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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bolo-Knife Fighter: Pvt. Henry Johnson

Pvt. Henry Johnson

The following article, published in 1918, describes the M1909 bolo knife and a remarkable instance of its use by Pvt. Henry Johnson, who served in the segregated 369th Regiment, known as the "Harlem Hellfighters."
What the Philippines Gave to the American Army and What One Man Did.
Washington, June 29. A year ago Henry Johnson, a colored citizen of Albany, N. Y.. was peddling ice, coal, and wood in contented obscurity.

Today Henry Johnson, a soldier of the United States, is wearing the coveted French war cross with palms because he proved himself a brave man--and because at the critical moment he got his hands on a bolo knife. Everybody who thrills to the great continued story of American heroism that trickles back from France over the cables remembers Henry's exploit--how on night duty with a companion in an American listening post he "took on" twenty-four marauding Germans in a swift rough-and-tumble; killed some of them with his rifle, bombed others from his basket of grenades; and then, even after he had been wounded, split so many skulls with his bolo that all the enemy left on their feet after meeting Henry became suddenly and violently homesick.

The bolo knife which Henry wielded so well weighs one pound and eight ounces without its scabbard and has a broad fourteen-inch blade.

M-1909 Bolo Knife.

It is sharpened to a razor edge and near the end runs abruptly to a thrusting point. But one of its chief virtues as a small arm is its cleaving power. Most of the weight of the knife is distributed along the back of the blade. The handle is serrated to fit the fingers of an easy grip and with a quick, muscular swing the bolo is a bone cutter of the first rank.

America first ran up against the bolo in the Philippines. Over there it was originally an agricultural tool, just as the machete was in Cuba, and blacksmiths at country cross-roads hammered it out infinitely and in all sorts of forms. The "cris" with its curly blade is a form of bolo, and the "campilan" is a bigger bolo.

But it was up among the Moros that it was developed for war purposes. In the underbrush it proved a very terrible weapon, as many a trooper found to bis cost. A stealthy stroke in the tropical night--just one counted for a major American casualty. After a while our soldiers found there was no particular knack in the Malay use of the bolo they could not master. Then they began to capture bolos. And so, after the war ended, bolos kept coming back to the United States as souvenirs. But it was not until 1910 that the war department tried the experiment of issuing the bolo knife as a regular part of the American equipment. It was used and tested by our men in Mexico, but there it was employed chiefly as a tool rather than a weapon. It was not until our khaki-garbed boys went down into the French trenches that the bolo knife proved its right to be considered "the last line of defense" and as a life-saver to the man who unsheathed it.

Incidentally, it may be noted that our colored troops display a special aptitude and affection for this weapon. The white fighter is inclined to rely upon his automatic pistol in an emergency at close quarters. But the colored man in uniform takes as naturally to the bolo knife as he does to--well, as he does to the name of “Mr. Johnson.”
In Two Sizes.
The bolo knife is issued to our troops in two sizes--the smaller size of the type which Henry Johnson used, and a larger knife employed exclusively by field artillery batteries. This latter is practically a short sword, comparable to the principal weapon of the old Roman legionaries. It is two feet long and weighs between three and four pounds. Of course, being issued only to artillerymen who are not ordinarily actually at grips with the enemy, it is intended mainly as a sort of super brush cutter. But in the hands of a desperate man fighting for his life it is a terrible persuader. The bolo is in no sense a trench knife. That is issued to every man in the ranks and is a special tool not meant for fighting save at the last gasp. But the fourteen-inch bolo knife is essentially a weapon. It is issued to 6 percent of our infantry forces--not regularly to every seventeenth man, but as occasion may require or the immediate commanding officer may direct. Henry Johnson was given his because he was assigned to particularly dangerous duty in a listening post. Others may be equipped with bolo knives; for instance, as members of a special detachment to accompany raiding forces within the enemy lines. Their work must be quick, silent, and thorough. From Luneville to Cantigny the Germans have found it so.

The small arms division of the United States ordnance department believes that the bolo knife has points of superiority over any knife in use on the European battle field, else it would not have been adopted for our use. The German uses his fighting knife chiefly for thrusting, usually at the throat, as the first American sentries stationed near the Rhine-Marne canal soon discovered. But the bolo knife may be employed in any way the emergency dictates and its peculiar heft lends it an unlooked-for wickedness. Moreover, this knife has a distinct psychological value. It was a complete surprise to Fritz--if not to his intelligence department--in the trenches. What he has learned about it he does not like. And to the American it is a tried and tested weapon, the heritage of another successful war, and a piece of steel which he is convinced will do all that cold steel can.
Johnson was celebrated in this newspaper cartoon.

Johnson was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2003. Here is an article describing the circumstances:
WWI hero honored for bravery
WASHINGTON (AP) - A war hero ignored by military brass for decades was honored Thursday at the Pentagon for his extraordinary feat of battlefield bravery.

Sgt. Henry Johnson of Albany, N.Y., was awarded posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross for single-handedly fighting off nearly 20 German troops who attacked him and a fellow soldier while they were on sentry duty during World War I. Johnson's 86-year-oid son, Herman Johnson of Kansas City, Kan., a member of the renowned World War II Tuskegee airmen, smiled as he held his father's medal Thursday in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes.

"It's great for my father, it's great for me and my family, and it's great for Negro history," he said. "When we pass away, this will be part of the country's history."

The recognition for Johnson came after decades of lobbying by his family and veterans of the fabled 369th regiment, dubbed the "Harlem Hellfighters" while fighting alongside the French in World War I because of strict segregation in the US. Army.

John Howe, a historian of the 369th, called Johnson "a very ordinary guy," who, like many others, became a hero for his country. Johnson and another soldier were on sentry duty one night in May 1918 when a band of German troops attacked.

According to the military citation, even after suffering shotgun and grenade wounds, Johnson fought the Germans, finally driving them off with just a bolo knife.

Johnson's image and story were later used by the Army in a publicity campaign to boost minority recruitment. The French government gave Johnson the Croix de Guerre, one of that nation's highest honors.

After the war, Johnson returned to Albany. He died in 1929 in his mid-30s, undecorated by his own country. The United States awarded him the Purple Heart in 1996.

Sen. Charles Schumer, Rep. Michael McNulty, D-Albany, and Charles Rangel, D-Harlem, who all had lobbied on behalf of the Johnson family, heaped praise on the forgotten soldier. "I stand before you with great pride as we make this wrong right," Schumer said.

McNulty called the ceremony "another step in the process" of getting Johnson the Medal of Honor, saying the military has been too slow to honor the sacrifices of its black veterans.
Saying that Johnson's deed was ignored is inaccurate. Johnson was honored with a parade upon his return and his valor was praised in numerous newspaper articles and books. It is true that he should have gotten more official recognition than he did and his DSC is well deserved. Whether or not he should have been awarded the Medal of Honor is another matter; a lot of soldiers have performed comparable exploits without receiving it.

There is more information on Johnson in my book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques, as well as here.

UPDATE JUNE 2, 2015: Sgt. Henry Johnson is awarded the Medal of Honor at last.

Obama awards Medals of Honor to two World War I soldiers — 97 years after heroism 

By Dan Lamothe

President Obama posthumously awarded two World War I heroes the Medal of Honor on Tuesday, recognizing soldiers whose valor on the battlefields of France had not been recognized with the nation’s highest valor award for 97 years due to racial and religious bias.

Sgt. Henry Johnson, a legend in the Army’s all-black “Harlem Hellfighters,” and Sgt. William Shemin, the Jewish son of Russian immigrants, were acclaimed before a packed East Room of the White House. Obama said there are surely others like them who have gone “unacknowledged and uncelebrated,” and that the United States has more work to do to honor them.

“America is the country we are today because of people like Henry and William — Americans who signed up to serve, and rose to meet their responsibilities, and then went beyond,” the president said. “The least we can do is to say: ‘We know who you are. We know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.'”

Johnson, then a private, is credited with fighting off a group of German raiders in France’s Argonne Forest while serving as a sentry. Black soldiers were not allowed at the time to  serve in American combat units, but the Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment, had been sent by Gen. John J. Pershing to fight alongside undermanned French units.

Early on the morning of May 15, 1918, brought a surprise attack by at least 12 German troops. They opened fire on Johnson and his fellow sentry, Pvt. Needham Roberts, wounding both of them. The Germans then began to carry away the injured Roberts until Johnson reacted with speed and ferocity.
“Henry refused to let them take his brother in arms,” Obama said. “He shoved another magazine into his rifle. It jammed. He turned the gun around and swung it at one of the enemy, knocking him down. Then he grabbed the only weapon he had left — his Bolo knife — and went to rescue Needham. Henry took down one enemy soldier, then the other. The soldier he’d knocked down with his rifle recovered, and Henry was wounded again. But armed with just his knife, Henry took him down, too.”
Accounts of Johnson’s bravery by his fellow soldiers — including Pershing and Roberts — were found in the last few years by staff members of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.-N.Y.). The Army posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, to Johnson in 2003, but the higher award had been out of reach.

Johnson’s Medal of Honor was accepted Tuesday by Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, the senior enlisted soldier in the New York National Guard, on behalf of the 369th Infantry Regiment. Johnson died in 1929, 11 years after his heroism, without receiving even a Purple Heart to recognize his injuries. The French, on the other hand, awarded him and Roberts the Croix de Guerre, their top award for valor.


  1. I live in Albany, and Henry Johnson is memorialized by the street named after him as well as a good sized statue in a prominent park. I never really knew his story, or the role knifes played in it. Thank you for the history of a hero from my town.

  2. As a current service member I can't read this without thinking about how skewed the current military award system is where units are awarded medals on a blanket basis just for serving in a combat zone regardless of any actual accomplishment and leaders are regularly awarded medals for never leaving an office and yet here we have the account of a man who was the very definition of heroism and valor and it takes years of lobbying for any official recognition from his own government. We have gone from one extreme to the other.

  3. This blade prove itself against their colonizers - Spaniards, British, Dutch, Americans and Japanese. Guided by a good hand, it is useful to any soldier in close hand-to-hand eye-to-eye combat. Perhaps the North Vietnamese, The North Koreans and the Chinese suffered the same fate by those German soldiers. Pardon to the internationals around here, I spake the truth.

  4. I add my voice to the comments above, and feel it is shameful to refer to Sgt. Johnson's valor in the slighting terms you have allowed him. He'd been shot with a shotgun when he rescued his fellow sentry.

  5. Thank you for sharing the inspiring story of Pvt. Henry Johnson, a true hero. It's essential to remember and honor such remarkable individuals. As we reflect on his bravery and sacrifice, it's a reminder to appreciate our freedom and the opportunities to find valuable "Promo Codes" in life.

  6. I wanted to thank you for consistently providing insightful and interesting information. Continue the excellent work!piada student discount