1918 Report Boosts Medal Push for WWI Hero from NY

Tuesday, 22 Mar 2011 03:55 PM

 

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A long-forgotten military report written by the commander of U.S. forces in Europe during World War I and two others recently uncovered accounts of a soldier's heroics in the trenches of France bolster efforts to get a posthumous Medal of Honor for the New York doughboy, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said Tuesday.

Retrieved from the National Archives by Schumer's staff, the report by Gen. John J. Pershing in May 1918 came just days after Sgt. Henry Johnson of Albany fought off a German raiding party while rescuing Pvt. Neadom Roberts, a wounded comrade.

New York officials and veterans have been trying for decades to convince the Pentagon to award the Medal of Honor to Johnson, a member of an all-black regiment who died in 1929. In 2003, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military honor.

Pershing's report on Johnson's actions was included in a bulletin sent May 20, 1918, from the General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Force. Nicknamed Black Jack for having commanded a regiment of black cavalry earlier in his career, Pershing mentions Johnson and Roberts fighting off a German raid despite being wounded and outnumbered.

"Reports in hand show notable instance of bravery and devotion shown by 2 soldiers of American colored regiment operating in French sector," the bulletin said.

Schumer said Pershing's report and two other documents recently uncovered — an eyewitness account and a letter from Johnson's commanding officer — are enough evidence for the Pentagon to reopen Johnson's case. The Pershing bulletin, in particular, provides a "chain-of-command endorsement" required for Medal of Honor consideration, the senator said.

"I can't see how they're going to turn him down once we introduce this evidence," Schumer said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference held at the Johnson memorial in an Albany park. He spoke surrounded by veterans, local officials and members of the black community who've long fought for the medal.

"It wasn't lack of heroism; it was lack of documentation," Schumer said. He said he will ask the secretary of the Army, former New York congressman John McHugh, to consider the new evidence in Johnson's case. McHugh could then recommend a review by the secretary of defense, who could then forward it to the president for approval.

Johnson, a private at the time of his heroics, served with the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, a New York National Guard unit based in Manhattan and known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Because the U.S. armed forces were segregated at the time, the 369th was serving under French command when Johnson's outfit arrived on the front lines in early 1918.

Johnson and Roberts, a native of Trenton, N.J., were on night sentry duty when Germans attacked their outposts early on May 15. According to official accounts of the skirmish, they were attacked by 12 to 20 of the enemy looking for the newly arrived black American soldiers they had been told would be easy to capture. Instead, the two soldiers' commanding officer later wrote to Johnson's wife, they found Johnson and Roberts "very much awake and alert and attending strictly to their duties."

Col. William Hayward's letter provides graphic detail of the desperate hand-to-hand combat Johnson and Roberts fought that night. Rifles, bayonets and grenades were employed in the tight confines of the trenches before Johnson used a bolo knife to stab and hack at the enemy until several were down and the others retreated. According to Roberts' own account published in a pamphlet in 1933, Johnson used the machete-like weapon to cleave right through one German's helmet.

Hayward's letter, read into the Congressional Record of September 1918, reported that the Germans removed their dead and wounded, but it was believed the two Americans had killed at least four of the enemy and wounded several others despite being severely injured themselves.

"So it was in this way the Germans found the black Americans!" Hayward wrote.

Johnson received the Croix de Guerre, becoming the first American in World War I to receive one of France's highest military honors. But he, like many other black soldiers who served in the war, never received official recognition from the U.S. military. A rail station porter in Albany before the war, Johnson returned home only to die a penniless alcoholic. He was believed to have been buried in a pauper's grave, but his final resting place was found in Arlington National Cemetery in 2002. The next year, Johnson posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Pentagon officials won't discuss details of deliberations on awards.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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