross this wall. Swear words ring out everywhere, men stop, killed or wounded, but there is no stopping, we go on and on, we have to get through at any cost.”

As the battle unfolded, Desegneaux noted another example of an all-too-common tragedy of the First World War, as French wounded were left to die by comrades pulled away by the tide of battle:

“We move off again. We have difficulty in advancing through these huge cornfields, and from now on we do nothing but stumble across the wounded. They are abandoned here, amid the tall blades of corn, helpless. Those who can walk, flee towards the rear; those wounded in the leg, the stomach, or even more seriously patch themselves up while waiting for help. Help; when will it come? The regiment has moved on, will they find them in these huge fields, lying among the tall corn? How many are going to end up dying through lack of attention and will rot where they fell!”

Desegneaux also witnessed the arrival of French tanks, which occasionally made impressive advances but still suffered from the same shortcomings as their British counterparts. He watched in awe as French planes were outgunned by the Germans, who had once again achieved temporary air superiority in this sector:

“Suddenly, a shout: the tanks! They are big Saint-Chamonds, monstrous masses of iron, rumbling up the road in broad daylight. What a sight! The Boches concentrate all their guns upon them; it’s a deluge of fire. Some are destroyed on the spot, some are set on fire, some stagger along, trying to reach the plain, only to be blown up further on, others succeed in crossing the lines only to be brought to a crushing halt 100 meters later. In a quarter of an hour, it’s all over; this day will have cost us 37 out of the 40 tanks which were escorting the division. As soon as our tanks are no more, our attention turns to the sky, a swarm of German planes are attacking ours, about 10 in number. It’s a massacre. The guns chatter; our planes are outnumbered 10 to one. Five of ours are shot down immediately. We forget everything happening up front. With a lump in our throats, we watch these planes come crashing down in flames to the ground.”

Mangin’s counterattack was ultimately halted by enemy resistance, but it did force German Eighteenth Army commander general Oskar von Hutier to transfer two army corps to the army’s right flank in order to hold off the French, foreclosing any possibility of continuing its main effort further east. On June 12, Desegneaux was on the scene at Courcelles:

“I am at the northern edge of the village, the road is littered with bodies. It’s unbelievable. There’s a blown-up tank which is lying across and blocking the road. Inside are two burnt corpses, black, unrecognizable. Further on, bunches of men, legs twisted and mangled, or with gaping holes in their bodies, their eyeballs dangling out of their sockets, half their jaws missing, with terror written all over them. We can’t take them away, they are too numerous … All we can do is cover them with lime and then with a sheet or a blanket. We pick them up in mounds; but there are still more and more of them … Further on, I fall into a pool of coagulated blood, it stinks. There’s a dug-out beside it which has served as a first-aid post. The bodies are piled there in heaps, it’s awful—we are forced to move on.”

By June 12, Operation Gneisenau was stalled, just as it was supposed to be converging with the other arm of the pincer movement, Operation Hammerschlag, the westward attack by the German Seventh Army from the area near Soissons in the southern salient. In fact, Hammerschlag fared even worse: Once again, the French withdrew most of their forces before the German offensive began in the early morning of June 12, and Foch, no longer facing the threat of a real pincer movement, was free to transfer reinforcements to the French Tenth Army. Meanwhile, the French Third Army continued to counterattack the German Eighteenth Army further north, disrupting the planned advance and spelling the end of Gneisenau. By June 13, Ludendorff decided to call off both attacks. Germany’s fourth desperate bid for victory had failed.

BELLEAU WOOD

For the first time on the Western Front, U.S. troops played a key role in the overall Allied strategy to halt the German onslaught, with a hard-fought victory against enemy troops on the southern flank of the German Seventh Army at Belleau Wood. Although this was just one action among many in the Allied defensive strategy, by stopping the Germans and then driving them out of Belleau Wood, the U.S. Marines threatened the enemy’s position on the Marne and raised the prospect of further attacks against the Seventh Army’s southern flank. The battle continued long after Ludendorff called off Gneisenau, with the last Germans expelled from the small forest by July 1, 1918.

The American attacks were led by the U.S. Army’s 2nd Division, which included 9500 Marines in the 4th Marine Brigade. They faced heavily entrenched German troops armed with machine guns in the woods, the village of Bouresches, as well as on a small rise (Hill 142) to the west. On taking over the defense of the area in early June, one Marine officer, Captain Lloyd Williams, famously disregarded French advice to retreat, exclaiming, “Retreat, hell, we just got here!”

