Who is Sgt. William Henry Johnson, the recommended new namesake for Fort Polk?

By: - May 24, 2022 3:59 pm
William Henrry Johnson

U.S. Department of Defense photo

The panel tasked with finding new names for U.S. military bases that continue to honor the Confederacy has come up with its recommendation for nine Army installations around the country. They include Fort Polk in Louisiana, which the Congressional Naming Commission announced Tuesday should be renamed for World War I legend Sgt. William Henry Johnson.

Johnson, a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was widely heralded for his valor during battle in France. As a Black man, he was shunned from fighting alongside white Americans but was part of an expeditionary force with other Allied fighters. Shipping out months ahead of most U.S. soldiers, Johnson and other Black Americans wore French uniforms into battle.

According to information from the Department of Defense, Johnson was one of two forward sentries in the Argonne Forest on the night of May 14, 1918. When Germans attacked his position, Johnson exhausted his supply of grenades and ammunition to hold off the enemy.

Even though Johnson was wounded and armed only with a bolo knife, he stopped two Germans from taking away the other injured sentry for interrogation. Records indicate he engaged 12 enemy soldiers and killed four, despite sustaining 21 separate wounds in the fight.

Johnson recovered and continued to serve, eventually earning the nickname Black Death. He was considered one of the first America heroes of the war and lauded with a parade in New York City upon his return to America. But he also faced the constraints of Jim Crow policy at the time. Without access to proper medical care for his wounds, he died destitute at age 36 in 1929.

Although he was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, Johnson’s legend and burial site were largely forgotten for nearly nearly 70 years. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. President Barack Obama upgraded the latter award to the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award for valor, in 2015.

France honored Johnson much sooner after his exploits in action, making him the first American to receive its Croix de Guerre.

Johnson’s name would replace that of Leonidas Polk at the Vernon Parish Army base, which is home to the Joint Readiness Training Center. Some 8,000 soldiers are stationed on site and another 6,000 civilian employees work there, according to Army figures.

The Naming Commission has an Oct. 1 deadline to submit its recommendations to Congress, which would then take over the process to make the changes official.

New name recommendations for Army installations

Fort Benning, Ga. – rename as Fort Moore after Lt. Gen. Hal and Julia Moore.
Fort Bragg, N.C. – rename as Fort Liberty after the value of liberty.
Fort Gordon, Ga. – rename as Fort Eisenhower after General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower.
Fort A.P. Hill, Va. – rename as Fort Walker after Dr. Mary Walker.
Fort Hood, Texas – rename as Fort Cavazos after Gen. Richard Cavazos.
Fort Lee, Va. – rename as Fort Gregg-Adams after Lt. Gen. Arthur Gregg and Lt. Col. Charity Adams.
Fort Pickett, Va. – rename as Fort Barfoot after Tech. Sgt. Van T. Barfoot.
Fort Polk, La. – rename as Fort Johnson after Sgt. William Henry Johnson.
Fort Rucker, Ala. – rename as Fort Novosel after Chief Warrant Officer 4 Michael J. Novosel, Sr.


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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.