ALBANY, N.Y. — The decision to grant a posthumous Medal of Honor for a black World War I hero from New York moves to President Barack Obama’s desk after Congress agreed to waive time restrictions on the award.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said the annual defense authorization bill passed Dec. 12 lifts the requirement for the medal to be awarded within five years of heroic acts.
Obama is expected to sign the bill and then consider honoring Sgt. Henry Johnson, which has already been recommended by the Department of Defense. The White House had no initial comment.
Johnson was a train station porter from Albany who rescued a comrade in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment while fighting off a German attack in France in 1918.
Johnson supporters have been pushing for the Medal of Honor for decades, helped in recent years by Schumer and other New York lawmakers who said the recognition was unjustly denied during the Jim Crow era.
“Sgt. Henry Johnson is a true American hero, who displayed the most profound battlefield bravery, and he deserves the Medal of Honor he was denied because of segregation,” Schumer said. “Johnson’s family has waited long enough for the recognition Johnson should have received almost a century ago.”
Johnson was born in Virginia. He eventually wound up in Albany and enlisted in the 369th, a New York National Guard unit based in Manhattan that became known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”
With U.S. armed forces segregated at the time, the 369th was assigned to serve under French command. The unit arrived on the front lines in early 1918. That May, Johnson and another soldier, Needham Roberts of Trenton, New Jersey, were on sentry duty when their trench outpost was hit by a night assault by a German raiding party.
Heavily outnumbered and severely wounded during the attack, the 5-foot-4 Johnson used his knife and rifle to kill or wound several of the enemy who were trying to drag the injured Roberts away. The Germans retreated, and Johnson was credited with repulsing the onslaught and saving Roberts.
Johnson’s actions earned him the French Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest honors. After getting back to the U.S., Harlem held a parade in his honor, and the Governor and Mayor met his train when he arrived in Albany.
But his heroism was all but ignored by American military officials, despite the many stories about his exploits published in American newspapers, including those with a predominantly white readership.
Hobbled by his wartime injuries, Johnson died a destitute alcoholic at age 32 at a veterans hospital in Illinois in 1929. His grave was rediscovered in Arlington National Cemetery in 2002. The next year, Johnson posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military decoration.
Local efforts for the Medal of Honor began in the 1970s and gained momentum in recent years. They received a boost in 2011 when Schumer’s staff found a U.S. Army dispatch from May 1918 describing Johnson and Roberts showing “notable instance of bravery and devotion” during the attack. The report and other supporting documents were submitted to Pentagon officials to bolster Johnson’s cause.
By George M. Walsh. AP writer Chris Carola in Albany contributed to this report