Harlem Hellfighter Henry Johnson’s Heroism Captured in New Graphic Novel

July 14, 2020Matt Fratus
Henry Johnson graphic novel coffee or die

Screen grab from Henry Johnson’s new graphic novel in dedication to his World War I service where he was later posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015. Photo courtesy of AUSA.

When reading the Medal of Honor citation of a soldier, Marine, sailor, or airman, we often have to fill the gaps with our own imagination in order to recreate the scene unfolding line by line. In the case of Henry Johnson — the World War I Harlem Hellfighter who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015 — his wartime heroism on the Western Front is replicated in explicit detail in the second issue of the second volume from the Association of the United States Army’s (AUSA) Medal of Honor graphic novel series.

The eight-page, full-color graphic novel can be read online completely free, in addition to the other Medal of Honor depictions that capture detailed accounts of Roy Benavidez, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier during the Vietnam War, and Sal Guinta, a paratrooper on patrol in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, among others.

graphic novel Henry Johnson coffee or die
A screen grab from Henry Johnson’s story featured in a new Medal of Honor graphic novel series. Photo courtesy of the AUSA.

The nonprofit first launched the graphic novel series honoring Medal of Honor recipients in October 2018. The team consists of world-renowned comic book professionals, including Chuck Dixon, whose previous written credits include “Batman” and “The Punisher”; P.J. Holden, known for “Judge Dredd” and “World of Tanks,” created the pencils, inks, and cover; Peter Pantazis from “Justice League,” “Superman,” and “Wolverine” added the colors; and Troy Peteri, formerly from “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man,” and “X-Men,” contributed the lettering.

The world-class team helped bring Johnson’s harrowing story to life. The graphic novel leads the reader through Johnson’s upbringing before the Army, then provides a visual account of the night he became a hero. Johnson and Needham Roberts were placed ahead of the rest of their unit to act as sentries. Working the graveyard shift, the pair heard some rustling, possibly the sounds of the wire being snipped. In complete darkness, the soldiers were unaware of the danger in front of them as two dozen Germans from a trench-raiding party were closing in on their position.

graphic novel Henry Johnson coffee or die
Screen grab from Henry Johnson’s story depicting his Medal of Honor actions with the Harlem Hellfighters during World War I. Photo courtesy of the AUSA.

Roberts fired a flare into the air confirming their suspicions, and chaos ensued with a volley of rifle fire and explosions from hand grenades. Wounded by shrapnel, Roberts could not stand but positioned himself next to Johnson to pass him hand grenades taken from a nearby crate. Almost on top of their position, Johnson engaged the Germans with his rifle until it jammed. The Germans closed the distance, and Johnson swung his empty rifle like a baseball bat. In the midst of the melee, Johnson noticed two German raiders standing over Roberts in an attempt to capture him. 

Armed with only his bolo knife, Johnson sprinted toward his friend, surprising the trench raiders with such brutality he was able to obtain the tactical advantage. He sliced and stabbed but was shot by a stunned German soldier. Remarkably, Johnson’s last stand quelled the German raiding party’s assault and forced them to retreat to fight another day. 

This tribute in the form of a graphic novel is fitting and acts as a visual resource to the historical account. The two remaining graphic novels in the series will cover the stories of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the first and only female Medal of Honor recipient, and Holocaust survivor Tibor Rubin, who fought during the Korean War.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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