Henry Lincoln Johnson – Sergeant, United States Army

Sergeant, U.S. Army
Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93d Division, A.E.F.
Date of Action: May 13 – 15, 1918
Awarded under Act of Congress, 2002
Home Town: Albany, New York


The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Henry Johnson, Sergeant, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action in France during the period 13 – 15 May 1918.

Private Johnson distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force.

While on a double sentry night duty, Private Johnson and a fellow soldier were attacked by a raiding party of Germans numbering almost twenty, wounding both. When the Germans were within fighting distance, he opened fire, shooting one of them and seriously wounding two more. The Germans continued to advance, and as they were about to be captured Private Johnson drew his bolo knife from his belt and attacked the Germans in a hand-to-hand encounter. Even though having sustained three grenade and shotgun wounds from the star, Private Johnson went to the rescue of his fellow soldier who was being taken prisoner by the enemy. He kept on fighting until the Germans were chased away.

Private Johnson’s personal courage and total disregard for his own life reflect great credit upon himself, the 369th United States Infantry Regiment, the United States Army, and the United States of America.

11 April 2003:

KANSAS CITY, Missouri — A local World War I veteran was honored posthumously by the Army for his bravery.

Henry Johnson (Family Photo)

Sergeant Henry Johnson was a member of the all-black 369th Army Infantry. Johnson became a hero when he singlehandedly fought off a group of German soldiers with only a knife and a gun to rescue a wounded comrade.

“He got wounded 21 times and what he did was stop the Germans from getting through the French line,” son Herman Johnson said.

France awarded Johnson its highest military Medal of Honor, but his deeds were ignored back home, Washington reported.

“Fighting for your country is an honor, but they would not give black people any honors,” Herman Johnson said.

No longer overlooked, Sergeant Henry Johnson was posthumously awarded the Army's Distinguished Service Cross for bravery Thursday. The medal was presented to his son.

“I think it is important to leave a legacy behind, and this is one of them,” Herman Johnson said.

Henry Johnson is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996. He is also depicted in the pantheon mural at the Liberty Memorial.

Son of World War I hero Sgt. Henry L. Johnson accepts Distinguished Service Cross in hometown

Monday, February 17, 2003

ALBANY — Herman Johnson had all but given up hope after trying to get the U.S. military to award the Medal of Honor posthumously to his father, Sergeant Henry Lincoln Johnson. After writing a number of letters to government officials, Johnson said he had begun to tell himself that it was a shame that nothing would happen.

Herman Johnson holds Sunday the Distinguished Service Cross awarded postumously to his father, Sergeant Henry Johnson. John Howe, left, was a key fighter for recognition of Henry Johnson's heroism.

On Sunday, Johnson was proud to admit he was wrong as he accepted the Distinguished Service Cross on behalf of his father, who single-handedly fought off a German raiding party in World War I more than 80 years ago.

Henry Johnson was finally being recognized as a hero at home.

“I am amazed at the respect the people of Albany had for him,” Herman Johnson said during an uplifting ceremony at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

To thank lawmakers and community leaders for their help in the struggle that lasted more than 30 years to get the military to honor his father, Herman Johnson then donated the medal to the Albany chapter of New York's Army National Guard 369th Infantry Regiment, the all-black unit of which Sergeant Johnson was a member.

“I don't want to take it home and put it in my dresser drawer. I want it displayed so people can see it,” said Herman Johnson, 86, a Kansas City, Missouri, resident who served in World War II as a fighter pilot with the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.

After the ceremony, people flocked to the stage to shake the hand of the man whose father has become one of the Capital Region's most notable hometown heroes. Camera lights flashed as people rushed to take Herman Johnson's picture and view the medal up close. It was as if Henry Johnson himself was there.

In a way he was, Herman Johnson said. “I know he's looking down on us,” he said, smiling.

Sunday's ceremony followed formal presentation of the medal to Johnson in a ceremony Thursday at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

The award represented a partial victory, however, for Johnson's family and his supporters who had sought the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military citation for heroism.

Henry Johnson and a fellow soldier, Needham Roberts, were on sentry duty when they came under attack one night in May 1918 by a 20-man German raiding party. Johnson drew his bolo knife from his belt and fought off the Germans. Despite suffering three grenade and shotgun wounds, he went to the aid of Roberts who was being taken prisoner by the enemy.

Johnson received the Croix de Guerre, one of France's highest honors, but he was never recognized by his own country because of the color of his skin. He didn't even receive the Purple Heart until 1997, despite being wounded 21 times in 1918. The Purple Heart is a combat decoration given to members of the military who are wounded by the enemy or posthumously to the next of kin.

To add insult to injury, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, who aided in the push to win recognition for the Albany man, said Johnson was exploited by the same military who refused to honor his heroism.

“The U.S. Army used his name and likeness to recruit African-Americans, yet for 85 years neither Johnson nor his family received the recognition they should have,” Schumer said via telephone from the home of U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-NY.

Schumer was scheduled to attend Sunday's ceremony but his flight was canceled because of mechanical problems.

“I'm proud to be the mayor of the capital city of this state, but I'm particularly proud because Henry Johnson was a citizen here,” said Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings.

County Executive Michael Breslin, who also attended the ceremony, said that it was “ironic and pathetic” for Henry Johnson to be honored at a time when the nation is on the verge of another war.

Henry Johnson's supporters say the fight doesn't stop with the Distinguished Service Cross.

“I will not rest, I will not abandon my quest for justice until Henry Johnson receives the Medal of Honor and until his name is etched on the wall of heroes,” said U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty, D-Green Island.

Assemblyman Keith Wright, D-New York City, chairman of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican and Hispanic Legislative Caucus Inc., said, “This is just a small step for us as far as I'm concerned. I think it's about time we follow the lead of France and award Henry Johnson the U.S. Medal of Honor.”

After the war, Henry Johnson returned to Albany and was even recognized for his heroic efforts in a New York City ticker-tape parade. But the cheers faded with time and he died poor and largely forgotten in New York City at the age of 32, estranged from his wife and three children.

He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Herman Johnson said he is saddened and happy that it took so long for his father get some recognition.

“Nobody's happy about that. It stands for racism and discrimination, but I'm gratified to see it happened. It shows there are some good people left,” Johnson said.

The timing of the honor was also impeccable, Herman Johnson said.

“I'm glad it coincides with Black History Month because people should know what black people have done,” he said. “Future generations should know there were people like Henry Johnson and mold their lives around people like that,” he said, adding his father would have been happy to receive the award if he were alive today.

Tara Johnson, Henry Johnson's granddaughter, said she was overwhelmed by the the love that the Albany community has shown to her grandfather.

“I'm just really proud that I could be here with my family and able to represent my grandfather,” said the Toledo, Ohio, resident. “It's just a beautiful thing. The people of Albany have been wonderful.”

Tara Johnson said she and her family are still learning about her grandfather's accomplishments. Her son featured him in book reports for school and when she visited the Henry Johnson exhibit Saturday at the Schenectady Museum and Planetarium, she was touched.

“I could have just sat in the corner of that museum for hours learning about my grandfather,” she said.

Bittersweet honor for long-dead hero: February 1, 2003

Nearly 85 years after Henry Johnson single-handedly battled back two dozen German troops, the Pentagon will posthumously award the former Albany resident the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second highest honor.

Johnson, who was an African-American sergeant in the segregated unit of the 369th Infantry of the New York National Guard, will be honored for his heroism at 2 p.m. Feb. 16 in the Crowne Plaza Hotel as part of the Black, Puerto Rican and Hispanic Legislative Caucus Weekend.

Family members, local veterans, state officials and military historians had lobbied the Army for years to bestow upon Johnson the nation's top military award, the Medal of Honor. On Friday, however, his supporters expressed satisfaction and excitement with the Department of Defense's decision.

