News Tribune State News
Saturday, May 19, 2001

VFW, senator rally behind Medal of Honor for World War I hero

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- One month after a serious setback, the campaign to award a black World War I soldier the nation's highest honor got support from two fronts.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and a U.S. senator from Missouri each have sent letters to President Bush supporting a Medal of Honor for Henry Johnson of Albany.

Calling Johnson's snubbing a "terrible injustice," VFW Commander in Chief John Gwizdak urged Bush to review the circumstances surrounding the heroism that earned Johnson France's highest military honor. The Kansas City-based VFW is America's oldest veteran's organization with nearly 2 million members in 9,500 posts.

"As you are aware, because of segregation policies that existed in the military at the time, no African-American from either World War I or World War II was awarded the Medal of Honor until the early 1990s," Gwizdak wrote in a letter dated Tuesday. "It is our belief that Sergeant Johnson, through his conspicuous acts of extreme gallantry and intrepidity deserves the Medal of Honor."

A call to a White House spokesman Friday was not immediately returned.

Johnson went to France as a private with an all-black infantry regiment. But he was not allowed to fight in an American combat unit because he was black.

So he joined a group of black soldiers, known as the Harlem Hell-Fighters, who fought under the French flag.

In 1918, he was awarded France's highest military honor -- and promoted to sergeant -- after single-handedly saving a comrade's life while fighting off a German raiding party, despite suffering 21 wounds.

He died destitute and unrecognized in 1938 at age 58, though his white comrades received the award for similar acts of valor.

Last month, Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to endorse the U.S. Army's recommendation that Johnson be granted the medal posthumously. A three-general panel advised Shelton to deny the application on two grounds, asserting Johnson didn't qualify for the medal and the nomination was not processed according to regulations.

According to procedure, recipients must be nominated within three years of the act, and the stories of heroism must be verified.

Sen. Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican who represents Johnson's son, Herman, also wrote Bush seeking recognition for Johnson.

"The contemporaneous reports of Johnson's heroic exploits in combat while serving with the "Harlem Hell Fighters" of the 369th Infantry Regiment warrant full consideration for the Medal of Honor," Bond wrote.

John Howe, the Veterans Association's Albany district historian who has pushed for Johnson's recognition, said the added muscle of the VFW and Bond may be enough to overturn Shelton's decision and get Johnson the Medal of Honor.

"(The VFW) carries a lot of weight," he said. "I think veterans in particular are a community that knows how to respond to issues that are really in their best interest."