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."

Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.

Lydia Locke, the Early 20th Century Opera Singer With a Life Ripped From the Tabloids

Photo collage by James Mato, Minute Media. Portraits: Wikimedia Commons. Newspaper clipping: Newspapers.com.
Photo collage by James Mato, Minute Media. Portraits: Wikimedia Commons. Newspaper clipping: Newspapers.com.

If the events of Lydia Locke's life ever became the inspiration for an opera, the plot would probably get accused of being over the top.

Locke rose to prominence in the early 1900s, when mass celebrity was still a relatively new concept. But the American soprano embraced the label, making news both for her performances at the world’s most prestigious venues and for her fashion choices. Yet it was her tumultuous personal life that garnered the most attention: Between seven marriages, two dead husbands, and one fraudulent baby, her life was scandalous even by the standards of today's news.

'Til Death Do Us Part

Lydia Locke was born into a humble household in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1886. She started performing on stage as a teenager, and had reached full-fledged stardom by her early twenties. As a young adult, she performed at Oscar Hammerstein’s London Opera House and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She maintained an extravagant persona off-stage, with magazines writing about where she traveled on vacation and what she wore to the latest party at the Ritz-Carlton.

There was a messy love life hiding behind the glamorous image. Around age 22, Locke married her first husband, 43-year-old Reginald W. Talbot, in Reno, Nevada. Their marriage was stormy from the start. Talbot, who had already been married three times before, was a gambler who had hoped for a wife that would make home life a peaceful contrast to his time at the casino. Locke wasn’t interested in becoming a model of domesticity, and after a year of arguing over the matter, Talbot beat her brutally one night.

They met with Locke’s divorce lawyer the next morning, but having a third person in the room did little to defuse the tension. They started arguing, Talbot became violent, and Locke retaliated by pulling a pistol from her fur muff and shooting her husband three times.

Reginald Talbot died in the lawyer’s office, and Locke was charged with his murder. The prosecution attempted to paint her as an amoral killer, but thanks to testimony of Talbot’s abuse from the house staff, as well as Locke's sweet voice and good looks, she won over the jury. They even applauded when the singer was acquitted.

A Honeymoon Cut Short

Now single, Locke redirected her energy into her professional life, performing in operas in Paris and Chicago. But it didn’t take long for her to find husband No. 2. Orville Harrold was a former hearse driver from Muncie, Indiana, and an opera tenor who worked for Oscar Hammerstein. He was also married. That didn’t stop him from falling for Locke, and a few days after finalizing his divorce from his wife back home, he married Locke in 1913. He told publications that his new wife was “one of the greatest things in my life. Lydia is of intellectual assistance to me. She possesses an amiable and loving disposition.”

His bride, meanwhile, declared her commitment in interviews. "Woman is spoiled," she said. "So many of her sex have demanded affection and given nothing in return for so long that she hasn't awakened to the fact that the ideal companionship of man and woman must consist of equal parts of affection, sacrifice, and sympathy."

Despite these optimistic words, the honeymoon phase didn’t even last through the literal honeymoon. The pair went to Italy after the wedding. As Jim Logan, superintendent of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—where Locke is buried—tells Atlas Obscura, Locke shot at Harrold with a gun on the trip; it's not entirely clear why. Lucky for him, her aim wasn’t as sharp as it had been the last time she pointed a pistol at a spouse. Their union somehow continued for several more years, likely aided by the fact that Harrold’s work took him around the world and out of the immediate path of his wife’s rage. When he wasn’t around, Locke found other outlets for her temper, including punching a chauffeur over 25 cents and brawling with a maid over eight days’ rent.

Eventually her second marriage did end, this time in divorce instead of death. The legal process was still underway when Locke met the man who was to become her third husband: A wealthy organ company president named Arthur Marks. The pair wed around 1918, not long after her divorce from Harrold went through.

A Hefty Bribe and a Stolen Baby

The marriage to Marks turned out to be one of the opera singer’s longer romantic entanglements, and arguably the one that most closely resembled a soap opera. The couple stayed married for six years, and even adopted a son together, before the union proved too much for her husband. Suffering from severe exhaustion, Marks checked into a sanitarium around 1924, where he was promptly badgered by calls from his wife. The doctor spoke with her, and following their conversation, told Marks: “You’d better pack up. I can’t do anything for you. What you need is a divorce.”

The exact details that led to this breaking point are unclear, but after the couple officially split in 1924, things got much uglier. Locke continued to pester her ex-husband by calling him on the phone at all hours. He couldn’t take it anymore, and offered her a deal: He would pay her $100,000 on top of the $300,000 alimony she had already received if she agreed not to contact him for at least a year.

The arrangement didn’t last long. She broke the agreement and reached out after six months, but only because she had news she thought Marks would want to hear. She told him she had given birth since they saw each other last, and claimed that he was the father. Anticipating any doubts he might have, she showed up with a birth certificate, affidavits, and an actual baby to prove it.

Arthur Marks was prepared to support his alleged child, but knowing his former wife too well, he hired private detectives to investigate the matter further. His suspicions were confirmed: The child wasn’t his. And it wasn’t Locke’s either; she had “borrowed” the baby from the Willow Maternity Hospital in Kansas City under a fake name and forged the birth certificate. When the police came to collect the infant, she admitted that she “made an error somehow” and avoided any criminal charges.

"Like a Vamp in the Movies"

Lydia Locke was around 38 years old during her interlude with the stolen infant, and the second half of her life was no less exciting than the first. After discovering that Marks had married one of her former friends, she sent him a “poison pen” letter filled with descriptions of his new wife's behavior too salacious for newspapers to publish. She was indicted by a federal grand jury for spreading obscene accusations through the mail and sued by Mark's wife for defamation. Locke showed little remorse. She painted herself as a victim and her ex-husband as the villain when speaking to newspapers. "This is a frame-up," she said. "I will be completely vindicated and that man—that man; I'll see that he is properly punished for this." Though she was never "completely vindicated" in the eyes of the public, neither case made it to trial.

Meanwhile, Locke had found a new husband in her personal assistant, Harry Dornblaser. Husband No. 4 was out of the picture almost immediately, skipping out on their honeymoon in Europe and turning up dead from apparent suicide in a cabin in Cleveland, Ohio, a few months later.

Her next husband was a former Balkan count she married in 1927 and divorced in the 1930s. Her last wedding, to businessman and real estate tycoon Irwin Rose, was listed on her marriage certificate as her seventh—indicating there had been a sixth marriage after the count, though the identity of this mystery groom remains unknown.

The seventh time proved to be the charm for Lydia Locke. The pair moved into a mansion on Locke’s 1000-acre estate in Yorktown, New York, and ran an inn together on the property. Following 12 years of marriage—a personal record for her—she died in 1966 at age 82.

By the end of her life, Lydia Locke’s media reputation had transformed from fabulous socialite to a woman who was “like a vamp in the movies” and “veteran of the divorce wars." Following her death, she did receive a little recognition for something other than her love life: In 1968, one of the concert gowns that made her a fashion icon was displayed at the Davenport House [PDF] museum in Yorktown. But even in today’s age of nonstop celebrity gossip coverage, Locke is remembered, above all else, for her scandals.

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