“I really think he deserves the cross, and Negro history deserves it,” said Herman Johnson, the World War I veteran's only surviving son, from his office in Kansas City, Mo. “Young blacks and African-Americans need to know we've been doing great things for years. It's important. And if we let these things die, people will never know about them.”

Herman Johnson, now 86, his wife and their daughter will come to Albany, where U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Michael R. McNulty of Green Island will award them the Distinguished Service Cross.

“It's particularly important that Herman see his father honored within his lifetime,” Schumer said. “The only bittersweet aspect is we believe he deserves the Medal of Honor, and we're not going to stop fighting for it.”

Schumer announced the date of the ceremony on Friday, on the eve of Black History Month and as the nation's military mobilizes for a possible strike against Iraq.

Plans for a Washington, D.C., ceremony honoring Henry Johnson, to be held in the Hall of Heroes in the Pentagon on Feb. 14, still were being worked out, his son said.

Capital Region veterans saluted the honor.

“We're extremely thankful to the Army,” said John Howe of Albany, an African-American Vietnam War veteran who led the campaign to recognize Henry Johnson. “They were prodded a little, but this says they will not forget.”

Henry Johnson fought in France under the French flag in a unit later known as the “Harlem Hell Fighters.”

While on sentry duty in the early morning hours of May 15, 1918, he rebuffed a German raider party with rifle fire and hand-to-hand combat. He suffered 21 wounds, yet managed to rescue his critically injured partner, Needham Roberts, from the enemy while forcing their retreat.

The French government awarded Henry Johnson the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm.

After the armistice, the federal government used Johnson's likeness to advertise war bonds and recruit minorities but did not recognize his bravery until June 25, 1996, when he was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart.

State historians found Henry Johnson's grave in Arlington National Cemetery only last year.

Johnson's tombstone will be replaced in about 45 days with one that properly reflects his new honor, Howe said. He noted that Johnson may be the earliest black soldier to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.

Henry Johnson settled in Albany during his teens. A small, quiet man, he stood just 5 feet 4 inches and weighed 130 pounds. He worked mainly as a redcap porter at Albany's Union Station on Broadway. For a while, he worked in a coal yard and as a soda mixer in a pharmacy.

After the war, he returned to Albany and soon was feted in a New York City ticker-tape parade. But the cheers soon faded. He died a destitute alcoholic in New York City at the age of 32, estranged from his wife and three children and largely forgotten.

But today, his reputation in Albany has been restored. His statue occupies a prominent spot in Washington Park, and a boulevard bears his name.

Press Report: 19 March 2002:

Black war hero to receive Distinguished Service Cross

The United States Army has agreed to give the Distinguished Service Cross to a
black World War I soldier whose body was recently discovered buried at Arlington National Cemetery, an Army spokeswoman said Tuesday.

 Lawmakers from New York, who had sought the military's highest honor for Henry Johnson, responded with federal legislation to permit President Bush to award him the Medal of Honor.

The bill would also propose a review of the service records of other black World War I veterans to determine whether they were overlooked for awards of valor.

Johnson, of Albany, New York, joined the Army National Guard's “Harlem Hellfighter” unit during World War I. Because of strict segregation rules at the time, the black American unit fought under the French in Europe.

On May 14, 1918, Johnson fought off a German raiding party with a rifle and later with a knife after running out of ammunition. Wounded 21 times by the Germans, he was still able to rescue a wounded comrade. France awarded Johnson its highest honor, the Croix de Guerre. He was the first American to receive the French accolade and was cited by former President Theodore Roosevelt as one of the five bravest Americans during World War I, New York Gov. George Pataki said.

Yet Johnson died in 1929, in his mid-30s, a poor alcoholic undecorated by his own country. For a long time it was believed that he had never been recognized in the United States but records New York officials dug up as they gathered material to support his application for a Medal of Honor showed he had received some recognition after returning from Europe, including riding in a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan.

In January, the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs learned that Johnson was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. That came as a surprise to his son, Herman Johnson, 85, of Kansas City, Missouri, who always believed his father had been buried in an unmarked grave underneath the tarmac at Albany International Airport.

The younger Johnson came to the cemetery of heroes with Pataki in January to decorate his father's grave. Herman Johnson said at the time he believed racism was in part to blame for the military's failure to decorate his father.

The Distinguished Service Cross, considered one of nation's highest military honors, has been awarded to 12,450 people since it was created in 1918, Army spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis said.

But it isn't good enough for Johnson, his supporters say.

“I think what he did deserves the Medal of Honor,” Herman Johnson said.

From a press report: 10 February 2002

Search reveals a hero's life
Like the nation he served, the story of Henry Johnson grows and changes

The legend: Henry Johnson, World War I hero from Albany, whose exploits were largely ignored by a segregated society, was buried in a pauper's grave.

The truth: Henry Johnson, a man who rose from poverty, went to war, won France's highest honor and came home to fame and ticker-tape parades, was buried alongside the nation's most honored dead in Arlington National Cemetery.

The story of Henry Johnson is one of heroism and downfall. But the more nuanced portrait that is emerging as supporters renew the push for him to receive the Medal of Honor also is a story about how myths are made and unmade.

New information is making it clear that Johnson was initially lionized by a grateful nation. But like many war heroes before and after his era, Johnson had trouble adjusting to his return to civilian life, particularly in a society that treated blacks, even those who had fought heroically for their nation, as second-class citizens. He died an obscure alcoholic.

Military historians, African-American activists and state politicians, buoyed by the recent discoveries of the Arlington grave and a handful of Johnson-related artifacts, are offering a fuller picture of the “Harlem Hellfighter” from downtown Albany.

“It puts it in context,” said Albany resident John Howe, pointing to a photograph of Johnson participating in a parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan after the war, buried by flowers thrown from both blacks and whites.

Howe, who has led the unsuccessful efforts to get Johnson the Medal of Honor, believes Johnson has not been fully recognized because of his race. But another reality is emerging in light of such recent discoveries as Johnson's long-overlooked grave and a 1919 placard advertising an Albany “Hear Our War Heroes” talk from Johnson, which is owned by Albany antiques collector Lawrence Kohn.

“He was honored in his lifetime,” Kohn insisted.

Until last month, historians assumed Johnson was buried in a pauper's grave in Colonie. That helped foster the notion that he was a forgotten hero.

But no one bothered to check with Arlington National Cemetery, where, it turns out, he had been buried with other American war heroes.

It was newly found historical sources — including old news clippings from African-American publications, Johnson's death certificate (found in New York City) and old literature — that led researchers to Arlington.

But a decade after being honored in a Manhattan ticker-tape parade, Johnson died a destitute alcoholic at the age of 32, estranged from his wife and three kids and generally forgotten by Albany.

“He was a real tragic figure and it is a tragic story,” said Scott Sandman of the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs, who assisted in finding Johnson's grave.

“In the initial period after the war, he was touted by politicians,” Sandman said. “But once all that was over, everyone forgot about Henry Johnson.”

Johnson was born to “very poor parentage” in Alexandria, Virginia, and lived a “hand-to-mouth life” in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, according to a 1928 book “Rank and File” by Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of President Theodore Roosevelt and himself a highly decorated veteran of World War I who later won the Medal of Honor posthumously for World War II exploits on Utah Beach during D-Day. The book listed Johnson as one of the top five American heroes of the First World War.

Johnson drifted up to the Capital Region in his midteens. He was a small man, just 5 feet 4, and weighed 130 pounds. He worked mainly as a redcap porter at the Albany Union Station on Broadway. For a while, he worked in a coal yard and as a soda mixer in a pharmacy.

He met the woman who would become his wife, Minnie, either at a church in Schenectady, where her father was pastor, or in an Albany church. The couple moved into downtown Albany at 23 Monroe St., in the shadows of the old Knickerbocker Press building, just two years before he enlisted. It was close to his job at the train station.

“He had a great sense of humor and people liked him,” said his only surviving son, Herman Johnson, 85, a Tuskegee Airman during World War II, who now resides in Kansas City, Missouri. “He also dressed well.”

