Correcting the Record of WWI Hero and Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. Henry Johnson

Megan Smolenyak
5 min readMay 25, 2018


Sgt. Henry Johnson

A century ago, on the evening of May 14, 1918 while on post duty with one other soldier, Private Henry Johnson single-handedly repelled an attack of up to 24 German soldiers primarily through hand-to-hand combat. In doing so, he prevented the other soldier from being captured and protected countless others he served with. His efforts resulted in 21 wounds.

The French government almost immediately rewarded his bravery with the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, but due to prejudice, it took until 2015 — nearly a century after his service — for Sgt. Henry Johnson¹ to receive the Medal of Honor from his own country.

As the genealogist who had the privilege of researching Sgt. Johnson in preparation for his Medal of Honor, I had the opportunity to seek out and steep myself in hundreds of pages of his paper trail, and it took me months after the award in 2015 to get much of the false information about him online corrected (normally reliable sources ranging from Smithsonian Magazine to PBS’s History Detectives contained a number of errors). Even so, the current centennial of his feat has prompted a number of inquiries from officials and journalists seeking to sort fact from fiction, and made me aware that much misinformation lingers, so I’d like to share some details of his life to help tip the scales in favor of what is true.

· His full name was William Henry Johnson, but Sgt. Johnson preferred to go by his middle name of Henry and only occasionally used his full name for formal purposes, such as when he married. This is why, for instance, newspaper reports of his death can be found under both the names of and Henry Johnson and William Henry Johnson.

Pittsburgh Courier, FultonHistory
The New York Age, Newspapers

· As seen here in his death certificate, Sgt. Johnson died on July 1, 1929 in Washington, D.C. and was buried in Arlington National…



Megan Smolenyak

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You may not know me, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (www.MeganSmolenyak.com)