Almost a century ago, the incomparable heroism of Henry Lincoln Johnson and his comrades in the famous "Harlem Hellcats" instilled pride and hope in black Americans seeking political and economic justice.
Now, 93 years later, Johnson, the shining star of New York City's all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, which displayed extraordinary valor on a dark and dismal French battlefield on May 14, 1918, may finally receive a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's penultimate military badge of distinction for courage under fire.
The 369th's approximately 3,000-man volunteer unit was lent to the French army by General John J. Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
Despite federal policy that denied blacks combat roles in white American units, the Hellcats distinguished themselves in battle and were credited with helping to save French forces from falling in the last major German offensive on the western front, securing a place in military history for themselves and African Americans.
Late in the conflict, only the Hellcats' ferocity prevented the Germans from wresting Paris from the French. The 369th spent a record 191 consecutive days in combat, longer than any other American unit.
French commanders, dependent on war-weary, terribly fatigued troops, warmly welcomed the 369th when they arrived on Jan. 1, 1918. In many previous campaigns, French generals had positioned hundreds of thousands of French-speaking Africans from Algeria, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Serra Leone.
In France, African-American soldiers hoped their valor would be a passport to increasing social and political equity in the United States.
They were so focused winning the war and displaying their patriotism that they ignored the propaganda leaflets dropped on them by German pilots, which cited gross racial abuses inflicted on "Negroes" in the United States. The leaflets pointed to the 369th's valiant efforts in defending the interests of whites who continued to oppress blacks on the home front.
In battle, Johnson and his mates never lost an inch of territory, nor were they captured by the enemy. At least 200 of them were killed and another 1,300 were wounded, including Johnson, who was shot three times and suffered 21 debilitating knife wounds.
Johnson's cause has been taken up by U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and and Ronald Wyden, D-Ore.
In early May, Schumer and Wyden sent 2,000 pages of new information to Robert Much, the Secretary of the Army, to argue that Johnson should have been awarded the medal long ago. The senators said the new information reinforces existing documentation in Johnson’s case.
"Henry Lincoln Johnson remains an incredible example of bravery and patriotism today and it is time that he receive his long overdue Medal of Honor. I'm hopeful that the new evidence we've uncovered will get Henry Lincoln Johnson the recognition he so rightly deserves and I'll be working with Senator Wyden to make that happen,” Schumer said in a statement.
Johnson's granddaughter, Tara Johnson, the daughter of his son Herman, who died in 2004, said her family was grateful to Schumer and his staff for their efforts. Her grandfather, Johnson said, “in a time when such honors were not bestowed on women and minorities."
She said she hoped that "the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Henry Lincoln Johnson will have the honor of accepting the Medal of Honor on his behalf and complete the long journey of his devoted son, Herman Archibald Johnson, who undertook it until his passing."
Herman Archibald Johnson was a president of the Kansas City, Mo., NAACP chapter, a member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund board and a Tuskegee Airman.
No black soldiers in World Wars I or II received Medals of Honor in the immediate aftermath of war, compared to 124 of them in World War I and another 464 in World War II for white servicemen.
The French government quickly rewarded Johnson's daring with its highest honor, the Croix de Guerre with gold palm leaf, making him the first American to receive France's highest military medal for heroism in battle.
The Croix de Guerre with a special citation also was given to Needham Roberts, Johnson's comrade on sentry duty the day of the battle.
In 2002, President Clinton, awarded seven posthumous Medals of Honor to African-American soldiers for heroism in both conflicts. The first black soldier who fought in War World I to be awarded a Posthumous Medal of Honor was Freddie Stowers.
A member of the 371st Infantry Regiment, 371st Infantry Division, Stowers sacrificed himself when he led a charge and was killed in the ensuing battle.
Dozens of prominent officials have lobbied on Johnson’s behalf, including Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and former Albany N.Y. Mayor John McEnery, now a state legislator.
The May 1918 battle began when German soldiers cut the wire protecting Johnson and Roberts' post in an effort to launch a surprise attack. Johnson heard the snipping and had placed 30 grenades in a row.
Johnson surprised the Germans with the grenades, but soon was hit by one an enemy raider lobbed at him. Johnson then fired several shots from his rifle, but it jammed, so he used its butt end as a weapon and slashed other enemies with his long bolo knife.
Roberts, badly injured, could not stand, but sat upright and passed grenades to Johnson who tossed them in rapid sequence.
Two Germans, apparently never counting on Johnson to catch them, dragged Roberts away. Johnson, enraged by the thought that his young friend would be tortured, slashed at them. They released Roberts and ran. So did the party's other soldiers.
The fight lasted an hour before a small group from the 369th arrived.
Johnson collapsed and both he and Roberts were taken to a hospital.
The 369th returned by ship to New York City, and, on Feb. 17, 1919, were feted "by a lavish tickertape parade to welcome them home," according to the American National Biography Online.
But only six months after the celebration, Johnson, dogged by the severity of his wounds and unable to return to his pre-war Pullman porter's position, was suffering from depression, his grandson Herman Robert Johnson, a city councilman in Clark Summit, Pa., told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
"He went to France as a young man and came back an old man. He had metal plates in his feet and shrapnel on his upper left side, which affected his back," the younger Johnson said.
Driven to alcoholism and despair over his inability to support his family, Henry Lincoln Johnson died penniless and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Roberts, who died in a mental institution, is buried in Fairmont Cemetery in Newark, New Jersey.
President George W. Bush "never approved the request for a posthumous Medal of Honor for my grandfather. It sat on his desk from 2005 to 2008," Herman Robert Johnson said.
Even in death, the United States government exploited Johnson's heroism and marketing value by using his image on Army recruitment posters. The Pentagon continued this practice until 1976.
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