At long last, 
Recommendation to honor black WWI veteran

By Brian Burnes
Knight Ridder Newspapers


KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The Army has recommended that Henry Johnson, an African-American World War I veteran who died in 1937, receive the Medal of Honor.

"When they called, tears came to my eyes," said Johnson's son, Herman Johnson of Kansas City. "It's really great for Dad, and even if he is not here personally to receive the accolade, I am sure he is someplace where he knows it is happening."

The recommendation came in the last hours of the Clinton administration. Johnson's supporters had worried that they would have to renew their effort with a new administration.

For years, Albany residents have urged that a Medal of Honor be awarded to Johnson, a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment, a black unit of the New York National Guard that served in France.

In May 1918, Johnson fought off a patrol of German soldiers as they attempted to capture Needham Roberts, another member of the 369th. Johnson rescued Roberts, killing or wounding several German soldiers in the process.

For the rest of the war, the 369th never lost a member as a prisoner of war, in large part because of Johnson's example.

For his heroism, Johnson received the French Croix de Guerre, or war cross. But outside of a Purple Heart awarded in 1996, the American government did not recognize Johnson's bravery. This was despite recent efforts by the military to recognize veterans of World War I and II whose courage might have gone unrecognized because of racial attitudes of the times.

"The effort to obtain this honor for Henry Johnson is not just about ensuring that his heroism is formally acknowledged by the American people," U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. said in announcing the recommendation.

"It is also about ensuring that black soldiers who were denied equal treatment during their service in our nation's once segregated Army are not denied recognition for their achievements and valor."

The secretary of defense and the president must approve the decoration, but the Army's recommendation is virtually always honored.


2001, by The Seattle Times Company