Pentagon OKs Medal of Honor for Black WWI Hero

ALBANY (AP) -
A statue of Henry Johnson is displayed in the Arbor Hill neighborhood in Albany. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
A statue of Henry Johnson is displayed in the Arbor Hill neighborhood in Albany. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

The Secretary of Defense has recommended a posthumous Medal of Honor for a black World War I soldier from upstate New York who saved a comrade while fighting off a German attack in France, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said Tuesday.

Chuck Hagel has sent Congress a letter saying Sgt. Henry Johnson should receive the nation’s highest military decoration for bravery in combat.

The railroad porter from Albany was serving in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment when he killed or wounded several enemy soldiers while saving a fellow soldier from capture.

The president gets the final word on the medal request, which also requires passage of special legislation in Congress because Johnson’s actions were more than five years ago. Schumer said he’ll sponsor the bill to exempt Johnson.

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.

The Virginia-born Johnson was working as a train station porter when he enlisted.

Around midnight on May 15, 1918, he was standing guard duty with another soldier when they were attacked by about two dozen Germans.

Both Americans were wounded, but despite his injuries the 5-foot-4 Johnson fought off the attack, using his knife and rifle to kill or wound several of the enemy who were trying to drag his comrade away.

His actions earned him one of France’s highest medals, but historians believe rampant Jim Crow-era racism at a time when the services were segregated kept Johnson from receiving American military honors.

Johnson returned to Albany after the war and died destitute at age 32.