After establishing a defensive line south of the woods, the Americans shifted to the offensive on June 6, 1918, employing “open warfare” tactics in the form of massed rushes against German positions—exactly the sort of tactics the European combatants had abandoned following the bitter experience of trench warfare. However, the fresh American troops, eager to demonstrate their courage, disregarded very heavy casualties as they mounted attack after attack, eventually engaging the tired and demoralized troops in fierce close quarters combat with rifles, pistols, and bayonets, turning the woods into a slaughterhouse (below, U.S. Marines in a shell hole in Belleau Wood in April 1919). Before one particularly bloody attack, gunnery sergeant Dan Daley encouraged his Marines with the rhetorical question: “Come on, you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever?”

U.S. Marines in a shell hole at Belleau Wood, WWI
Collection of Adolph B. Miller/COLL1068, United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite major losses, by June 11 the Marines had reclaimed most of Belleau Wood. But the Germans clung tenaciously to the northern edge of the forest for several more weeks, resulting in nightmarish, chaotic combat characterized by hand-to-hand fighting, grenade duels, and bayonet rushes between shell holes and shattered tree trunks. Finally, the arrival of French field artillery helped dislodge most of the last German defenders from the woods by June 26, and the Marines completed mopping up and straightening the new defensive line by July 1. The battle had cost the lives of 1000 Marines plus another 4000 wounded—meaning more than half of the force fell in battle.

Belleau Wood was a milestone for the U.S. in the First World War, demonstrating America’s fighting mettle and earning it the respect of its French and British allies, who now understood that the great republic across the ocean intended to play a decisive role in the war. It was equally dispiriting for the Germans, as ordinary soldiers began to suspect that official propaganda—portraying Americans as an undisciplined, polyglot rabble—was far off the mark. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, transcribed a letter taken from the body of a dead German soldier at Belleau Wood, dated June 21, 1918. It gave a sense of the terrible privations, including hunger, experienced by German soldiers:

“About 400 of us are lying around here. We have one corner of the woods and the American has the other corner. This is not nice, for all of a sudden he rushes forward and one does not know it beforehand … Here one lies day and night without a blanket, only with a coat and a shelter-half. One freezes at night like a tailor, for the nights are fiercely cold. I hope that I will be lucky enough to escape from this horrible mess, for up to now I have always been lucky. The enemy sweeps every evening the whole countryside with machine guns and rifle fire, and then artillery fire … At present our food is miserable. We are now fed upon dried vegetables and marmalade and when at night we obtain more food it is unpalatable. It is half sour and all cold. In the daytime we receive nothing.”

Gibbons also transcribed a captured German intelligence report, based on interviews with captured American soldiers:

“The majority of the prisoners took as a matter of course that they have come to Europe to defend their country. Only a few of the troops are of pure American [Anglo-Saxon] origin; the majority is of German, Dutch, and Italian parentage, but these semi-Americans, almost all of whom were born in America and never have been in Europe before, fully feel themselves to be true born sons of their country.”

The nickname “devil dogs” (in German, teufelshunde or Höllenhunde, “hell hounds”) was supposedly bestowed on the Marines by German soldiers in recognition of their ferocity and zeal in this and earlier battles; the term is first mentioned in American newspapers April 1918, but some historians consider the alleged German origins apocryphal. The French government renamed Belleau Wood “the Marine Brigade Wood” in honor of its liberators, and today a fountain with a statue of a “devil dog” commemorates the battle (below).

A U.S. Marine drinking from devil dog fountain
Lance Cpl. Seth H. Capps, a member of the United States Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon, drinks out of Devil Dog Fountain following the 93rd anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood, May 30, 2010.
Cpl. Bobby J. Yarbrough, United States Marine Corps // Public Domain

As always, American soldiers enjoyed engaging in the long-standing rivalry between the Army and Marine branches, and veterans were quick to remind newcomers of their “newbie” status. Vernon Kniptash, a soldier from Indiana with the 42nd Division, also known as the Rainbow Division because it included troops from dozens of states, noted in his diary on June 20, 1918:

“The 77th Div., the first draft division to reach France, is going to relieve us. They hail from little old New York and that’s all they talk about … They landed here in April and from the way they blow about themselves it would lead us to believe that they’ve been over here ever since the war started. The Rainbow boys told ‘em a few things to help ‘em out but they knew it all, didn’t need any pointers, said they could take care of the Bosche alright. Last night a long column of them, four regiments, passed our station on the way up to the trenches for the first time. They tried to kid us but didn’t have much luck. They yelled, “Fall in line and fight for your Uncle.” I called back, “You fellows ought to have come over when the soldiers did,” and they shut up like a clam. They went up singing but it’s an easy matter to sing on the first time up.”

TRYING CONDITIONS

American soldiers also faced the same trying conditions that their European counterparts had suffered over the previous four years. In June 1918 Robert J. Patterson, an American officer, noted the discomfort of ordinary American soldiers aboard French troop trains, which were in fact just repurposed open-air cars for transporting horses (below, members of the U.S. Army Air Force’s 147th Aero Squadron in Toul, France, in May-June 1918):

“The crowding of the soldiers into the cars beats anything I had ever seen. Each freight car was supposed to hold 40 men, which was fitting them in very tight; but in fact most cars held 50. None could lie down, and many could not even sit down on the floor. The choice places were in the doors, where men could sit and hang their legs out. The officers were fairly comfortable in compartments on ordinary French passenger cars. We were on the train three days."

U.S. Air Force personnel on the Western Front, World War I
U.S. Air Force photo, National Museum of the Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most American soldiers were still ignorant of the rules of trench warfare, and in many cases had received minimal training before being rushed into service. One sergeant with the 42nd Division—supposedly one of the better-prepared units in the U.S. Army—remembered encountering a shocking lack of preparation in some companies:

“While giving a short talk on the necessity of strict obedience, I was floored by one of the boys, who spoke for his four or five companies, that, although they were anxious and eager to do exactly what I said, if they didn’t, it would be because they didn’t understand, as their service and training was of the most meager. They had fired a service rifle about ten times, that is, about ten rounds. They had never fired a live hand grenade … They didn’t know what a rifle grenade looked like, and, to make it complete, had never had bayonet instruction.”

And still more were coming, with 278,664 American troops embarked for Europe in June, and another 308,350 in July, most of them aboard British or American ships escorted by the Royal Navy. As always, the sea journey presented its own miseries. Emmet Britton, an American officer, described the common woe of seasickness in a letter home dated July 1, 1918:

“The air was foul and 95 of the men were sick, and quite often we shipped a sea through the open hatchway, so there was about 6 inches of water all over. It seemed like one of Gustave Dore’s pictures of the Inferno with a flickering half-light showing the tossing, writing figures of close-packed men, suffering bodily discomforts and mental unrest. For none of them were allowed to remove a single garment, though it was stifling hot and the slept with their life-preservers on.”

It was probably little comfort to ordinary people, but conditions were even worse on the other side, as the food shortages resulting from the Allied blockade and wartime disruptions reached crisis proportions. German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers and civilians faced starvation, provoking widespread food strikes in big cities and talk of revolution. Evelyn, Princess Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in the German countryside, confided in her diary in June 1918, “The food question is always the most important topic of the day. The less there is of it, the more do we talk of it … We ourselves have little to eat but smoked meat and dried peas and beans, but in the towns they are considerably worse off.” And Clifford Markle, an American medical officer held captive in Germany, recorded one heartbreaking encounter at the government-run restaurant where he worked in July 1918:

“Food conditions were extremely critical at this time. One example of the scarcity of food may be obtained from the following incident. A young girl, 14 years old, whose sister was a waitress in the restaurant, came into the kitchen weeping bitterly. Her sister asked her why she was crying. The little girl told her that she had had nothing to eat for three days, as she had been ill and so could not work in the dynamite factory, where she was employed, and therefore had no money to buy food tickets. If one didn’t work, one didn’t eat in Germany. The German woman who was cooking in the kitchen at the time heard the girl’s pitiful story, and told her to sit down at the table. The cook then gave her bread, potatoes, and bean soup … Of course, the rest of us had a little less to eat that night, but we did not mind, for the little girl needed it so much more than we did.”

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

Civil War Cannonballs Found on South Carolina Beach in Aftermath of Hurricane Dorian

ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images
ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images

Hurricane Dorian skimmed the United States' East Coast last week, creating a trail of damage residents are still dealing with. But it wasn't just trash and debris the storm surges left behind: As WCSC reports, two cannonballs dating back to the Civil War were discovered on Folly Beach in South Carolina in the aftermath of the storm.

Aaron Lattin and his girlfriend Alba were walking on the beach on September 6 when they saw what looked like rocks nestled in the sand. As they examined them more closely, they realized they had found something much more special. The weathered objects were actually cannonballs that have likely been buried in the area for more than 150 years.

Incredibly, this isn't the first time Civil War cannonballs have been discovered on Folly Beach following a hurricane: In 2016, Hurricane Matthew unearthed 16 of them. Folly Island was used as a Union base a century and a half ago, and items leftover from the artillery battery built there are still scattered around the shoreline. The couple behind this latest discovery believes there are more waiting to be found.

Old cannonballs may look like cool artifacts to treasure hunters, but they should still be treated with caution. Police and bombs disposal technicians were called to the scene at Folly Beach to confirm the cannonballs were no longer functional.

[h/t WCSC]

Henry Johnson, the One-Man Army Who Fought Off Dozens of German Soldiers During World War I

It was after midnight on May 15, 1918 when William Henry Johnson began to hear the rustling. Johnson was a long way from his home in Albany, New York, guarding a bridge in the Argonne Forest in Champagne, France. Sleeping next to him was Needham Roberts, a fellow soldier. Both men had enlisted in the New York National Guard just a few months earlier and were now part of the French Army, donated by U.S. forces to their understaffed allies in the thick of World War I.

As Johnson continued hearing the strange noises late into the night, he urged his partner to get up. A tired Roberts waved him off, believing Johnson was just nervous. Johnson decided to prepare himself just in case, piling up his assortment of grenades and rifle cartridges within arm's reach. If someone was coming, he would be ready.

The rustling continued. At one point, Johnson heard a clipping noise—what he suspected was the sound of the perimeter fence being cut. He again told Roberts to wake up. "Man," he said, "You better wake up pretty soon or you [might] never wake up."

The two began lobbing grenades into the darkness, hoping to discourage whoever might be lurking around the perimeter. Suddenly, in the middle of the French forest, Johnson saw dozens of German soldiers come charging, bayonets pointed toward him. They began to fire.

What transpired over the next hour would become an act of heroism that prompted former President Theodore Roosevelt to declare Johnson one of the bravest Americans to take up arms in the war. Johnson would even lead a procession back in New York City, with crowds lined up along the street to greet him.

Johnson may or may not have felt like a hero, though he certainly was. But he must have also felt something else—a sense of confusion. A man of color, he had been dispatched to a segregated regiment, where he received paltry combat training and was assigned menial tasks like unloading trucks. Even his homecoming parade was split up according to race. Henry Johnson, decorated virtually head to toe in French military honors, returned to a country that considered him both hero and a second-class citizen.

 

Though officers would later verify much of Johnson’s account of that night in the woods, his early life is harder to pin down. It has been reported that Johnson himself wasn’t quite sure when he was born. No one appeared to have kept a close eye on his birth certificate, which came out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The official U.S. Army website honoring Johnson’s service lists an approximate birth date of July 15, 1892. Other research indicates he could have been born as early as 1887 or as late as 1897.

After moving to New York as a teenager, Johnson took on an assortment of odd jobs; he was a chauffeur and a soda mixer, among other occupations. Depending on the account, he was living in Albany working either in a coal yard or as a railway porter when he opened a newspaper in the spring of 1917 and read that the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard was accepting enlistees. The regiment was comprised entirely of black soldiers.

Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform
Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Johnson showed up on June 5, 1917, weighing a slight 130 pounds and standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall. Assigned to Company C of the 15th—which later became known as the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment—he was quickly dispatched to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina, where he trained along with the rest of the segregated unit. Though minorities had served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, they often lacked support from officials and got inferior training compared to their white counterparts. At Camp Wadsworth, Johnson was said to have been used primarily as labor, unloading supplies and digging latrines. If there was one bright spot during this time, it was that he married his wife, Georgina Edna Jackson, that September.

Johnson and the 369th were sent to France on January 1, 1918. There they continued laboring, which frustrated their commander, Colonel William Hayward. Hayward lobbied his superiors to give his men a chance in combat. Since France was experiencing a shortage of men, the 369th—which later became known as the Harlem Hellfighters because many of their members had come from Harlem in New York City—joined the 161st Division of the French Army, even wearing the jackets and helmets of the foreign military.

To the French, Johnson and his fellow soldiers were a welcome solution to their lack of manpower. Sent to the front lines in March 1918, Johnson and the others learned enough French to understand commands from superiors. They were armed with rifles and held on to the bolo knives used by the U.S. Army. The imposing 14-inch blades weighed more than a pound and had much of their weight running along the back, giving them a cleaving action similar to a machete. Johnson would soon be glad he had such a weapon on his waist.

Along with Needham Roberts—a man from Trenton, New Jersey—Johnson was assigned sentry duty on the western edge of the Argonne Forest. Patrolling near a bridge, Johnson and Roberts were given the late shift, on patrol until midnight on the evening of May 14. It would be a night neither he nor Roberts would ever forget.

