National Purple Heart Day profile: Henry Lincoln Johnson

The Harlem Hellfighters

As the nation celebrates military heroes on National Purple Heart Day, AOL takes a look at some of the most compelling, heart-wrenching and heartwarming stories behind those who have earned the prestigious award.

Henry Lincoln Johnson was a member of the famed African-American WWI infantry unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters spent more time in combat than any other American unit in the conflict, but continued to face racism and segregation when they returned home to the United States.

Johnson was manning a listening post with 17-year-old Needham Roberts on May 15, 1918, when German soldiers attacked. Roberts was seriously injured in the fire fight, and Johnson was left to defend their position. After his gun jammed, Johnson even fended off the enemy by using his weapon as a club.

See photos of Henry Lincoln Johnson and the famed Harlem Hellfighters:
Purple Heart Recipient: Henry Lincoln Johnson
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National Purple Heart Day profile: Henry Lincoln Johnson
Soldiers of the U.S. 369th Infantry Regiment parading down 15th Avenue, New York, on their return from service in Europe during World War I, circa 1919. The regiment was an African-American outfit formed in 1913 from the 15th Infantry Regiment and its troops were popularly known as the Harlem Hellfighters or the Black Rattlers. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Movie poster advertises 'Our Colored Fighters,' a WW1 recruiting documentary on the all-black 369th Regiment nicknamed the 'Harlem Hellfighters,' 1918. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

Despite sustaining several gunshot wounds, Johnson killed four German soldiers and injured an estimated 10 to 20 others. The French quickly awarded Johnson the Croix du Guerre, France's highest military honor, but he was given no special recognition by the United States.

Due to his war injuries, Johnson was unable to hold down a steady job when he returned home and he struggled with alcoholism. Smithsonian Magazine reports that he died penniless in 1929 at age 32.

In 1996, President Clinton posthumously awarded Henry Lincoln Johnson the Purple Heart, 67 years after his death.
Purple Heart Recipients By Major War | FindTheData

Read more awe-inspiring stories about heroes who have earned a Purple Heart award:

Read more awe-inspiring stories about heroes who have earned a Purple Heart award:

Meet Annie Fox: The first woman to ever be awarded a Purple Heart

Charles Elder was shocked to receive the honor 65 years after he served in the Korean war

Kristin Beck overcame immeasurable challenges on the battlefield and then at home

Calvin Winright's family had no idea he died a war hero -- until one woman found his award

Chris Melendez joined the military after the 9/11 attacks and now he's making history

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