Sgt. William Henry Johnson, who became the first American hero of World War I, was honored Tuesday as Louisiana's Fort Polk was renamed Fort Johnson. It is one of nine forts being renamed by the Congressional Naming Commission to cut ties with its Confederate past. Photo courtesy of Department of Defense
June 13 (UPI) -- As part of an ongoing effort to cut ties with Confederate figures, Louisiana's Fort Polk was renamed Tuesday during a brief ceremony to honor a World War I soldier who served in the all-Black 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment.
Fort Polk, which was originally named after Confederate commander Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, is now Fort Johnson in honor of Sgt. William Henry Johnson, who became the first American hero of World War I.
"Sgt. William Henry Johnson embodied the warrior spirit, and we are deeply honored to bear his name at the Home of Heroes," Brig. Gen. David W. Gardner, commanding general of the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk, said in a statement.
Former President Theodore Roosevelt had called Johnson one of the five bravest Americans to serve in World War I.
The North Carolina native served one tour of duty in France's Champagne region from 1918 to 1919. The 26-year-old soldier single-handedly fought-off a German raiding party in 1918 and saved a fellow soldier despite suffering 21 wounds, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
"He killed a German with rifle fire, knocked one down with clubbed rifle, killed two with bolo [knife], killed one with grenade, and it is believed wounded others," the National Guard report said.
While Johnson was one of the first Americans to be awarded France's highest award for valor, the French Croix de Guerre, he received no U.S. military recognition until after his death in 1929.
"As a Black American whose bravery wasn't acknowledged at the time, Sgt. Johnson personified the Army values and was the epitome of strength," said Brig. Gen. Isabel Rivera Smith, the New York National Guard's director of joint staff.
Johnson, who suffered extensive injuries during the war, died destitute in 1929 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
He was recognized in the United States decades later when he was awarded the Purple Heart in 1996, the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002 and the Medal of Honor in 2015.
Fort Polk is one of nine Confederate-named Army forts being renamed by the Congressional Naming Commission.