LATHAM, NY (06/06/2023) (readMedia)-- The Louisiana Army base which specializes in training light infantry Soldiers will be renamed for Sgt. Henry Johnson, a World War I New York National Guard Soldier, and Albany resident, during a June 13 ceremony.
Fort Polk, named for Confederate general Leonidas K. Polk, a resident of New Orleans, will become Fort Johnson.
The Army installation is home to both the Joint Readiness Training and the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division. The division's other two brigades are located 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 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 their ferocity in combat.
He was awarded the French Croix De Guerre for his action and was the first American to be 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 posthumously in 1996 and then the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.
He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015, which was accepted by New York Army National Guard Command Sgt. Major Louis Wilson on his behalf.
Brigadier General Isabel Rivera Smith, the New York National Guard's director of joint staff, will represent the New York National Guard at the 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, Sergeant Johnson personified the Army Values and was the epitome of strength," she said.
"As a former member of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters myself, I could not be prouder to be part of this ceremony," Smith said.
Fort Polk is one of nine Army forts named after Confederate generals which are 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 Henry Johnson.
William Henry Johnson was born in Winston Salem, North Carolina in July 1892. He eventually moved to Albany, New York as a teenager and worked as a driver, soda mixer, and laborer in a coal yard, before becoming a "red cap" porter who worked at the Albany 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, the 369th initially served as a logistics unit upon its arrival in France, unloading ships and moving cargo forward to the front lines.
But the French Army wanted American troops, and in May 1918 the 369th Infantry was assigned to the French 16th Infantry Division.
They were issued French helmets and French rifles and equipment but continued to wear their American uniforms.
On May 18, 1918, Johnson and Needham Roberts were on outpost duty when a German raiding party which may have number 36 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.
He was recognized with the French medal and lionized in the press.
When the 369th returned home 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 when he spoke out about Army discrimination against Black Soldiers, that ended.
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 and 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 in an installation announcement.