WWI veteran from Albany in line for Medal of Honor
ALBANY—On May 15, 1918, while fighting in France during World War 1, Army Pvt. Henry Johnson of Albany single-handedly fended off an attack by a group of about 20 German soldiers, fighting them with only a knife, even though he had been shot in the head and wounded 20 other times.
But when Johnson, who was African-American, returned to Albany, segregation and health issues related to his war injuries took their toll. He became an alcoholic and died in 1929, forgotten.
Now, after years of lobbying by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, Johnson, who was promoted to sergeant after his battlefield heroics, is a step closer to receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for his battlefield bravery. Schumer said Tuesday that U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has recommended that Johnson receive the nation's highest military honor.
“Today’s recommendation by the Secretary of Defense brings us one step closer to the ultimate goal—recognizing Henry Johnson, who displayed the most profound battlefield bravery, with the Medal of Honor he deserves but was denied because of segregation,” Schumer said in a statement. “Johnson is an American hero and I am pleased the Department of Defense has looked at all of the evidence and correctly agreed that he is truly deserving of this recognition.”
President Obama must approve the medal request, which would also require special legislation in Congress because Johnson's actions occurred more than five years ago. Schumer said he will soon introduce that legislation.
Johnson has already been awarded the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm, one of the French military’s highest honors. He was a member of the New York National Guard, but his unit, the “Harlem Hellfighters” were loaned to the French because of segregation in the U.S. Army.
In 2003, Johnson also received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest military honor, Schumer said.
In Albany, Johnson's memory lives on. Henry Johnson Boulevard cuts through the heart of a poor African American neighborhood ends at a park surrounded by some of the city's most expensive real estate. There is a bust of Johnson in another city park.