Published Thursday, May 3, 2001, in the Akron Beacon Journal.

Henry Johnson is owed a final salute

Miami Herald columnist

Leonard Pitts
MIAMI: You could say that all of Henry Johnson's problems stem from his poor sense of timing.

First, he had the misfortune to be born black in 1897, one year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to segregate Americans by the color of their skin.

Then he enlisted in the Army just in time to be assigned to a ``colored'' regiment and sent to France to fight in the First World War. Finally, in the dark hours of May 14, 1918, he had the awful luck to be manning a listening post with a soldier named Needham Roberts when 20-some Germans attacked.

In the ensuing firefight, Johnson's weapon jammed, he was wounded 21 times and Roberts was captured. But Johnson would not give up.

Wielding only his useless rifle and a knife, this 130-pound man waded into the Germans like a fury. He killed and wounded several of them before the Germans decided they'd had enough. They dropped Roberts and ran.

Though the French awarded Johnson their highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre, his own country never acknowledged his heroism with its comparable citation, the Medal of Honor.

In recent years, a coalition of politicians and soldiers in his hometown of Albany, N.Y., has been pressing for a redress of that oversight.

Now comes a discouraging decision from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Once again, the problem is timing.

Specifically, former Army Secretary Louis Caldera recommended in January that the award be bestowed. According to Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, who helped spearhead the campaign on Johnson's behalf, the Joint Chiefs routinely endorse the secretary's decision in such matters.

But, says Schumer, Gen. Henry Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has refused to endorse this particular recommendation.

According to a spokesman for the senator, Schumer was told that Johnson's actions did not meet the standard for a Medal of Honor and that the nomination didn't follow proper procedure.

Meaning that it wasn't supported by eyewitness testimony and wasn't made within three years of the heroic act.

A spokesman for the general would neither confirm nor deny Schumer's account. But assuming the senator has it right . . . wow. How outrageous. How wrongheaded. How blind.

I won't get into the merits of Johnson's case; I've argued that cause before.

Instead, let's deal with some of those technicalities.

Eyewitness testimony? That's a laugh.

In the first place, the witnesses are all long dead. In the second, if the military had any doubts about Johnson's heroism, why did it once use his likeness in its recruiting posters?

But what galls me most is that part about timing, the three-year limit.

By that reckoning, the recommendation would have to have been made by 1921.

Maybe the general hasn't been near a history book lately.

Maybe he doesn't know what life was like for black people in those years.

Maybe somebody ought to explain to him how racism was government policy. How the middle months of 1919 were called ``Red Summer'' because more than two dozen race riots rocked American cities.

How mobs murdered black soldiers in uniform. How the resurgent Ku Klux Klan began spreading into the North.

How 248 Americans were lynched.

Does the general really believe an Army that considered Henry Johnson unworthy of fighting alongside white men would have nominated him for the nation's highest military honor? In THOSE years? Let's get serious here.

As it happens, there's precedent for waiving the three-year limit, and thankfully, Gen. Shelton doesn't get the last word on that. President Bush does.

As he makes his decision, there are a few things I wish he'd consider about timing.

Time does not bring change. Time itself is neutral.

Change comes because people work in time, struggle in time, persevere in time. Overcome in time.

In just a few days, it will be exactly 83 years since Henry Johnson made his stand in the French woods. Eight decades and three years of dramatic change.

And what has change wrought? How have we progressed from what we were? In what ways do we still struggle?

Bush has an opportunity to show us.

And, to show the soldier's son, Herman, who is still with us at 84.

So I ask the president to do right by Henry Johnson.

It's about time.
Pitts is a Miami Herald columnist.