Source: Hulton Archive / Getty[photo of World War One Croix de Guerre winners]
At the outbreak of World War One, in 1914 and 1915, equal rights for African Americans in the United States were basically nonexistent. The South was in the grips of Jim Crow laws and in the rest of the country de facto segregation, job, housing and school discrimination were the rule and took their toll on the Black community’s fortunes. When the US entered the war, many young Black men believed that if they demonstrated the willingness and ability to fight for this country, that we would begin to be accepted as full citizens.
One such young man was Henry Johnson, who signed up in June of 1917 and was assigned to the all Black 369th infantry, the unit comprised of brothers mostly from New York, that later would be known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Serving in France, the unit, like most Black soldiers, performed only menial labor in support of white troops, but when temporarily placed under French command, finally saw combat duty.
While on night sentry duty on May 15th, 1918, Henry Johnson and another Black soldier were attacked by a group of approximately 15 to 20 German troops. When the other soldier was wounded, Johnson, who was just 5′ 4″ and 130 pounds, fought the Germans alone, in hand to hand combat. He managed to kill four Germans and wound at least 10 others! He prevented his comrade from being captured and held off the Germans alone until they retreated! For his bravery, France immediately awarded Johnson their highest honor, the Croix de Guerre in 1918. Unfortunately, our US of A did not recognize or even officially record his amazing feat! He received no disability benefits for the many injuries he sustained while serving his country and died an alcoholic in 1929, forgotten and penniless.
It wasn’t until 1996 that he posthumously received the Purple Heart from President Bill Clinton. The Armed Forces finally got around to giving him the military’s second highest honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, a few years later. Finally, a memo from General John Pershing commending Henry Johnson’s bravery, was found and through the efforts of New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s office, an application for the Medal of Honor for Johnson was submitted and approved.
This past week, President Barack Obama awarded the country’s highest honor, The Congressional Medal of Honor, to Private Henry Johnson for conspicuous gallantry during World War I. At last! Thank you, Mr. President!
Here’s further information on the Medal of Honor from the White House website:
The Medal of Honor is awarded to members of the Armed Forces who distinguish themselves conspicuously by gallantry above and beyond the call of duty while:
engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States;
engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or
serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.
The meritorious conduct must involve great personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades and must have involved risk of life. There must be incontestable proof of the performance of the meritorious conduct, and each recommendation for the award must be considered on the standard of extraordinary merit.