Johnson enlisted in the Army on June 5, 1917, in the Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn. He was assigned to Company C, 15th New York Infantry, an all-black National Guard unit later renamed the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment. During the war, they were called the Harlem Hellfighters.

As a Private, Johnson first worked guard duty in Albany and Rotterdam for a few months before being sent to South Carolina for combat training. He arrived in France on New Year's Day 1918, as a member of one of the first American units dispatched to Europe. The 369th served under French command and its troops were issued French uniforms, weapons and rations and were trained in French tactics.

American military units sent to Europe early in the war fought under French command, whether they were black or white. Indeed, a white unit from Albany, the National Guard's 51st U.S. Pioneer Infantry, also fought under foreign leadership. Black troops who arrived later fought under American command.

After a brief stint unloading ships and digging latrines, and with only three weeks of special training, Johnson and Needham Roberts, a black Private from Trenton, New Jersey, were assigned to sentry duty at Outpost 29 in the Argonne Forest.

Johnson's hours of fame — the midnight-to-4 a.m. tour of duty that forever changed his life — occurred on May 15, 1918, when German troops raided the outpost in an attempt to capture some of the newly arrived U.S. troops.

An account of the fierce fight was written by Major Arthur W. Little in his book “From Harlem to the Rhine.” Little, who was white, commanded the 369th, and he conducted a field study of the battle as soon as the sun came up that morning.

Little's story documents Johnson's bravery:

The one-hour battle commenced at 2 a.m. when German troops lobbed grenades at the post where Roberts and Johnson were stationed. Both were injured.

Roberts was shot in the knee or hip and was incapacitated. But Johnson  immediately returned to his feet to empty his rifle's three bullets into the oncoming German troops.

After running out of ammunition, Johnson used his rifle butt as a weapon, attacking two Germans who were trying to carry Roberts away. He was then shot by one of the soldiers he had bludgeoned.

As the Germans closed in, Johnson retaliated, slashing the soldier who had shot him in the abdomen with a 9-inch double-edged machete. Roberts, sitting upright in the bunker, began feeding Johnson grenades, which he threw at the retreating Germans.

Little reported that the attacking German unit consisted of “a minimum of 24 men.” He recorded that Johnson killed at least four Germans and “wounded double that.”

After the Germans retreated, Johnson fainted from the shock of the fight. He was brought to a field hospital, where he and Roberts were treated.

In his quest to win Johnson the Medal of Honor, Howe cited both the Roosevelt Jr. and Little accounts. He also used information from the contemporary “From Slavery to Freedom,” by John Hope Franklin, one of the nation's leading black historians.

Johnson spent several weeks in a French hospital with injuries to his left arm, back, feet and face, most of which were caused by knives and bayonets. In total, he suffered nearly 20 wounds. Doctors inserted a silver plate into his left foot.

“There wasn't anything so fine about it. Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that,” Johnson said, according to W. Allison Sweeney's “History of the American Negro in the Great World War,” written shortly after World War I.

While the French honored him with the Croix de Guerre with a gold palm — France's highest decoration for bravery — the U.S. government was less forthcoming. Despite his injuries, when Johnson was discharged as a Sergeant from the Army on Feb. 14, 1919, he did not receive any disability allowance. Johnson's discharge papers included no mention of his wounds, a common clerical error of the time.

He did, however, receive a hero's welcome from the American public. Days after his discharge, Johnson was guest of honor at a Manhattan homecoming parade. He rode in a Cadillac open car.

“He stood up nearly the entire time, bowing to the applause and grinning broadly,” Roosevelt Jr. wrote.

After the parade, Johnson took a slow journey from Wall Street back to Harlem, according to Howe. He drank for three days straight.

For a few years after the war, Johnson traveled widely. He traversed the country promoting the sale of Liberty Bonds. His image was used by the Army for recruitment. Albany trolley cars displayed this advertisement for Victory War Stamps: “Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?”

During the euphoric period after the war, his family was a favorite of the media.

“He enlisted to get those Germans, and I guess he (did),” Minnie told the Knickerbocker Press, a morning Albany newspaper.

Johnson lived on Orange Street in Albany after returning from the war. He tried to return to his job at the Albany train station, but he couldn't handle the work. Still suffering from his injuries, faced with racism at home and a feeling of deflation after so many parties in his honor, Johnson soon became poor and dissolute.

“It was almost impossible for him to hold down a job once he got stateside,” Sandman said. “He was largely forgotten and left to fend for himself. He resorted to alcohol, which ultimately led to his demise.”

The Johnsons separated in 1924. Minnie took her kids to Schenectady, where they were raised by their grandfather. Herman Johnson saw his father occasionally on summer weekends.

“He had a feeling of depression coming back because he was relegated to the lowest type of employment with great uncertainty,” Herman Johnson said. “Albany's just beginning to respect what he did.”

The achievements of American blacks abroad did nothing to improve black equality at home.

Black soldiers returned from World War I to the “Red Summer of 1919,” which was characterized by white riots and lynchings, said Allen Ballard, professor of history at the University at Albany. Federal buildings and agencies, including the military, were segregated, despite a period of desegregation after the Civil War.

Many of the 369th veterans had difficulty returning to that, said retired Major Geneeral Nathaniel James, president of the 369th Veterans Association and Historical Society.

Roberts, Johnson's comrade-in-arms, died in a mental institution, James

On July 5, 1929, Johnson was buried after dying virtually penniless.

He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart on June 25, 1996. In Albany, he has his own statue and a street named in his honor.

But the Medal of Honor has remained elusive.

In late 2000, the application for the medal was approved by then-Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera. But last April, after the change from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration, the action was rejected by General Harry Shelton, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A positive recommendation from Shelton would have sent the matter to President Bush for a final decision.

Shelton's rejection left the application's status in limbo. Theoretically, the process would have to start from scratch again, but earlier this month Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked the present Joint Chiefs chairman, General Richard Myers, to keep the process alive by reconsidering the decision.

“Johnson should really get the medal. It could kind of close a book on that time of history,” James said.

Army and Pentagon spokesmen would not say last week where Johnson's Medal of Honor application stands.

Schumer presses Pentagon on Medal of  Honor for World War I hero
February 3, 2002

WASHINGTON – Senator Charles Schumer of New York has called on the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs to reconsider last year's decision by the military
not to award the Medal of Honor to a World War I hero.

If General Richard Myers does not reverse the decision, the effort to posthumously award the medal to Sergeant Henry Johnson, started in 1996, would have to begin
again. There is no formal appeals process.

In a letter Schumer sent to the Pentagon on Monday, he said “it would be extremely unfair to force Sergeant Johnson's application to undergo an entirely new review. Segeant Johnson's family and supporters have fought for too long to gain him the recognition warranted by his actions on the battlefield.”

In April, Myers' predecessor, General Henry Shelton, did not endorse the recommendation of former Army Secretary Louis Caldera to award Johnson the Medal of Honor.

Schumer said the recent discovery by the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs that Johnson is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, under the
name William Henry Johnson, bolsters the argument that Johnson is deserving of the nation's highest military honor.

Before this discovery, it had been assumed that Johnson was buried in a potter's
field in Albany, his hometown.

“The military's inaction on this case is becoming increasingly inexplicable as more evidence of the historical record surrounding Johnson's heroism becomes uncovered. Burial in Arlington National Cemetery is reserved for the truest of
American heroes, so it's obvious that at some point someone in the U.S. military
establishment took notice of Johnson's service,” Schumer said in the letter.

Johnson joined the famed Army National Guard's “Harlem Hellfighter” unit during
World War I. Because of strict segregation rules in the Army at the time, the
black American unit fought under the French in Europe.

On May 14, 1918, Johnson fought off a German raiding party with a rifle, then with
a knife after he ran out of ammunition. Wounded 21 times by the Germans, he
managed to rescue a wounded comrade.

France awarded Johnson its highest honor, the Croix de Guerre with Palm. He was the first American to receive the accolade and was cited by former President
Theodore Roosevelt as one of the five bravest Americans during World War I.

In addition, the U.S. military has used Johnson's likeness to advertise war bonds
and to recruit in minority communities.

From a press report: Friday January 11, 2002

Black World War Hero Located at Arlington

Herman Johnson always believed that his father, a heroic black World War I soldier who single-handedly fended off a German attack, lay in a pauper's grave unrecognized by the government.

On Thursday, the 85-year-old Johnson saw the newly discovered grave at Arlington National Ceremony where Henry Johnson was buried more than 70 years ago – with full military honors.

With New York Governor George Pataki at his side, an emotional Herman Johnson on Thursday placed a wreath of chrysanthemums and carnations beside his father's white headstone as a lone military bugler played “Taps.”

“I'm overwhelmed,” said Herman Johnson. “I'm extremely happy to know that my father is in a respectable grave.”

The younger Johnson, Pataki and New York military officials are hoping the discovery breathes new life into their push to get Henry Johnson recognized with the Medal of Honor, an oversight they believe is due at least in part to race.

“Some people ask me if it's racism that he didn't receive the Medal of Honor – I say, ‘Certainly,”' Herman Johnson said. “What he did ought to be honored. I'm not condemning anyone … but we have a chance to make it right.”

The Medal of Honor application, submitted in 1996, was approved by then-Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera in 2001. But Joint Chiefs Chairman Henry Shelton did not concur. The matter is still open and could be reconsidered.

It was the campaign to get Johnson the Medal of Honor that led to the revelation that he was buried in the nation's cemetery of heroes.

Johnson, from Albany, New York, joined the Army National Guard's “Harlem Hellfighter” unit during World War I. Because of strict segregation rules at the time, the black American unit fought under the French in Europe. On May 14, 1918, Johnson fought off a German raiding party with a rifle and later with a knife after he ran out of ammunition. Wounded 21 times by the Germans, he nonetheless rescued a wounded comrade. France awarded Johnson its highest honor, the Croix de Guerre. He was the first American to receive the French accolade and was cited by former President Theodore Roosevelt as one of the five bravest Americans during World War I, Pataki said.

Yet Johnson died in 1929, in his mid-30s, a poor alcoholic undecorated by his own country.

Herman Johnson believes that if his father had been recognized when he returned home he “might have been a different man.”

The younger Johnson said his parents divorced when he was about 6 years old. He moved away from Albany and only saw his father sporadically. Herman Johnson was in his early teens when his father died. He was led to believe he had been buried in a pauper's cemetery paved over to make way for Albany International Airport.  Johnson even went once to the airport and looked out on the runway, believing it was his father's grave.

Herman Johnson went on to serve with the legendary Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and live in Kansas City, Missouri, where he worked in real estate. He still operates a cemetery there.

Henry Johnson's final resting place remained undiscovered until state military officials researching his military service for the Medal of Honor last year came upon a newspaper clipping from a black newspaper in upstate New York that mentioned his burial at Arlington National Cemetery, located just outside Washington.

At first, a search of microfilm records at Arlington turned up only a William Henry Johnson. When New York officials asked the cemetery to check the paper records, they saw that “William” had been crossed out and that other dates and records matched up.

“He got at least an appropriate burial,” Pataki said. “But we're not going to stop until we get him the Medal of Honor.”

New York Gov. George Pataki, right, along with Herman Johnson, left, and PFC Gerald Jilliard of the New York Army National Guard, prepare to place a wreath at the gravesite of Johnson's father, World War I hero Sgt. Henry Johnson at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. Thursday, Jan. 10, 2002. The wreath laying was to honor Sgt. Johnson, a famed member of the Harlem Hellfighters.
New York Gov. George Pataki, right, along with Herman Johnson, left, and Pfc Gerald Jilliard of the New York Army National Guard, pause after placing a wreath at the gravesite of Johnson's father, World War I hero Sergeant Henry Johnson at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Thursday, Jan. 10, 2002


  • DATE OF DEATH: 07/01/1929

Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment