In this modern world, earning a nickname is generally a piece of cake. Show up for work one day with a half-shaven face and you will quickly be slapped with one or two ‘loving’ and memorable nicknames that follow you for years.
In previous generations, nicknames were a bit harder to come by. Add in the legal segregation and racism that characterized the early 20th century and imagine what exactly had to be done for a black soldier to be known as “Black Death” by both friendly and opposing forces. It all stems from one night.
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Who is Henry Johnson?
Henry Johnson was born on July 15, 1892. On June 5, 1917, standing at approximately 5’4″ and weighing roughly 130 pounds, he enlisted in the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard (colloquially known as the Harlem Hellfighters).
He joined them on deployment to France to augment the Fourth French Army and would go on to become the first black soldier to engage in combat during World War I.
Why “Black Death?”
On May 14, 1918, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were augmenting the Fourth French Army, standing as sentries in Argonne Forest. Outfitted with French weapons and gear, Johnson and Roberts soon began taking sniper fire as German forces advanced.
Roberts was severely wounded trying to alert standby forces, leaving Johnson to fend off the German advance, essentially alone, using any and everything he could get his hands on. Johnson successfully held the German forces up long enough for American and French troops to arrive, forcing the Germans to retreat.
Johnson took bullets to the head, lip, sides, and hands, suffering 21 total wounds in all. Using a combination of grenades, rifles, pistols, buttstocks, and a bolo knife, Johnson killed four enemy soldiers and wounded another 20. Following the events of that night, he was known as, “Black Death.”
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Johnson and the Harlem Hellfighters returned home to a hero’s welcome — a parade on Fifth Avenue and the adoration from their particular corner of the nation.
The good times wouldn’t last, however, as Johnson’s erroneously recorded medical records resulted in him not receiving a Purple Heart.
He would then bounce from job to job, sliding further down on his luck at every stop until he turned to alcohol. Johnson was dead less than 11 years after his heroic day.
Johnson was, eventually, posthumously awarded a Purple Heart in 1996, a Distinguished Service Cross in 2001, and, finally, the Medal of Honor in 2015.