Louisiana Army Base Renamed After World War I Harlem Hellfighter
The Army officially redesignated the installation previously known as Fort Polk, Louisiana, on June 13 to Fort Johnson.
The fort, which is home to the Joint Readiness Training Center and the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, derives its new name from New York National Guard Sgt. William Henry Johnson, a Black World War I soldier who bravely fought off German forces as a member of the famed Harlem Hellfighters.
“Sgt. Henry Johnson embodied the warrior spirit, and we are deeply honored to bear his name at the Home of Heroes,” Brig. Gen. David Gardner, the commanding general of the base, said in a statement.
Johnson enlisted in 1917 with the 15th New York Infantry Regiment — a National Guard unit of Black Americans later designated as the 369th Infantry Regiment — about two months after the United States entered WWI, according to the statement.
The Harlem Hellfighter single-handedly repelled a German raiding party in May 1918 with his rifle butt, grenades, his fists and a knife, saving his fellow soldier Needham Roberts from capture in the process.
“Each slash meant something, believe me,” Johnson once said. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it … just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.”
Suffering 21 wounds, Johnson was unable to resume his job as a luggage handler after the war.
He received the French Croix de Guerre military decoration for his actions, one of the first Americans to receive the honor, the Army statement noted.
The courageous soldier died in 1929 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor for his actions.
“It is a distinct pleasure and honor to represent the New York National Guard in the rededication ceremony of Fort Polk to Fort Henry Johnson,” Brig. Gen. Isabel Rivera Smith, the New York National Guard’s director of joint staff, said in the release. “As a Black American whose bravery wasn’t acknowledged at the time, Sgt. Johnson personified the Army values and was the epitome of strength. As a former member of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters myself, I could not be prouder to be part of this ceremony.”
The renaming move adheres to legislation requiring the removal or modification of Department of Defense assets that commemorate the Confederate States of America or those who voluntarily served under the Confederacy. The Louisiana post is one of nine Army installations being redesignated.
The Army installation was previously named for Confederate Gen. Leonidas Polk, a resident of New Orleans who was killed in combat in 1864.
Originally published by Military Times, our sister publication.