FORT JOHNSON, La. – More than a century ago, as many as 150,000 New Jerseyans raised their right hands and served in the Great War. Just one stood watch with Sgt. William Henry Johnson, namesake of Fort Johnson, Louisiana, which was redesignated in a ceremony here June 13, 2023.
In the early hours of May 15, 1918, Johnson of Albany, New York, and Pvt. Needham Roberts of Trenton, New Jersey, manned their post in the trenches of the Western Front. A German raiding party of two dozen cut through the barbed wire and nearly overran Johnson and Roberts’ position. But the two Harlem Hellfighters fought back against overwhelming odds.
Johnson suffered more than 20 shrapnel, gunshot and stab wounds as the enemy attempted to capture Roberts. Johnson, out of grenades and ammunition, drew his bolo knife and slashed his way through the remaining attackers, rescuing Roberts and singlehandedly eliminating the German squad.
Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, relayed Johnson’s story of heroism at the ceremony redesignating Fort Polk as Fort Johnson. The renaming coincides with the Joint Readiness Training Center Rotation 23-08, led by the 44th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, New Jersey Army National Guard. Nearly 5,000 Soldiers from 18 states completed their tasks and departed “The Box,” as the expansive training area in western Louisiana is known, as the Fort Johnson colors were uncased for the first time.
“I am always struck by the transformative power of the training fields,” Hokanson said. “This is the fire in which warriors are forged. Johnson’s is a story of fearless heroism and the National Guard’s groundbreaking contributions to World War I.”
Brig. Gen. David W. Gardner, commanding general of the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Johnson, said the modern 44th IBCT’s higher headquarters, the 42nd Infantry Division, was activated for World War I service as the “Rainbow Division” because it encompassed Soldiers from 26 states. Those Soldiers included Johnson’s unit, the segregated 369th Infantry Regiment, New York National Guard.
But Johnson and Roberts served at a time when black Soldiers rarely went into combat and almost never received recognition for heroism. The 369th INF’s fortunes changed when Gen. John J. Pershing directed their reassignment to the French Army, which welcomed the influx of fighting men to their ranks regardless of the color of their skin.
Also known as the “men of bronze,” the Harlem Hellfighters earned their moniker with distinction. For their actions in battle, Johnson and Roberts were among the first Americans to earn the French Army’s highest award for valor, the Croix de Guerre avec Palme.
“If Sgt. Johnson doesn’t exemplify the warrior spirit, then I don’t know who does,” Gardner said, referencing the installation motto, “Forging the Warrior Spirit.”
“The Soldiers who pass through these gates go forth with the spirit of Henry Johnson,” Hokanson said. “These are the values of the U.S. Army, and these are the values we are proud to fight for today. That’s why I am proud that this place bears the name of a Guardsman.”
The Naming Commission, established by Congress in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, identified and recommended redesignating, renaming or relocating more than 1,100 Confederate-named assets, including bases, ships and prominent works of art. Fort Liberty, North Carolina, was also recently redesignated, with the Fort Bragg colors cased June 2.
“Our military bases are important symbols of might and right of the United States,” said retired Adm. Michelle Howard, chair of the Naming Commission and attendee at the ceremony, in an April television interview. “And the names that are on the base signs, the names that are on our ships, should reflect the values of our country and the values of the American people.”
Fort Johnson is among nine U.S. Army installations that have or will shed their Confederate namesakes. Most of them had been assigned during the U.S. Army’s massive reorganization following World War II.
“The ‘Home of Heroes’ is now named after a Soldier who embodies the warrior spirit,” Gardner said.