With Medal of Honor Award, Family Learns WWI Hero Wasn’t Kin


Two days before President Barack Obama announced a posthumous Medal of Honor for black World War I soldier Henry Johnson, a family got staggering news about the legacy of heroism that had inspired them for generations: They weren’t related to Johnson by blood after all.

A U.S. Army general visited Tara Johnson last month with word that Henry Johnson was not her grandfather, and that her father, World War II Tuskegee airman Herman Johnson, was not the hero’s son.

“Dad’s birth certificate didn’t have Henry on it,” Johnson said. The name of the man listed on the document found by Pentagon researchers vetting Johnson’s lineage was one relatives had never heard as the father.

“All we have ever known is Henry Lincoln Johnson,” she said. “My family is going through an identity crisis; this shocked our foundation.”

She said they’re at a loss to explain what had been a given for so long. Her father spoke warmly of Henry Johnson, recalling his sense of humor and trips to the park as a boy before the life of the man he knew as his father began to fall apart and the family broke up.

Henry Johnson was a railroad porter in Albany before the war. He enlisted in the Army and won acclaim for rescuing a comrade in a ferocious hand-to-hand battle with German raiders in 1918. Hobbled by his wartime injuries, Johnson took to drinking. He died destitute in 1929 at age 32.

Johnson’s memory was revived in the 1970s by Albany-area veterans and public officials who believed he had been unfairly denied the honors he deserved, and they worked for decades, joined by Herman Johnson’s family, to right that wrong.

On Tuesday, the president handed the Medal of Honor to New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson because the military found no known blood relatives.

Tara Johnson had expected for months to be in that soldier’s place. Still, she was at the ceremony, glad for the invitation to the White House. On Tuesday, she put a wreath on Johnson’s grave, which was rediscovered in Arlington National Cemetery in 2002.

“He’s always going to be my grandfather,” she said.

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