PHOTO: A group of soldiers from the 369th regiment, also known as The Harlem Hellfighters and The Men of Bronze. They are wearing the French military honor The Croix de Guerre
One and a half million black troops fought for this country during World Wars I and II. Not one received America's highest accolade: a Congressional Medal of Honor. Finally, campaigners, such as former Congressman Joe DioGuardi, forced the military to revisit this oversight. A few medals were granted, but not nearly enough, says DioGuardi. "President Obama should correct this historic injustice."
Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson
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, 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."
Now, campaigners are pleading with President Obama to finally honor Johnson and other war heroes with America's highest accolade: The Congressional Medal of Honor. Former U.S. Congressman, Joe DioGuardi, a New Yorker who's currently running for the U.S. Senate, said he hopes prominent African Americans and others will lobby President Obama to correct this longstanding injustice.
"This is something that should be easy for the president to do. He's the commander –in-chief," Dio Guardi said.
"Once and for all we should close the books on this historic injustice that was racism – that's what it was: racism,"
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."
Military Historian, Professor Adrian Lewis
A Million and a Half Served: Not One Received a Medal of Honor
Sgt. Johnson was a member of the 369th, a Black regiment from Harlem under French command. In the segregated military of 1918, black servicemen were prohibited from serving side-by-side with their white countrymen. "The French didn't have all the prejudice that Americans had, so they actually did use those black divisions for fighting," says Professor Lewis. "I think probably if you took a look at the 369th that served under the French you would find a few individuals there who deserved the Medal of Honor."
The military was not desegregated until President Truman ordered it in 1947. Even then, Professor Lewis says, resistance was so strong that desegregation wasn't complete until 1951.
PHOTO: A cartoon depicting Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson's exploits
The battle over the Medal of Honor awards did not start until the 1980s. DioGuardi, the first accountant to be elected to the U.S. Congress, heard about Johnson from Leroy Ramsey, a military historian who had worked for the Department of Defense and helped found The African American Museum.
"My staff researched it and we realized it just did not make sense," DioGuardi said. "In two of the greatest events in our history, (both World Wars) 1,550,000 African American soldiers served – and not one of them got our highest honor – the Congressional Medal of Honor.
"It didn't take an accountant to know something was not right with those figures."
Along with Rep. Mickey Leland, a Texas Democrat, DioGuardi urged Congress to honor Johnson, Petty Officer Doris Miller, the WW1 soldiers who received France's Croix de Guerre -- and others.
Admiral Nimitz pins the
Doris 'Dorie' Miller, for example, had manned a machine gun during the Pearl Harbor attack, saving the life of his captain and showing exceptional bravery under fire.
By law, a commanding officer must make the recommendation for a Medal of Honor within three years of the event. The only way around this is for Congress to pass a bill.
Under pressure, the Defense Department opened an investigation into overlooked Black war heroes – and in 1993, recommended 10 men who fought in the US Army in WW11 for the Medal of Honor.
"They only looked at World World 11 and they only looked at the Army," DioGuardi says. "That's leaving out a lot of those who deserve this honor."
Let's Complete This Mission!
The campaign has met with some success. In 1997, President Clinton presented Medals of Honor to seven of those men. WW11 hero, Vernon Baker, who died July 13, was the only one of these war heroes who lived to receive his medal in person. But apart from one man, Corporal Freddie Stowers, none of the Black war heroes from WW1 have been recognized. Stowers was killed in action in 1918 after leading his men to take a hill, despite being outgunned by enemy forces.
"We had to introduce legislation to make this happen," DioGuardi said. "The military resisted – they never would admit that it was racism. Freddy Stowers got his medal because there was a recommendation for the Medal of Honor in his file – a recommendation that had never been
Tuskegee Airmen in Italy during WWII
acted upon." In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen, who flew fighter planes that escorted bombers during WW11, were awarded the Medal of Honor as a group. President George W. Bush presented the medal to 350 men or their family members.
Johnson was awarded the Purple Heart in 1996. And in February 2003, the Army's second highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross, was presented to Herman A. Johnson, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, on behalf of his father. For DioGuardi, justice has yet to be done. Had they been white, all the men who were awarded the Croix de Guerre would have received the Congressional Medal of Honor, he maintains. So the President should remedy that wrong.
"For 70 years not one Congressional Medal of Honor went to the Black war heroes who served this country," he said. "Now we should get at least a few more to complete this mission."
The Skanner News Medal of Honor series