June 6, 2012
In April of 1915, Allied forces were battling the German Army for control of Ypres, a Flemish town in western Belgium. Months before, fighting with many young and untested soldiers, the Germans had taken heavy casualties there in a battle they called the Massacre of the Innocents of Ypres. This time, they were determined to launch their first major attack on the Western Front. With thousands of French, British, Belgian and Canadian forces dug in around the town, the Germans turned to Fritz Haber.
In 1918, Haber would be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in developing a method of synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen in the air—the process that enabled the production of fertilizer in quantities that revolutionized agriculture worldwide. But in the winter of 1915, Haber’s thoughts turned to annihilating the Allies. For his efforts directing a team of scientists on the front lines in World War I, he would become known as the father of chemical warfare.
Fritz Haber was born in Breslau, Prussia (now Wroclaw, Poland), in 1868, and educated at the St. Elizabeth Classical School, where he took an early interest in chemistry. After studying at the University of Berlin, he transferred to the University of Heidelberg in 1886 and studied under the famed German chemist Robert Bunsen. Haber was ultimately appointed professor of physical chemistry and electrochemistry at the Karlshruhe Institute of Technology. When scientists warned that the world would not be able to produce enough food to feed its growing human population in the 20th century, he listened.
Scientists knew nitrogen was crucial to plant life; they also knew the earth’s supply of usable quantities was quite limited. But Haber discovered a way to convert the nitrogen gas in the earth’s atmosphere into a compound that could be used in fertilizer. According to Vaclav Smil, a global agricultural historian at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, the Haber–Bosch process of synthesizing and manufacturing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen (and later industrialized by Carl Bosch, Haber’s brother-in-law) was likely the most important technological innovation of the 20th century. It sustains the food base for the equivalent of half the world’s population today.
In 1901, Haber married the brilliant chemist Clara Immerwahr, the first woman to receive a doctorate from Breslau University. Years before, she’d spurned a marriage proposal from him to focus on her studies and career. Like Haber, she converted from Judaism to Christianity, and the couple settled in Karlsruhe. But it wasn’t long before Clara Haber’s research took a back seat to the demands of being a homemaker and, after the birth of their son in 1902, a mother.
To keep her mind stimulated, she began collaborating with her husband on a textbook on the thermodynamics of gas, and tried to continue her own research, writing and speaking. As her husband’s reputation spread, she was incensed to learn that her audiences assumed that he had written her lectures. Meanwhile, Haber’s career flourished, and around the start of World War I, the German Army requested his help in the development of replacing explosives in shells with poison gasses.
Haber, unlike his friend Albert Einstein, was a German patriot, and he willingly became a uniformed consultant to the German War Office. During World War I, he began drawing on experiments he’d done on using chlorine gasses as a weapon. Finding an effective delivery system was challenging—one test resulted in the deaths of several German troops. But by 1915, defeats on the front lines hardened Haber’s resolve to use gas weapons, despite Hague Convention agreements prohibiting chemical agents in battle.
Haber had a difficult time finding any German army commanders who would agree even to a test in the field. One general called the use of poison gas “unchivalrous”; another declared that poisoning the enemy “just as one poisons rats” was “repulsive.” But if it meant victory, that general was willing to “do what must be done.” Haber, according to biographer Margit Szollosi-Janze, “said if you want to win the war, then please, wage chemical warfare with conviction.”
Clara Haber, however, condemned her husband’s weapons work as a “perversion of the ideals of science” and “a sign of barbarity, corrupting the very discipline which ought to bring new insights into life.” Publicly, she pleaded with him to end his experiments in chemical warfare. Privately, Haber said her statements amounted to treason. Their marriage suffered further as Haber traveled frequently and philandered.
In 1914, as Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry, Haber placed his laboratory at the service of the German government, and by April of 1915, he was on the front lines in Ypres, in uniform, smoking cigars and calculating the timing of what he hoped would be a lethal gas attack. Thousands of steel cylinders containing chlorine gas had been transported to German positions. There would be no launching or dropping of the gas on Allied troops; instead, Haber calculated, the best delivery system was the prevailing winds in Belgium. After weeks of waiting for ideal winds—strong enough to carry the gas away from the German troops, but not so strong they would dissipate the gas weapons before they could take effect against the enemy—the Germans released more than 168 tons of chlorine gas from nearly 6,000 canisters at sunrise on April 22. A sickly cloud, one witness told the New York Times, “like a yellow low wall,” began to drift toward the French trenches.
The cloud settled over some 10,000 troops. More than half were believed to have died by asphyxiation within minutes.
Lance Sergeant Elmer Cotton, a Canadian soldier who was gassed at Ypres and survived, described the attack as “an equivalent death to drowning only on dry land. The effects are there—a splitting headache and terrific thirst (to drink water is instant death), a knife edge of pain in the lungs and the coughing up of a greenish froth off the stomach and the lungs, ending finally in insensibility and death. It is a fiendish death to die.
As thousands of French troops fled, blinded and stunned, the Germans opened fire. Then, after the cloud had dissipated, they captured 2,000 prisoners of war, confiscating rifles and urging the afflicted French to lie down “to die better.”
In the confusion, initial reports said the Germans were launching “chloride bombs” that were “thrown by means of a hand sling, such as boys use for throwing stones.” The Washington Post reported that British and French troops were “Crazed by Gas Bombs,” and that those who survived “fought like demons,” but to no avail.
Haber’s gas weapons were so effective that German troops were actually rattled by the Allies’ rapid retreat. They advanced slowly, believing that they were walking into a trap, and missed an opportunity for a breakthrough.
Two days later, however, they attacked Canadian positions with another chlorine dose and followed it up with heavy bombardment. That assault led to nearly 7,000 Canadian casualties, including 1,000 fatalities.
The Second Battle of Ypres saw casualties of nearly 70,000 Allied troops, but only half as many Germans, owing largely to what is considered the first large-scale use of chemical weapons. Fritz Haber was soon after given the rank of captain, and on May 2, 1915, he returned to his home in Berlin to attend a party in his honor. The next day, he was to travel to the Eastern Front to initiate another gas attack, against the Russians.
Hours after the party for her husband, Clara Immerwahr wandered into the garden with Haber’s Army pistol. She pointed the gun to her heart and pulled the trigger, taking her life. His wife’s suicide did not delay his deployment to the Eastern Front. The unpredictability of the wind’s effect on chlorine gas released from cylinders prompted the Germans to eventually develop gas-filled shells that could fired over distances. By the end of the war, the Germans were using mustard gas on Allied troops, but improvements in gas masks and filters for various chemicals enabled the Allies to adapt.
Despite his Nobel Prize, Haber’s postwar life was hardly filled with honors. He was despondent over the German defeat, and felt responsible for the debilitating German war debt. As Hitler rose to power, Nazis attacked both him and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for harboring Jewish scientists. The Christian convert became “Haber the Jew” in the eyes of the Nazi regime, and rather than fire his staff as requested, Haber resigned and fled Germany for England. But scientists there shunned him for his work with chemical weapons. He traveled Europe, fruitlessly searching for a place to call home, then suffered heart failure in a hotel in Switzerland in 1934. He passed away shortly thereafter at the age of 65, but not before repenting for devoting his mind and his talents to wage war with poison gasses.
Praised for his work that still enables agriculture around the world, yet condemned for his work on chemical weapons, Fritz Haber personified the extremes of technological innovation in the 20th century. It was, however, a kind twist of fate that Haber never lived to see Zyklon B, a poisonous gas developed in the 1920s at the laboratory that he ran, used on some of his own relatives who had were ultimately sent off to Nazi concentration camps.
Books: L.F. Haber, The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War, Oxford University Press, 1986. Daniel Charles, Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare, Ecco, 2005.
