January 11, 2002
Washington -- For a brief interlude in segregated times, Henry Johnson’s World War I heroism transcended color taboos to make it onto war-funding ads plastered on trolley cars: “Sgt. Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many Victory stamps have you licked today?”
France chose him as the first American to get its highest award for courage, Theodore Roosevelt called him “one of the nine bravest Americans,” and the Army used him in a 1976 Bicentennial recruiting poster, but his own government offered him nothing for bravery. In what some historians call “The Battle of Henry Johnson” in 1918 France, the black private singlehandedly destroyed an enemy raiding party despite his 21 wounds and rescued a captured colleague.
Johnson died destitute in 1929, forgotten through the years, and was believed to be buried in a pauper’s grave, now under a parking lot near the Albany airport.
Then, after a series of clerical errors was cleared up last Thanksgiving, his worn tombstone was discovered at Arlington National Cemetery, where a wreath was laid yesterday by his son, Herman, Gov. George Pataki and the men seeking a posthumous honor for him. Johnson was buried there in July, 1929, with full military honors, one of the all-black “Harlem Hellfighters,” the nickname for the New York National Guard’s 369th Regiment.
“I am extremely happy to know that my father has a respectable grave,” said a choked-up Herman Johnson, 85, whose parents divorced when he was 6 and who had lost touch with his father. The father was about 31 when he died.
Johnson looked down on the grave marker through his bifocals for the first time yesterday. He and the others were silent for a few moments. The son remembered the patronizing attitude of others toward his own all-black outfit in World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen. “Nobody thought we could fight,” he said.
Other Harlem Hellfighters, the National Guard and Pataki have been pressing the government for years to grant Johnson the Medal of Honor.
To the day he died, researchers said, Johnson believed his government looked on him as unworthy of a medal because of his skin color. It was only in 1996 that he got the Purple Heart, and it was decades after his death that Albany remembered him with a street, a City Hall mural, a building and a statue.
“If he would have been honored with the Medal of Honor, it would have been the first Medal of Honor of World War I,” said John Howe, a Harlem Hellfighters historian from Albany who is crusading for Johnson. “ ... Imagine what would have happened if Henry Johnson would have come home with the Medal of Honor. Race relations might have changed in America.”
A Pentagon spokesman said Johnson’s application is pending, but Howe said the government has given various, inaccurate reasons for not giving him an award — he lacked two witnesses, the U.S. military had loaned the unit to the French at the time, and reports of his heroism were not filed on time.
The Arlington grave was discovered only after Howe and other researchers delved into black newspapers published around the time of Johnson’s death and noticed a photo of a tombstone, which led them to Arlington.
Much of Johnson’s life is lost to history, including his birthdate. But those working on his case have found that he was born in North Carolina and that his family moved to Albany, where Johnson worked as a redcap at the railroad station before going to New York City to join the Harlem Hellfighters. His unit, about 1,500 men, was shipped out to France shortly after Christmas, 1917, to be stevedores and laborers, but when they arrived in France, the U.S. military loaned them to the French Fourth Army, which had lost a lot of soldiers.
Approaching midnight on May 13, 1918, Johnson and another soldier, Needham Roberts, were in a trench when a German raiding party of up to 24 men wounded them with a grenade. They took Roberts prisoner, but a wounded Johnson began firing at them. When he ran out of bullets, he slashed away with his three-pound knife and sprang out of the trenches, landing on the shoulders of one German and stabbing him in the skull. Having disposed of the Germans, he rescued Roberts, took him back to the trenches, and waited for reinforcements.
The French gave Johnson the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm and criticized U.S. military reports of the incident as shortchanging Johnson’s bravery. But when he made it back to Albany, he began drinking to dull the constant pain.
Not much is known about his post-war life, except that he worked in a drug store in Albany and was known as a friendly man who dressed well and had a sense of humor. “He just drops out of sight,” Howe said. “Then he became legend.”
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.