Black WWI Hero Henry Johnson, A Step Closer to Being Awarded the Medal of Honor

Almost a hundred years from the time he single-handedly battled German enemies to save a fellow serviceman all the while sustaining serious wounds, the black WWI soldier and hero Sergeant Henry Johnson is one step closer to being posthumously awarded America’s highest recognition to be given to any military personnel — the Medal of Honor.

New York Senator Charles Schumer stated that Army Secretary John McHugh had already approved the Medal of Honor application he passed in behalf of WWI Sergeant Henry Johnson. Additionally, the said documents were already sent to the desk of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. When Hagel gives his nod, then, the said documents will be passed on to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as President Barack Obama’s office where it will wait for the final nods.

If the application gets approved, WWI Sergeant Henry Johnson will be the 89th black soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Also, he will be the second WWI black soldier to be given such recognition.

Sergeant Henry Johnson was born in Virginia and had served as a porter in Albany before he signed up for the army when the Great War broke out. He was assigned in an all-black outfit — the 369th Infantry Regiment more commonly known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The said troop was part of the New York National Guard and was based in Manhattan.

As the army at that time was riddled with segregation, the regiment was appointed to serve under French command.

Henry Johnson, along with the outfit he was serving in, arrived at the front lines early 1918. May that same year, the WWI soldier along with another soldier, Needham Roberts, were on nighttime duty as sentries when their post was attacked by Germans numbering of about two dozen.

Despite being outnumbered and wounded, the 5-foot-four Henry Johnson fought back against the raiding party with his knife and rifle. He, eventually, wounded several of the enemy soldiers who were trying to drag Roberts away. Because of his bravery, the other German soldiers retreated.

Although the French Army recognized the courage Henry Johnson showed by giving him France’s highest military recognition, the French Croix de Guerre, high-ranking American military officials of the Jim Crow era ignored the WWI soldier’s heroism. In spite of this overlooking, his story leaked home and was hailed by several newspapers in Albany. Even former US President Theodore Roosevelt was familiar with the heroic act Henry Johnson did in the front line of the Great War. In his book about WWI, Roosevelt listed the African-American as one of the bravest soldiers to serve the said conflict.

Due to the injuries and the trauma he got from the war, Sergeant Henry Johnson died a strapped alcoholic at a veterans’ hospital in Illinois in 1929. He was only 32.

Hopefully, the progress the application for a Medal of Honor on behalf of WWI Sergeant Henry Johnson got means that the black WWI hero will be finally getting the salute he deserved.

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE