Senator Schumer Works To Honor Henry Johnson

[ Posted Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011 – 17:00 UTC ]

[Program Note: Normally, I am not prone to simply running a politician's press release as-is, with no editing or commentary. Today, however, I had to seek out this press release from Senator Chuck Schumer's office, because the story it tells is so extraordinary. Schumer is pushing for the highest military medal this country gives -- the Medal of Honor -- for Sergeant Henry Johnson, a black soldier from World War I who eminently deserves the honor. But, as his son (who was one of the Tuskegee Airmen) put it, back then "they would not give black people any honors." His father was injured 21 times in the war, but his family had to wait 79 years for him even to be awarded a Purple Heart. And a further six years before getting a Distinguished Service Cross (the military's second-highest honor). Read the whole saga on the Arlington National Cemetery website, or check out a photo of his grave. As for the new developments in the story, I decided today to run un-edited Schumer's press release, which explains some very important new evidence which has just been uncovered.]

-- Chris Weigant



Never Before Considered Communication From General John Pershing Detailing World War I Fight and New Primary Source Documentation of Eyewitness Account Greatly Boost The Case For Johnson To Receive Medal of Honor


Henry Johnson, A Resident of Albany, Joined the All-Black New York National Guard Unit, The Legendary "Harlem Hellfighters"


Schumer Helped Obtain The Distinguished Service Cross, Has Been Leading The Fight To Get Johnson The Awards Denied Him During Segregationist Era


Schumer: These Amazing New Documents Paint A Compelling Case To Finally Give This American Hero the Top Military Award He Earned With His Bravery So Many Years Ago


Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer announced that his office has uncovered new evidence that dramatically strengthens Sgt. Henry Johnson's case for the Medal of Honor. Standing at the base of the Henry Johnson Statue, Schumer revealed the new documents, and called on the U.S. Army to reopen Johnson's case for a Medal of Honor in light of the never before considered evidence. Of particular significance is a memo from General John Pershing, the World War I Army Commander in Chief, which details Henry Johnson's bravery and self-sacrifice during the May 1918 fight. This document is critical to Johnson's case because receiving the Medal of Honor requires a chain-of command endorsement, and Johnson's previous award recommendation was lacking this vital piece of the puzzle. Moreover, having a chain-of-command endorsement from the Commander of the American Expeditionary Force is an extraordinary development in the evolution of our understanding of an extraordinary story. A second, and also significant, new piece of primary historical documentation has also surfaced -- an eyewitness description from the soldier Johnson saved, Mr. Neadom Roberts.

While on guard duty in the middle of the night between May 14th-15th 1918, then-Private Johnson, a volunteer with the New York National Guard serving under French command due to segregation, came under attack by a German raider party of about two dozen. Despite sustaining 21 wounds, he fought off the Germans and rescued one of his fellow soldiers with just a rifle, a bolo knife and his bare hands. Sgt. Johnson, an Albany resident and African American soldier serving in a segregated Army at the time, received one of the highest French military honors, the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm for his bravery in battle during World War I. He was the first American soldier of any race to receive this award.

Years later, in concert with Johnson activists, including John Howe, a Vietnam veteran, Schumer helped secure the second-highest American honor for Johnson, the Distinguished Service Cross, in 2003. Schumer now urges the Army to reopen the case for the Medal of Honor in light of the newly uncovered chain of command endorsement from WWI General John Pershing, an eye witness account from Neadom Roberts of Johnson's brave actions during the battle, and a letter from Johnson's commander, Colonel William Hayward, also detailing the event.

"Henry Johnson remains an incredible example of bravery and patriotism today, and it is time that he receive his long overdue Medal of Honor," said Schumer. "One of the requirements for this award is a chain-of-command endorsement, and it doesn't get better than the commander of American forces during WWI, General John J. Pershing. The uncovering of this amazing document, along with several other newly uncovered vital pieces of primary historical evidence -- including an eyewitness account -- put us closer than ever to getting Henry Johnson the recognition he deserves. During the 'Battle of Henry Johnson', there is no doubt that this American soldier displayed the extraordinary bravery and self-sacrifice that is at the core of this incredible honor. I urge the Army to reopen Johnson's case, and grant him the recognition he earned so many years ago."

"General Pershing's statement confirms the essential facts about the 'Battle of Henry Johnson,'" said Richard Slotkin, professor emeritus of American Studies at Wesleyan University, and author of 'Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality', a book on the African American troops of the 369th Infantry in WWI, the fabled Harlem Hellfighters. "Of particular importance is his confirmation that the two soldiers continued to fight after being wounded, and defeated a force vastly superior in numbers (20 against 2) and weaponry. The purpose of raids like this one was to capture prisoners for interrogation, which meant that the raiders were required to close in for hand-to-hand combat, so the fighting was intense. Johnson and Roberts not only prevented their own capture, they prevented the capture of the other men in the position who were unable to fight. The French considered their actions worthy of the Croix de Guerre."

There are several specific forms of evidence required in order to present a Medal of Honor to a member of the U.S. military. One requirement is a chain-of-command endorsement, which is met by the statement from General John Pershing; it was written as a memo on May 20, 1918, from Pershing to officials in Washington D.C. The memo provides a variety of updates of the warfront in France, and immediately highlights details related to what many historians now refer to as the 'Battle of Henry Johnson.' The memo writes:

"Reports in hand show notable instance of bravery and devotion shown by 2 soldiers of American colored regiment operating in French sector. Before day light on May 15 Private Henry Johnson and Private Roberts while on sentry duty at some distance from one another were attached by German raiding party estimated at 20 men, who advanced in 2 groups attacking at once from flank and rear. Both men fought bravely in hand to hand encounters, one resorting to use of bolo knife after rifle jammed and further fighting with bayonet and butt became impossible. Evidence that at least one and probably second German was severely cut. Third known to have been shot. Attention drawn to fact that the 2 colored sentries first attacked continued fighting after receiving wounds, and despite of use of grenades by superior force, and should be given credit for preventing by their bravery the taking prisoner of our men. Three of our men wounded, of whom two by grenades but all are recovering, and wounds in two cases are slight."

Senator Schumer states that this memo undoubtedly provides the "incontestable proof" necessary to demonstrate Henry Johnson's worthiness of the Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor is awarded by the president to a member of the armed services distinguished "conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty." To receive the medal, the action on the part of a soldier must be one of "personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades and must have involved risk of life," according to the criteria established by the armed services. The General Pershing document clearly warrants the reopening of Henry Johnson's Medal of Honor case.

Schumer and his staff have also uncovered two other critical pieces of evidence. The first is an eye-witness account of the 'Battle of Henry Johnson', from then-Private Neadom Roberts who also fought the German forces alongside then-Private Johnson during the battle. In the extensive statement, Roberts highlights the bravery and self-sacrifice that Henry Johnson exhibited, particularly crediting him with the final blow of the battle. An eye witness account is required to receive the Medal of Honor.

The final piece of newly uncovered evidence is a letter written by Colonel William Hayward also detailing the event, which Schumer's office discovered had been read into the Congressional Record on September 4, 1918. This gives the letter legitimacy it didn't have before. Colonel Hayward was Henry Johnson's superior, and in this letter to Johnson's wife he writes:

"Your husband, Pvt. Henry Johnson... has been at all times a good soldier... of fine morals and upright character. To these admirable traits he has lately added the most convincing proof of fine courage and splendid fighting ability. I regret to say that he is at the moment in a hospital, seriously, but not dangerously, wounded, the wounds having been received under such circumstances that everyone of us in the regiment would be pleased and proud to trade places with him."

Colonel William Hayward goes on to describe the battle, confirming the details previously accepted. This final piece of evidence only further supports the information and endorsement in the memo from General John Pershing and the eye-witness statement of Neadom Roberts.

Henry Johnson was a native of Albany, served in World War I, and was an African-American who joined the all-black New York National Guard unit, the 369th Infantry division, based in Harlem. About 400,000 black soldiers served in the armed forces at that time. Half were sent overseas, many stationed in France. They were not allowed to serve with white soldiers nor were they allowed to fight with American combat units.

But the 369th soon proved themselves. They became known as the Harlem Hell Fighters. And that was not a name they took for themselves -- that was a name given to them by their enemies. No one personified the bravery of the 369th more then Henry Johnson. While on guard duty on May 14, 1918, then-Private Johnson came under attack by a German raider party of two dozen. Despite sustaining 21 wounds, he fought off the Germans and rescued one of his buddies with only a rifle and his bare hands.

Johnson was promoted to Sergeant later in May 1918. He became the first American of any color, in any conflict, to receive the Croix de Guerre, France's highest military decoration. His exploits got newspaper coverage in America and throughout Europe. He was featured in Teddy Roosevelt, Jr.'s book, "Rank and File: True Stories of the Great War." The Army even used Johnson's name and likeness to advertise for war bonds and recruit minorities into service.

After the war, Henry Johnson returned to upstate New York and he even lobbied New York State for VA benefits. He later died, penniless, on the streets of Albany, New York, in 1929. In 2002, his grave was found in Arlington National Cemetery, not in the paupers' cemetery outside of Albany, where he was believed to have been buried.

Since integration of the military in 1950, some African-American servicemen and women have been recognized for their gallant service. Recognition of African-Americans prior to integration, alarmingly neglected for many years, has begun.

In 1996, Henry Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. In an official ceremony at the Pentagon in 2003, Henry Johnson was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second-highest award. Senator Schumer has long fought to honor the legacy of Henry Johnson, and will continue to work hard until he receives the Medal of Honor, the top award that he so greatly deserves.


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “Senator Schumer Works To Honor Henry Johnson”

  1. [1] 
    Kevin wrote:

    This is getting redundant...thanks for yet ANOTHER educational piece. Hope Schumer wins this worthy battle.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Kevin -

    I just kind of stumbled across this one. It'll be pretty hard to deny Johnson the MOH after he was "mentioned in dispatches" by General "Black Jack" Pershing, I would think.

    Astounding research and archival work, by whoever (on Schumer's staff?) did the digging...


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    A truly inspirational story, CW..



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