Army Secretary John McHugh has approved a Medal of Honor application for Johnson submitted by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and sent it to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel for consideration. If Hagel gives his OK, the application will be sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Barack Obama for final approvals.
“It’s on Hagel’s desk right now,” Schumer said Thursday. “This has been a long hard road, but we’re getting close to the finish line to right a wrong that was done close to 100 years ago.”
Pentagon officials won’t discuss details of deliberations on awards.
If approved, Johnson would become the 89th black soldier to receive the Medal of Honor and just the second for heroism during World War I, according to the Mount Pleasant, South Carolina-based Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Johnson, a Virginia-born rail station porter in Albany, enlisted in the 369th Infantry Regiment, a New York National Guard unit based in Manhattan and known as the Harlem Hellfighters. With U.S. armed forces segregated at the time, the 369th was assigned to serve under French command when Johnson’s outfit arrived on the front lines in early 1918. That May, he and another soldier, Needham Roberts of Trenton, New Jersey, were on nighttime sentry duty when their position was attacked by a German raiding party of about two dozen.
Both Americans were wounded, but despite his many injuries, the 5-foot-4 Johnson used his knife and rifle to kill or wound several combatants who were trying to drag Roberts away. Johnson’s actions caused the other Germans to retreat.
Johnson was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest honors, but his heroism was all but ignored by high-ranking U.S. military officials of the Jim Crow era, despite the many accounts of his actions published in newspapers back home in Albany, as well as in Chicago and New York City. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, in a book he wrote about World War I, listed Johnson among the bravest Americans to serve in the conflict.
“Everybody knew who Henry Johnson was,” said Jack McEneny, a retired state lawmaker and Albany historian who has been advocating Johnson’s case for 40 years. “He was a major source of pride and a realization for the black community and the white community of the value of African-Americans to the loyalty of this country.”