From left, Sgt. Garrett Paulson, U.S. Army noncommissioned officer of the year and a combat medic assigned to Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital; U.S. Army Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, Chief of the National Guard Bureau; Brig. Gen. David W. Gardner, commanding general, Fort Johnson; Command Sgt. Maj. David P. Hanson, post command sergeant major; and Mr. Louis Wilson, retired New York National Guard state command sergeant major, hit the anvil with a hammer at Warrior Field, June 13, 2023, designating Fort Johnson as the official name of the Army installation formerly known as Fort Polk. Fort Johnson was renamed after New York National Guardsman Sgt. Henry Johnson, a World War I hero. U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Armando Vasquez.
FORT JOHNSON, La. — A U.S. Army base in western Louisiana was renamed Tuesday to honor Sgt. William Henry Johnson, a Black hero of World War I who received the Medal of Honor nearly a century later.
Fort Johnson had previously been named after a Confederate commander, Leonidas Polk. The renaming is part of the U.S. military’s efforts to address historic racial injustice — work that included changing the names of nine Army posts that commemorated Confederate officers.
“Sgt. William Henry Johnson embodied the warrior spirit, and we are deeply honored to bear his name,” Brig. Gen. David Garner, the commanding general of the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Johnson, said in a post on Twitter.
U.S. Army Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, addresses troops, visitors, and state officials during the Fort Johnson redesignation ceremony at Warrior Field, Fort Johnson, Louisiana, June 13, 2023. U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Armando Vasquez.
While serving on the front lines of France in 1918, Johnson fought off a German night raid near the Argonne Forest, according to the National Museum of the United States Army.
Johnson was wounded 21 times while beating back the attacking forces. He also prevented a wounded Black comrade from being taken prisoner when, after running out of grenades and ammunition, he killed two German soldiers with his knife.
“His frantic attacks broke the German morale and the enemy raiding party retreated,” the Army museum's biography of Johnson says.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David W. Gardner, left, commanding general, Fort Johnson, addresses troops, visitors, and state officials during the Fort Johnson redesignation ceremony at Warrior Field, Fort Johnson, Louisiana, June 13, 2023. Fort Johnson became the official name of the Army installation formerly known as Fort Polk, and was renamed after New York National Guardsman Sgt. Henry Johnson, a World War I hero. U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Armando Vasquez.
He survived the war, and former President Theodore Roosevelt named him one of the five bravest Americans to serve in the conflict. He insisted he was no hero, and the Army biography quotes him as saying, “There wasn’t anything so fine about it. Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.”
His brave actions were recognized nearly a century later when he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2015 “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
However, Johnson's actions were not recognized by the Army, which denied him a disability allowance and did not award him a Purple Heart. Due to his injuries, he struggled after returning home to Albany, New York, and died of a heart condition in 1929. He was 32 years old.
A sign at the west Louisiana U.S. Army base displays the base's new name in n Vernon Parish, Louisiana, Tuesday, June 13, 2023. The former Fort Polk on Tuesday formally became Fort Johnson, named for a Black World War I hero. Photo by Crystal Stevenson/The American Press via AP.
The current process of renaming nine Army posts marks the first time bases will be named after Black soldiers and women.
The original naming process involved members of local communities, although Black residents were left out of the conversations. Bases were named after soldiers born or raised nearby, no matter how effectively they performed their duties. Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg is widely regarded among historians as a poor leader who did not have the respect of his troops.
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