Black World War I hero who was a
‘Harlem Hellfighter’ and shot 20 times
could receive Medal of Honor posthumously
for saving the lives of his comrades 95 years ago
By James Gordon
Sgt. Henry Johnson was part of the 369th Regiment, or
Harlem Hellfighters – one of the most successful units in the war
Johnson’s story became legendary when Germans raided
his camp, leaving him with more than 20 gunshot wounds.
He almost single-highhandedly fought off his attackers armed only with
a rifle and a knife, using the rifle as a club once it had run out of bullets
Johnson left four Germans dead and injured at least 20 others, who retreated
Johnson’s legacy went unrecognized because of segregation within the armed
forces at the time.
The nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, is
reserved for soldiers who exhibit extreme valor in wartime efforts
The award can usually only be given up to five years after
the event, but it’s hoped the law will be changed in his honor
Nearly 100 years after he single-handedly fought off a German attack and saved a comrade from capture despite suffering serious wounds, Sgt. Henry Johnson is a step closer to getting a posthumous Medal of Honor.
In an unprecedented move, congress is looking at changing a law that would allow a black World War I soldier from upstate New York who saved a comrade while fighting off a German attack in France, to be honored.
A number of congressmen including Chuck Hagel, the secretary of defense, has sent Congress a letter saying Sgt. Henry Johnson should receive the nation’s highest military decoration for bravery in combat.
The railroad porter from Albany was serving in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment when he killed or wounded several enemy soldiers while saving a fellow soldier from capture.
The president gets the final word on the medal request, which also requires passage of special legislation in Congress because Johnson’s actions were more than five years ago.
The current legislation specifies that heroic actions have to have taken place within five years to be considered.
‘Johnson should have received this recognition 95 years ago, and providing an exemption for him now is the right thing to do,’ said Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
If approved, Johnson would become the 89th black soldier to receive the Medal of Honor and just the second for heroism during World War I, according to the Mount Pleasant, South Carolina-based Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Johnson, a Virginia-born rail station porter in Albany, enlisted in the 369th Infantry Regiment, a New York National Guard unit based in Manhattan that became known as the ‘Harlem Hellfighters.’
With U.S. armed forces segregated at the time, the 369th was assigned to serve under French command when Johnson’s outfit arrived on the front lines in early 1918.
Around midnight on May 15, 1918, he and another soldier, Needham Roberts of Trenton, New Jersey, were standing guard when their position was attacked by about two dozen Germans.
Both Americans were wounded, but despite his injuries the 5ft 4in Johnson fought off the attack, using his knife and rifle to kill or wound several of the enemy who were trying to drag Roberts away.
Johnson’s actions caused the other Germans to retreat.
His actions earned him one of France’s highest military medals, but historians believe rampant Jim Crow-era racism at a time when the services were segregated kept Johnson from receiving American military honors.
Indeed, accounts of his actions were published in newspapers back home in Albany, as well as in Chicago and New York City.
Former President Theodore Roosevelt, in a book he wrote about World War I, listed Johnson among the bravest Americans to serve in the conflict.
‘Everybody knew who Henry Johnson was,’ said Jack McEneny, a retired state lawmaker and Albany historian who has been advocating Johnson’s case for 40 years.
‘He was a major source of pride and a realization for the black community and the white community of the value of African-Americans to the loyalty of this country.’
After the war, Johnson moved back to Albany, where he resumed working as a porter.
Plagued by his wartime injuries, he died a destitute alcoholic at age 32 at a veterans hospital Illinois in 1929.
He was believed to have been buried in a pauper’s grave, but his final resting place was found in Arlington National Cemetery in 2002.
In 2003, Johnson was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military honor.
Previous attempts to get the Medal of Honor awarded to Johnson were rejected by Pentagon officials citing insufficient contemporary military documentation of his heroics, but in 2011, Schumer’s staff found such records.
The U.S. Army reports from May 1918 described how Johnson fought off an enemy attack despite being wounded and outnumbered.
Schumer included those documents in Johnson’s Medal of Honor application.
In 1991, Army Cpl. Freddie Stowers of Sandy Springs, South Carolina, became the first black soldier honored with the Medal of Honor from World War I after two congressmen resurrected his case for the nation’s highest military decoration for bravery in combat.
The seven black service members awarded the medal for heroics during World War II weren’t honored until 1997, after historians and the defense department determined they had wrongly been denied.
Johnson’s story is already well-known in Albany, where there are two memorials in his honor and a street and a charter school bear his name.
This year’s awarding of the Medal of Honor to 24 ethnic or minority American soldiers from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars has given hope to McEneny and other advocates that Johnson will finally receive the same recognition.
‘Every time another hero is honored belatedly or rediscovered long after the fact, if you’re in Albany, it just gnaws at you,’ the former legislator said. ‘That’s great, but what about Henry Johnson?’