Posted by Wordsmith on 31 May, 2015 at 10:24 am. Be the first to comment!


After almost a century, Henry Johnson, nicknamed the “black death” for his heroism in the Argonne, will be fully honored.

Henry Johnson, all 5-feet-4 of him, was given the name “black death” for his valor in the Argonne forest during World War I. Cries of “Oh, you Black Death!” at a homecoming parade in Harlem greeted his return to the U.S. after the war. But Johnson’s legend quickly faded. He was too black to be an American hero and too crippled by war to hold his old job. He died in 1929, just over a decade after the war ended, destitute and unheralded.

Henry’s son, Herman Johnson, was raised by a great aunt and uncle. He knew his father only from occasional meetings in public parks and later visits to VA hospital rooms. After his father’s death, there wasn’t even a grave for Herman to visit.

As far as Herman knew, his father’s remains lay unmarked somewhere in a pauper’s field.

Until the past few decades there was no official award recognizing the man they called “Black Death.” Nothing in the government or military record books to preserve the legacy of a man Teddy Roosevelt had called one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I. So, in his later life, the younger Johnson fought, joined by senators and military veterans, to have the military award his father the commendations that he’d been denied during his short life. “Fighting for your country is an honor, but they would not give black people any honors,” Johnson said shortly before he died.

Both the Johnson men are dead now but Herman’s daughter, Tara Johnson, will be at the White House this week to see her father’s hopes realized.

On June 2, nearly a century after Henry Johnson made his legend fighting in Europe, President Obama will posthumously award him the Medal of Honor. Along with Johnson, the president will present the Medal of Honor to Army Sergeant William Shemin, a Jewish World War I veteran.

In the years that they have waited for this recognition, the Johnson family has kept up its tradition of military service. “Grandfather was World War I,” Tara Johnson said. “Dad was a Tuskegee Airman, my cousin Herman was a U.S. Marine, and my son DeMarqus was with the first Marines in Fallujah, Iraq.”

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