World War heroes given second chance at Medal of Honor

World War heroes, who have never been honored or awarded for their bravery and actions because of their race or ethnicity, are set to finally to receive the US Army Medal of Honor.

Many servicemen from World Wars One and Two were not honored like their comrades simply because of their race or ethnicity. US Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has been fighting for years for those who were discriminated against, so that they can be recognised for their contribution to the war effort.

A new national defense bill is set to change this discrepancy with the US House of Representatives, Senate and Congress all voting on the bill. If the bill is passed, President Obama should sign the bill into law.

Last year, the President awarded the Medal of Honor to 24 veterans who fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars, but were not honored because they were either of Hispanic, Jewish or African-American background. President Obama acknowledged that it wasn’t right, and that he was pleased America could now honor those who rightfully deserved the Medal.

Henry Johnson’s story

Henry Johnson joined the US Army at the age of 20. He was a US Army Sargent in the First World War, however his African-American descent meant that he couldn’t serve with US forces, but his regiment were dispatched to France to beunder the command of the Frenchto dig trenches and unload cargo.At the time the US Army was racially segregated and African-Americans mainly undertook manual labor.

As the war continued, the regiment or ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ as they were known, began to support the French Army in the battle. On one night Johnson and a comrade were on sentry duty when they were attacked by a group of German soldiers. Johnson did all he could to hold them off shooting and killing four, wounding between 10 and 20 soldiers and preventing them from crossing the French line. Johnson even ran out of bullets, but continued to beat them off using his rifle as a hand weapon and a knife, until Allied troops arrived.

Heavily wounded Johnson was dispatched to a field hospital for recovery.Johnson and his comrade, Roberts, were honored with France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre and Johnson’s medal included the Gold Palm for extraordinary valor.

Upon their return to the US in 1919, the regiment were cheered by crowds in New York, and Johnson took the lead. He was celebrated, and revered as a symbol of bravery and courage, and an example to recruit new soldiers. President Theodore Roosevelt noted that Johnson was one of the bravest World War One soldiers.

Johnson used his notoriety to speak out and bring awareness to the issue of racial prejudice in America. But when he made a tirade about racial prejudice in the US Army it caused anger and incited violence among a crowd. African American communities distanced themselves from what he was saying in order to prevent violence.

Unfortunately, Johnson was investigated by the Army for inciting violence, and was decommissioned. Sadly Johnson could not get work due to his war wounds, and turned to alcohol, he lived alone and destitute until he died in 1929.

Senator Schumer’s tireless efforts to honor Johnson came through when his team found evidence of a note written by General Pershing describing Johnson’s heroism, bravery and devotion. General Pershing was commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War One, the reports.

Activists, who have been lobbying for Johnson to be properly honored, are relieved but say it is long overdue. They are pleased that an African-American war hero who bravely defended his country will be commemorated.

It is hoped that Johnson will be awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE