H is for Sgt. Henry Johnson

henry.wwi-johnson2Buried on page 98 of the 697-page H.R.3979, the Carl Levin and Howard P. ‘Buck’ McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, passed in December of 2014, it reads:

(1) WAIVER OF TIME LIMITATIONS.—Notwithstanding the time limitations specified in section 3744 of title 10, United States Code, or any other time limitation with respect to the awarding of certain medals to persons who served in the Armed Forces, the President may award the Medal of Honor under section 3741 of such title to Henry Johnson for the acts of valor during World War I described in paragraph (2).
(2) ACTS OF VALOR DESCRIBED.—The acts of valor referred to in paragraph (2) are the actions of Henry Johnson while serving as a member of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, American Expeditionary Forces, during combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the Western Front in France on May 15, 1918, during World War I for which he was previously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Henry Johnson is the source of local pride in the Albany area. A major street is named after him in the city.

Here’s just an excerpt of Henry Johnson’s story from Smithsonian:

Henry Johnson, who stood 5-foot-4 and weighed 130 pounds, had enlisted in the all-black 15th New York National Guard Regiment, which was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment when it shipped out to France. Poorly trained, the unit mostly performed menial labor… until it was lent to the French Fourth Army, which was short on troops. The French, less preoccupied by race than were the Americans, welcomed the men known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters were sent to Outpost 20 on the western edge of the Argonne Forest…and Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, from Trenton, New Jersey, were given French helmets, French weapons and enough French words to understand commands from their superiors. The two American soldiers were posted on sentry duty on the midnight-to-four a.m. shift… He and Roberts weren’t on duty long when German snipers began firing at them…

By daylight, the carnage was evident: Johnson had killed four Germans and wounded an estimated 10 to 20 more. Even after suffering 21 wounds in hand-to-hand combat, Henry Johnson had prevented the Germans from busting through the French line…

Later the entire French force in Champagne lined up to see the two Americans receive their decorations: the Croix du Guerre, France’s highest military honor. They were the first American privates to receive it. Johnson’s medal included the coveted Gold Palm, for extraordinary valor.

And from the Wikipedia:

Returning home, now Sergeant Johnson participated (with his regiment) in a victory parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City on February 1919. Sergeant Johnson was then paid to take part in a series of lecture tours. He appeared one evening in St. Louis and instead of delivering the expected tale of racial harmony in the trenches, he instead revealed the abuse black soldiers had suffered, such as white soldiers refusing to share trenches with blacks. Soon after this a warrant was issued for Johnson’s arrest for wearing his uniform beyond the prescribed date of his commission and paid lecturing engagements dried up…

Johnson died in New Lenox, Illinois at the Veterans Hospital, on July 5, 1929, penniless, estranged from his wife and family and without official recognition from the U.S. government.

In August 2014, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recommended that Henry Johnson finally receive the Medal of Honor. Bills were introduced in both houses of Congress, but the resolution was ultimately included in the omnibus defense bill instead.

ABC Wednesday – Round 16

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