Sgt. Henry Johnson was just 21 years old when he won the Croix de Guerre -- France's highest military honor -- for saving his friend's life during World War 1; he died just 10 years later. alone in a US military hospital in Illinois.
Almost 100 years after his death, a World War I hero is finally on track to get the Medal of Honor – which would make him only the second Black man in U.S. history to receive it.
The U.S. Senate on Friday at last agreed to nominate Johnson for the medal. Sending it to President Barack Obama’s desk where all observers expect a quick signature.
Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson was a member of the Harlem Hellfighters (now known as the Rattlers) 369the Regiment who in 1918 saved his comrade, Private Needham Roberts – under attack by 20 German soldiers -- with nothing but a bolo knife and a rifle.
Johnson was shot many times but survived; he died in 1929 in a veterans hospital, estranged from his wife, jobless and without any military recognition from his own country except for his burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Although Johnson was a New Yorker, The Skanner News has taken a special interest in this case. Former multimedia editor Helen Silvis won the NNPA’s Carl Murphy Community Service Award in 2011 after publishing several articles about Johnson’s bravery and the struggle to win Medal of Honor recognition for Black soldiers.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, working with Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish – a native of New York whose grandfather was a captain of the Harlem Hellfighters during the war – and legislators from New York including Sen. Chuck Schumer, pushed the award through a difficult Congress.
“First of all, a big congratulations to Sen. Schumer and Sen. Wyden for spearheading this effort. And to The Skanner News for its award-winning series of articles about Henry Johnson,” Fish said late Friday.
“And now, 95 years later, we’re one step closer to achieving justice for one of the great heroes of World War I.”
“Sen Wyden obviously has been working very hard to get this long overdue recognition for Sgt. Henry Johnson and he’s thrilled today to take another step further,” said spokesman Henry Stern.
As Helen Silvis told the story in 2012:
In the early hours of May 14 1918, Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson was on guard duty in France, when some 20 enemy troops attacked his post. The railroad porter turned soldier from Albany, New York (but originally from North Carolina), displayed outstanding bravery: using his rifle and bolo knife to single-handedly repel the enemy troops. Despite sustaining grenade and shotgun injuries, he rescued his fellow guard Needham Roberts, and saved the lives of the other members of his troop. He was shot three times and sustained 11 stab wounds, but he drove off his attackers.
For his valor in combat, Sgt. Johnson was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Golden Palm, the highest military honor in France. But because he was a black soldier during the era of segregation, his selfless courage went unrecognized back home. Sgt. Johnson died penniless in 1929 at the age of 32.
"African Americans received absolutely no recognition during that time period, because racial prejudice was so strong," explains Professor Adrian Lewis, an expert in military history at the University of Kansas.
"World War One was the Jim Crow era. The Klu Klux Klan could march in just about any American city, and lynchings were commonplace."
During America's entire combat history, Medals of Honor have been awarded to 3,445 servicemen and one woman, civil war surgeon Mary Edwards Walker. Among these war heroes are 88 African Americans. Do most experts agree this number should be higher? "Absolutely," says Professor Lewis. "I don't think anyone would deny that. Should we go back and take a look at some of those cases? It's definitely worth a look. Blacks have a long history of service to this country all the way back to the American Revolution, and they ought to be recognized."