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Fort Polk is now Fort Johnson after US Army moves to honor World War I hero

<i>Lolita Baldor/AP</i><br/>The US Army on Tuesday will officially rename Louisiana’s Fort Polk military base. Pictured is the entrance of the Fort Polk Joint Readiness Training Center.
Lolita Baldor/AP
The US Army on Tuesday will officially rename Louisiana’s Fort Polk military base. Pictured is the entrance of the Fort Polk Joint Readiness Training Center.

By Kaanita Iyer, CNN

Washington (CNN) — The US Army on Tuesday officially renamed Louisiana’s Fort Polk as Fort Johnson, the latest US military installation to be redesignated as part of an effort to strip Confederate leaders of the honor.

The base, officially named Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Johnson, now honors Sgt. William Henry Johnson, a Black US soldier during World War I who fought off about two dozen Germans alone, killing at least four. It was previously named after Confederate commander Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk.

“Sgt. Henry Johnson embodied the warrior spirit, and we are deeply honored to bear his name at the Home of Heroes,” said Brig. Gen. David Gardner, the commanding general of the base, according to excerpts from his prepared remarks shared with CNN.

“Sgt. Johnson’s acts of self-less service during World War I will inspire those at our installation, where we have trained and deployed America’s men and women to fight and win our nation’s wars for over 80 years,” he added.

Johnson, who was awarded a Purple Heart and Medal of Honor posthumously, enlisted two months after the US became officially involved in World War I and began his military career in a segregated New York regiment based in Harlem, the Army said in a statement last month.

During his deployment to France, where he was assigned to a French infantry unit, Johnson fought off a German raid with the butt of his rifle that ran out of rounds, as well as “grenades, his fists and a bolo knife to kill four German soldiers” and save a fellow American soldier, according to the Army. He was severely injured and suffered 21 wounds, and was unable to return to his job as a porter after the war.

Johnson was outspoken about the racism experienced by Black soldiers, for which the Army punished him by canceling the speaking engagements that he was assigned after his heroic actions. He died in 1929 of myocarditis following a tuberculosis diagnosis.

“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 director of joint staff for New York National Guard, in a statement.

The branch-wide push to remove the names of Confederate leaders from military bases came amid increased focus on racial inequalities following George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last year approved a proposal by a congressional commission to rename nine bases in honor of several people of color who made significant contributions with their service.

Several bases have been redesignated recently, including Fort Hood in Texas, which was renamed Fort Cavazos last month in honor of Gen. Richard Edward Cavazos, the first Hispanic person to wear four stars on his uniform. Earlier this month, North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, one of the world’s largest military installations, was renamed Fort Liberty.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect the commendation Johnson received for his actions in World War I. It was the Medal of Honor.

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