Articles: Germans Gain; Big New Battle On Near Ypres, New York Times, April 24, 1915. Bomb Fumes Reach 2 Miles, New York Times, April 25, 1915. Asphyxiating Gas Used by Germans, Declares French, Atlanta Constitution, April 24, 1915. Crazed By Gas Bombs, Washington Post, April 26, 1915. Effects of Poison Bombs, New York Times, April 24, 1915. German Press Admits Use of Gaseous Bomb, Chicago Tribune, April 26, 1915. Fritz Haber: Chemist and Patriot, The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, http://www.woodrow.org/teachers/ci/1992/haber.html Clara Immerwahr, 1870-1915, by Jutta Dick, Jewish Women Encyclopedia, http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/immerwahr-clara The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1918: Fritz Haber, Nobelprize.org, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1918/haber-bio.html The Tragedy of Fritz Haber: Nobel Laureate Transformed Wold Food Production, War, by Dan Charles, NPR, http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2002/jul/fritzhaber/ The Second Battle of Ypres, 1915, FirstWorldWar.com, http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/ypres2.htm Gas Warfare During the First World War, http://www.webmatters.net/history/ww1_gas_03.htm Chlorine Gas, Spartacus Educational, http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWchlorine.htm
April 17, 2012
At midnight on November 12, 1870, two French balloons, inflated with highly flammable coal gas and manned by desperate volunteers, took off from a site in Monmartre, the highest point in Paris. The balloons rose from a city besieged—the Franco-Prussian War had left Paris isolated, and the city had been hastily encircled by the Prussian Army—and they did so on an unlikely mission. They carried with them several dozen pigeons, gathered from lofts across the city, that were part of a last-ditch attempt to establish two-way communication between the capital and the French provisional government in Tours, 130 miles southwest.
Paris had been encircled since mid-September. By early autumn, with the prospects of relief as distant as ever, and the population looking hungrily at the animals in the zoo, the besieged French had scoured the city and located seven balloons, one of which, the Neptune, was patched up sufficiently to make it out of the city over the heads of the astounded Prussians. It landed safely behind French lines with 275 pounds of official messages and mail, and before long there were other flights, and the capital’s balloon manufacturers were working flat out on new airships.
The work was dangerous and the flights no less so—2.5 million letters made it out of Paris during the siege, incalculably raising morale, but six balloons were lost to enemy fire and the ones that survived that gauntlet, historian Alastair Horne observes, “were capable of unpredictable motion in all three dimensions, none of which was controllable.”
Of the two balloons in the pigeon flight, one, the Daugerre, was shot down by ground fire as it drifted south of Paris in the dawn, but the other, the Niepce, survived by hastily jettisoning ballast and soaring out of range. Its precious pigeon cargo would return to the city bearing messages by the thousand, all photographed using the brand-new technique of microfilming and printed on slivers of collodium, each weighing just a hundredth of an ounce. These letters were limited to a maximum of 20 words and they were carried into Paris at a cost of 5 francs each. In this way, Horne notes, a single pigeon could fly in 40,000 dispatches, equivalent to the contents of a substantial book. The messages were then projected by magic lantern onto a wall, transcribed by clerks, and delivered by regular post.
A total of 302 largely untrained pigeons left Paris in the course of the siege, and 57 returned to the city. The remainder fell prey to Prussian rifles, cold, hunger, or the falcons that the besieging Germans hastily introduced to intercept France’s feathered messengers. Still, the general principle that carrier pigeons could make communication possible in the direst of situations was firmly established in 1870, and by 1899, Spain, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Austria and Romania had established their own pigeon services. The British viewed these developments with some alarm. A call to arms published in the influential journal The Nineteenth Century expressed concern at the development of a worrying divergence in military capability. The Empire, it was suggested, was being rapidly outpaced by foreign military technology.
December 23, 2011
Peace on the Western Front, Goodwill in No Man’s Land — The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
Even at the distance of a century, no war seems more terrible than World War I. In the four years between 1914 and 1918, it killed or wounded more than 25 million people–peculiarly horribly, and (in popular opinion, at least) for less apparent purpose than did any other war before or since. Yet there were still odd moments of joy and hope in the trenches of Flanders and France, and one of the most remarkable came during the first Christmas of the war, a few brief hours during which men from both sides on the Western Front laid down their arms, emerged from their trenches, and shared food, carols, games and comradeship.
Their truce–the famous Christmas Truce–was unofficial and illicit. Many officers disapproved, and headquarters on both sides took strong steps to ensure that it could never happen again. While it lasted, though, the truce was magical, leading even the sober Wall Street Journal to observe: “What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”
The first signs that something strange was happening occurred on Christmas Eve. At 8:30 p.m. an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters: “Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.” Further along the line, the two sides serenaded each other with carols—the German “Silent Night” being met with a British chorus of “The First Noel“—and scouts met, cautiously, in no man’s land, the shell-blasted waste between the trenches. The war diary of the Scots Guards records that a certain Private Murker “met a German Patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.” (More…)
November 1, 2011
All was dark and quiet on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor, not far from the Statue of Liberty, when small fires began to burn on the night of July 30, 1916. Some guards on the island sent for the Jersey City Fire Department, but others fled as quickly as they could, and for good reason: Black Tom was a major munitions depot, with several large “powder piers.” That night, Johnson Barge No. 17 was packed with 50 tons of TNT, and 69 railroad freight cars were storing more than a thousand tons of ammunition, all awaiting shipment to Britain and France. Despite America’s claim of neutrality in World War I, it was no secret that the United States was selling massive quantities of munitions to the British.
The guards who fled had the right idea. Just after 2:00 a.m., an explosion lit the skies—the equivalent of an earthquake measuring up to 5.5 on the Richter scale, according to a recent study. A series of blasts were heard and felt some 90 miles in every direction, even as far as Philadelphia. Nearly everyone in Manhattan and Jersey City was jolted awake, and many were thrown from their beds. Even the heaviest plate-glass windows in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn shattered, and falling shards of glass preceded a mist of ash from the fire that followed the explosion. Immigrants on nearby Ellis Island had to be evacuated.
Peter Raceta, the captain of a flatbottom barge in the harbor, was in the cabin watching the fire on Black Tom with two other men. “When the explosion came, it seemed as if it was from above—zumpf!—like a Zeppelin bomb,” he told a reporter from the New York Times. “There were five or six other lighters alongside mine at the dock, and a tug was just coming up to drag us away.… I don’t know what became of the tug or the other lighters. It looked as if they all went up in the air.” Of the two men he was with, she said, “I didn’t see where they went, but I think they must be dead.”
Watchmen in the Woolworth building in Lower Manhattan saw the blast, and “thinking their time had come, got down on their knees and prayed,” one newspaper reported. The Statue of Liberty took more than $100,000 worth of damage; Lady Liberty’s torch, which was then open to visitors who could climb an interior ladder for a spectacular view, has been closed ever since. Onlookers in Manhattan watched as munition shells rocketed across the water and exploded a mile from the fires on Black Tom Island.
Flying bullets and shrapnel rendered firefighters powerless. Doctors and nurses arrived on the scene and tended to dozens of injured. The loss of life, however, was not great: Counts vary, but fewer than ten people perished in the explosions. However, the damage was estimated at more than $20 million, (nearly half a billion dollars today), and investigations eventually determined that the Black Tom explosions resulted from an enemy attack—what some historians regard as the first major terrorist attack on the United States by a foreign power.
In the days after the blasts, confusion reigned. Police arrested three railroad-company officials on charges of manslaughter, on the assumption that the fires began in two freight cars. Then guards at the pier were taken in for questioning; on the night of the explosions, they had lit smudge pots to keep mosquitoes away, and their carelessness with the pots was believed to have started the fires. But federal authorities could not trace the fire to the pots, and reports ultimately concluded that the blasts must have been accidental—even though several suspicious factory explosions in the United States, mostly around New York, pointed toward German spies and saboteurs. As Chad Millman points out in his book, The Detonators, there was a certain naivete at the time—President Woodrow Wilson could not bring himself to believe that Germans might be responsible for such destruction. Educated, industrious and neatly dressed, German-Americans’ perceived patriotism and commitment to life in America allowed them to integrate into society with less initial friction than other ethnic groups.
One of those newcomers to America was Count Johann Von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to Washington. He arrived in 1914 with a staff not of diplomats, but of intelligence operatives, and with millions of dollars earmarked to aid German war efforts by any means necessary. Von Bernstorff not only helped obtain forged passports for Germans who wanted to elude the Allied blockade, he also funded gun-running efforts, the sinking of American ships bringing supplies to Britain, and choking off supplies of phenol, used in the manufacture of explosives, in a conspiracy known as the Great Phenol Plot.
One of his master spies was Franz Von Rintelen, who had a “pencil bomb” designed for his use. Pencil bombs were cigar-sized charges filled with acids placed in copper chambers; the acids would ultimately eat their way through the copper and mingle, creating intense, silent flames. If designed and placed properly, a pencil bomb could be timed to detonate days later, while ships and their cargo were at sea. Von Rintelen is believed to have attacked 36 ships, destroying millions of dollars worth of cargo. With generous cash bribes, Von Rintelen had little problem gaining access to piers—which is how Michael Kristoff, a Slovak immigrant living in Bayonne, New Jersey, is believed to have gotten to the Black Tom munitions depot in July of 1916.
Investigators later learned from Kristoff’s landlord that he kept odd hours and sometimes came home at night with filthy hands and clothing, smelling of fuel. Along with two German saboteurs, Lothar Witzke and Kurt Jahnke, Kristoff is believed to have set the incendiary devices that caused the mayhem on Black Tom.
But it took years for investigators to piece together the evidence against the Germans in the bombing. The Mixed Claims Commission, set up after World War I to handle damage claims by companies and governments affected by German sabotage, awarded $50 million to plaintiffs in the Black Tom explosion—the largest damage claim of any in the war. Decades would pass, however, before Germany settled it. In the meantime, landfill projects eventually incorporated Black Tom Island into Liberty State Park. Now nothing remains of the munitions depot save a plaque marking the explosion that rocked the nation.
Books: The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice by Chad Millman, Little, Brown and Company, 2006. American Passage: This History of Ellis Island by Vincent J. Cannato, HarperCollins, 2009. Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany’s Secret War in America, 1914-1917, Algonquin Books, 1989.
Articles: “First Explosion Terrific” New York Times, July 31, 1916. “How Eyewitnesses Survived Explosion” New York Times, July 31, 1916. “Woolworth Tower Watchmen Pray” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1916. “Many Explosions Since War Began” New York Times, July 31, 1916. “Millions of Persons Heard and Felt Shock” New York Times, July 31, 1916. “N.Y. Firemen Work in Rain of Bullets” New York Times, July 31, 1916. “No Evidence of Plot in New York Explosion, Federal Agents Assert” Washington Post, July 31, 1916. “Statue of Liberty Damaged by Giant Ammunition Explosions” Washington Post, July 31, 1916. “Rail Heads Face Arrest in Pier Blast at N.Y.” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 1, 1916. “Black Tom Explosion” Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security, by Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner. http://www.faqs.org/espionage/Bl-Ch/Black-Tom-Explosion.html The Kiaser Sows Destruction: Protecting the Homeland the First Time Around by Michael Warner. Central Intelligence Agency https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol46no1/article02.html
October 25, 2011
Like hundreds of thousands of young American men, Henry Johnson returned from World War I and tried to make a life for himself in spite of what he had experienced in a strange and distant land. With dozens of bullet and shrapnel wounds, he knew he was lucky to have survived. His discharge records erroneously made no mention of his injuries, and so Johnson was denied a disability allowance. Uneducated and in his early twenties, Henry Johnson had no expectations that he could correct the errors in his military record. He simply tried to carry on as well as a black man could in the country he had been willing to give his life for.
He made it back home to Albany, New York, and resumed his job as a Red Cap porter at the train station, but he never could overcome his injuries—his left foot had been shattered, and a metal plate held it together. Johnson’s inability to hold down a job led him to the bottle. It didn’t take long for his wife and three children to leave. He died, destitute, in 1929 at age 32. As far as anyone knew, he was buried in a pauper’s field in Albany. A man who had earned the nickname “Black Death” in combat was quickly forgotten.
The denial of a disability pension, erroneous discharge records that would have earned him a posthumous Purple Heart, the fleeting recognition—none of it surprised his son, Herman Johnson, who later served with the famed Tuskegee Airmen. The younger Johnson knew all about Jim Crow, second-class citizenship and the systematic denial of equal rights to black Americans. But in 2001, 72 years after Henry Johnson’s death, a great and unlikely mystery was revealed to the soldier’s estranged son: On July 5, 1929, Henry Johnson had been buried not in an anonymous grave in Albany, but with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Historians who located Johnson’s place of burial believed there could be no more appropriate honor for Herman’s father, who proved his valor on the night of May 14, 1918, in the Argonne Forest.
Just a year earlier, Henry Johnson, who stood 5-foot-4 and weighed 130 pounds, had enlisted in the all-black 15th New York National Guard Regiment, which was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment when it shipped out to France. Poorly trained, the unit mostly performed menial labor—unloading ships and digging latrines—until it was lent to the French Fourth Army, which was short on troops. The French, less preoccupied by race than were the Americans, welcomed the men known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters were sent to Outpost 20 on the western edge of the Argonne Forest, in France’s Champagne region, and Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, from Trenton, New Jersey, were given French helmets, French weapons and enough French words to understand commands from their superiors. The two American soldiers were posted on sentry duty on the midnight-to-four a.m. shift. Johnson thought it was “crazy” to send untrained men out at the risk of the rest of the troops, he later told a reporter, but he told the corporal he’d “tackle the job.” He and Roberts weren’t on duty long when German snipers began firing at them.
After the shots rang out, Johnson and Roberts lined up a box of grenades in their dugout to have ready if a German raiding party tried to make a move. Just after 2 a.m., Johnson heard the “snippin’ and clippin’ ” of wirecutters on the perimeter fence and told Roberts to run back to camp to let the French troops know there was trouble. Johnson then hurled a grenade toward the fence, which brought a volley of return gunfire from the Germans, as well as enemy grenades. Roberts didn’t get far before he decided to return to help Johnson fight, but he was hit with a grenade and wounded too badly in his arm and hip to do any fighting. Johnson had him lie in the trench and hand him grenades, which the Albany native threw at the Germans. But there were too many enemy soldiers, and they advanced from every direction; Johnson ran out of grenades. He took German bullets in the head and lip but fired his rifle into the darkness. He took more bullets in his side, then his hand, but kept shooting until he shoved an American cartridge clip into his French rifle and it jammed.
By now, the Germans were on top of him. Johnson swung his rifle like a club and kept them at bay until the stock of his rifle splintered; then he went down with a blow to his head. Overwhelmed, he saw that the Germans were trying to take Roberts prisoner. The only weapon Johnson had left was a bolo knife, so he climbed up from the ground and charged, hacking away at the Germans before they could get clean shot at him.
“Each slash meant something, believe me,” Johnson later said. “I wasn’t doing exercises, let me tell you.” He stabbed one German in the stomach, felled a lieutenant, and took a pistol shot to his arm before driving his knife between the ribs of a soldier who had climbed on his back. Johnson managed to drag Roberts away from the Germans, who retreated as they heard French and American forces advancing. When reinforcements arrived, Johnson passed out and was taken to a field hospital. By daylight, the carnage was evident: Johnson had killed four Germans and wounded an estimated 10 to 20 more. Even after suffering 21 wounds in hand-to-hand combat, Henry Johnson had prevented the Germans from busting through the French line.
“There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said later. “Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.”
Later the entire French force in Champagne lined up to see the two Americans receive their decorations: the Croix du Guerre, France’s highest military honor. They were the first American privates to receive it. Johnson’s medal included the coveted Gold Palm, for extraordinary valor.
In February of 1919, the Harlem Hellfighters returned to New York for a parade up Fifth Avenue, where thousands lined up to cheer for a regiment that had amassed a record of bravery and achievement. Among the nearly 3,000 troops was a small man leading the procession from the convalescents’ section: Promoted to sergeant, Henry Johnson stood in the lead car, an open-top Cadillac, waving a handful of red lilies as the crowd shouted, “Oh, you Black Death!” along the seven-mile route. The Hellfighters’ arrival in Harlem “threw the population into hysterics,” the New York Times reported.
Upon his discharge, the Army used Johnson’s image to recruit new soldiers and to sell Victory War Stamps. (“Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?”) Former President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I. But by the mid-1920s, Johnson’s difficulties were catching up with him, and he declined until his death in 1929. Once they examined Johnson’s records and read press accounts of his return to the United States, historians from the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs suspected that Johnson might have been buried at Arlington, but microfilm records indicated only that a William Henry Johnson was buried there. It wasn’t until administrators requested the paper files that they learned there was a data entry error: It was indeed Henry Johnson who was buried at Arlington. Though his son was surprised to learn that Johnson had not been buried in a pauper’s grave, the soldier’s family was even more surprised to learn that there had been a ceremony at Arlington with full honors. “Learning my father was buried in this place of national honor can be described in just one word—joyful,” Herman Johnson said as he stood at his father’s grave in 2002. “I am simply joyful.”
Historians did not forget what Johnson did in the Forest of Argonne back in 1918, however. In 1996, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Henry Johnson the Purple Heart. And once Johnson’s place of burial had been located at Arlington in 2001, the Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military decoration.
In recent years, a chain-of-command endorsement in the form of a memo from Gen. John J. Pershing, commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, written just days after Johnson’s heroics in the Argonne, was discovered in an online database by an aide to Senator Charles Schumer of New York. Schumer believes that this endorsement, not known to exist for nearly a century, will be enough to bestow another posthumous award on the man known as Black Death. “There is no doubt,” Schumer said this past March, standing before a statue of Johnson in Albany, “he should receive the Medal of Honor”—the nation’s highest military honor.
Books: Ann Hagedorn, Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America 1919, Simon &Schuster, 2007. W. Allison Sweeney, History of the American Negro in the Great World War, Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2005. Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soliders in the World War I Era, University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Articles: “Beat Back Force of 25 Germans, Willing French War Cross” by Junius B. Wood, Chicago Defender, May 25, 1918. “Ceremony to Honor Memory of Johnson” by Jill Brice, Schenectady Gazette, January 10, 2002. “Honour At Last For War Hero Ignored for Being Black” by Olivery Burkeman, the Guardian, March 21, 2002. “Fifth Av. Cheers Negro Veterans,” New York Times, February 18, 1919. “Henry Johnson and an Honor Long Overdue” by Chad Williams, George Mason University’s History News Network, April 10, 2011. http://hnn.us/articles/138144.html “Support Grows for Medal of Honor” by Paul Grondahl, Albany Times Union, March 23, 2011. http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Support-grows-for-Medal-of-Honor-1256102.php “Henry Lincoln Johnson, Sergeant, United States Army,” Arlington National Cemetary Website, http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/henry-johnson.htm “Dynamite Comes in Small Packages” by Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Torrence , WWW.ARMY.MIL, The Official Homepage of the United States Army, http://www.army.mil/article/8655/DYNAMITE_COMES_IN_SMALL_PACKAGES/