As their shift wound down, Johnson saw two relief soldiers approaching. The soldiers were young and inexperienced, and Johnson felt uncomfortable leaving them alone. He stayed put and surveyed the area while Roberts went to rest in a trench. Shortly thereafter, he began to hear the rustling noises, which eventually became German soldiers rushing through the darkness. Johnson realized they were surrounded, and urged Roberts to run for help. But Roberts didn't get far before he decided to come back and help, and was soon hit by the shrapnel of a grenade in his arm and hip.

Still conscious, Roberts handed Johnson grenades to toss. When those ran out, Johnson began firing his rifle while being hit by bullets in his side, hand, and head. Quickly, Johnson shoved an American cartridge into his French rifle, but the ammunition and the weapon were incompatible. The rifle jammed. As the Germans swarmed him, Johnson began using the rifle like a club, smashing it over their heads and into their faces.

After the butt of the rifle finally fell apart, Johnson went down with a blow to the head. But he climbed back up, drew his bolo knife, and charged forward. The blade went deep into the first German he encountered, killing the man. More gruesome work with the weapon followed, with Johnson hacking and stabbing bodies even as bullets continued to strike him.

An illustration depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers
An illustration by artist Charles Alston depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers. The artwork was used by the Office for Emergency Management (OEM) to inspire American soldiers during World War II.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At one point, Johnson noticed the Germans had grabbed Roberts and were attempting to haul him away. He intervened, stabbing more soldiers, including one in the ribs.

The melee went on for roughly an hour, he said. When reinforcements finally arrived, the remaining Germans fled. Johnson was given medical attention. So was Roberts. Both lived.

The next day, military officials visited the scene of the battle. German helmets rested on the ground, along with puddles of blood. Four bodies were left behind. The officials estimated Johnson had wounded up to 24 others. Some men who walked the site said the death toll was six, with Johnson injuring 32 men. After all the fighting, Johnson had prevented the Germans from breaking the French line.

The nicknames came fast. The bridge was declared “the Battle of Henry Johnson.” Johnson himself was given the unofficial label “the Black Death” and the official rank of sergeant. He was headed back home.

 

Before they departed, the French honored Johnson and Roberts with the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest awards for valor. They were the first two Americans to receive it. Johnson’s was amended with the addition of the Gold Palm, intended to signify extraordinary valor.

It was an honor, though one that came with a heavy price. Johnson later estimated he had been shot five times, the bullets striking both feet, his thigh, his arm, and even his head. A scar stretched over his lip. A bayonet had been plunged into his torso—twice. He had to have a metal plate inserted into his left foot. In all, Johnson endured 21 injuries as a result of his defiant stand against the Germans.

Back home, he convalesced as the country sang his praises. Often, such reports of his bravery took pains to note he was a man of color. "When proudly speaking of fighting races we must not overlook the American Negro," read an editorial in the New York Evening Telegram. Other times, Johnson found himself in the peculiar position of being celebrated while simultaneously being reminded of his purportedly inferior status. The parade that honored the Harlem Hellfighters in February 1919 ran for seven miles, with Johnson leading the procession in an open-topped cab. But the Hellfighters could not march with their white counterparts.

Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918
Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Unfortunately, Johnson’s postwar life remains as murky as his earliest years. He reportedly received disability payments from the government as well as medical care, but it’s unknown to what extent that supported him or how badly his injuries kept him from employment opportunities. (He did ask for, and received, as much as $100 per minute during speaking engagements in cities such as St. Louis—well over $1000 in today's money.) An attempt was made by the Albany Afro-American Association to raise money to build him a home as a way of expressing gratitude for his service, but it’s unclear whether the effort was successful. On July 1, 1929, Johnson died of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) while living in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart in 1996.

For years, it was unclear what became of Johnson's remains. In 2002, when the historians at the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs researched his service at the behest of his descendants (though it was later discovered they were mistaken and not actually related to Johnson), the historians determined Johnson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. With confirmation of the gravesite, Johnson also became eligible for and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor, which was accepted on Johnson’s behalf by Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. And every June 5, Albany celebrates Henry Johnson Day in acknowledgement of the day he enlisted. The city also gives out a Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service for those making contributions in the area.

Those honors joined the Croix de Guerre, which Johnson was said to have worn with humility. He sometimes needed to be prodded into discussing his act of bravery, as if it were of no major consequence. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said. “[I] just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that."

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