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NEWS | May 18, 2023

Fort Polk to be Renamed for New York Guardsman Henry Johnson

By Eric Durr, New York National Guard

ALBANY, N.Y. - Fort Polk in Louisiana will be renamed for New York National Guard Sgt. Henry Johnson, a World War I hero, during a June 13 ceremony at the post.

The Army installation named for Confederate Gen. Leonidas K. Polk, a resident of New Orleans who was killed in combat in 1864, will become Fort Johnson. The fort is home to the Joint Readiness Training Center and the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division. The division’s other two brigades are at Fort Drum near Watertown.

Henry Johnson was working as a porter at Albany’s Union Station when he enlisted in the New York National Guard’s segregated 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment on June 5, 1917, two months after the United States entered World War I. Johnson became a national hero after he fought off a German raiding party with a knife and saved fellow Soldier Needham Roberts from capture on the night of May 15, 1918.

The 15th New York was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment by the Army and eventually became known as the Harlem Hellfighters because of the regiment’s ferocity in combat.

Johnson was awarded the French Croix De Guerre for his actions and was the first American recognized by the French military. But Johnson received no U.S. military recognition until after his death in 1929. He was awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. In 2015, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, accepted by New York Army National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson on his behalf.

Brig. Gen. Isabel Rivera Smith, the New York National Guard’s director of joint staff, will represent the New York National Guard at the June ceremony. Wilson, now retired from the Army, will also attend.

“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,” Smith said. “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.”

Fort Polk is one of nine Army forts named after Confederate generals being renamed.

During World Wars I and II, forts created in the North were named after Union Civil War generals, while those in the South were named after Confederate generals.

Because Johnson had no descendants, the Medal of Honor accepted by Wilson is held by the New York State Military Museum, which is run by the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs. The medal will be loaned to Fort Johnson’s command for the ceremony and for display until August as part of a historical exhibition about Johnson.

William Henry Johnson was born in Winston Salem, North Carolina, in July 1892. He moved to Albany as a teenager and worked as a driver, soda mixer and laborer in a coal yard before becoming a “red cap” porter at the train station.

The New York National Guard created the 15th New York in June 1916 as a unit for Black Americans, with its headquarters in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Army units were segregated during World War I, so African Americans enlisted in the 15th New York to serve.

While trained as combat infantrymen, members of the 15th initially served as a logistics unit upon arrival in France, unloading ships and moving cargo to the front lines. But the French Army wanted American troops, and in May 1918, the 15th Infantry was assigned to the French 16th Infantry Division. Members were issued French helmets, rifles and equipment but continued wearing American uniforms.

On May 18, 1918, Johnson and Needham Roberts were on outpost duty when a German raiding party of about three dozen soldiers attacked to take prisoners. Roberts was knocked out. After Johnson exhausted the three rounds in his French rifle, he used the rifle butt, grenades, his fists and a bolo knife to kill four German soldiers and drive the others away.

Johnson was recognized with the French medal and lionized in the press. When the 15th returned to New York City and paraded up Fifth Avenue in February 1919, Johnson rode in a car by himself and was cheered by the crowd. The Army sent him on a speaking tour, but that ended when he spoke out about Army discrimination against Black Soldiers.

Johnson had been so badly injured, suffering 21 wounds, that he was not able to resume his job as a luggage handler. He contracted tuberculosis and died from myocarditis in 1929. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

“Sgt. Henry Johnson embodied the warrior spirit, and we are deeply honored to bear his name at the Home of Heroes,” said Brig. Gen. David Gardner, commanding general of the Joint Readiness Training Center.