Obama To Honor Harlem Hellfighter With Medal Of Honor

Obama To Honor Harlem Hellfighter With Medal Of Honor

8:05am Jun 02, 2015

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President Obama today awards the Medal of Honor - this nation's highest award for bravery - posthumously to an African-American soldier who fought in World War I. Pvt. Henry Johnson fought off a German raid near France's Argonne Forest and saved a fellow-American soldier. The heroic actions got him promoted to sergeant, but were ignored by the military for decades. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman with Johnson's story.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The first sign of trouble was the snap of a barbed wire being cut by German soldiers. It was just before dawn on May 15, 1918. At least a dozen Germans surged through the small outpost, attacking its two American sentries, Henry Johnson and Neadom Roberts, shooting them, tossing grenades. Roberts was severely wounded and passed out.


MELVILLE MILLER: Neadom Roberts got slugged almost immediately, and Johnson fought them off.

BOWMAN: That's fellow-soldier Melville Miller from a 1977 documentary about their all-black unit. When Johnson ran out of ammunition, he used his rifle like a bat and slashed the Germans with a large knife.


MILLER: He shot, and he cut, and he swung his knife around. And he had 21 wounds in his body, but he refused to die.

BOWMAN: Johnson was just 5'4''. He killed two German soldiers trying to capture fellow-sentry Neadom Roberts. Soon it was the Germans who retreated, carrying their wounded into the darkness. When help arrived, Henry Johnson was losing consciousness. His final words - grab Roberts and rush him to the hospital. He's seriously wounded. Two days later, Johnson received a medal for his courage from the French, the Croix de Guerre avec Palm. His unit fought with the French. The U.S. didn't want black soldiers in its ranks. Today, at the White House, Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard will receive the Medal of Honor on behalf of Henry Johnson.

COMMAND SGT. MAJ. LOUIS WILSON: He did receive the highest medal in France there, but nothing came close to receiving the medal here.

BOWMAN: Why wasn't he recognized, do you think?

WILSON: Racial injustice. We're glad that things have changed or are changing where it's not the color of your skin, but what you have to offer, what you bring to the fight.

BOWMAN: The all-black 369th Infantry did get some recognition when they got home. There was a tickertape parade down Fifth Avenue. There were pictures of a beaming Sgt. Johnson waving flowers from a truck. He earned the nickname The Black Death. And his unit became known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Veteran Melville Miller recalled that parade decades later, saying it was the most wonderful day of his life.


MILLER: That's one day that there wasn't the slightest bit of prejudice in New York City.

BOWMAN: That day didn't last. The Army did turn to Johnson to help sell war bonds and recruit black troops, but African-American soldiers were not seen as equals. Johnson received no veterans' benefits, even though he was almost totally disabled by his wounds. When he complained publicly about how African-American veterans were being treated, that was too much for the Army. One memo from military intelligence said Johnson was suffering from a, quote, "case of a swelled head" and concluded Sgt. Johnson's right to wear the uniform should be immediately revoked. With no job, estranged from his family and drinking heavily, Johnson died at age 32 in Washington. His death certificate listed his occupation - ex-soldier.

CAROLINE WEKSELBAUM: It's horrible what happened to him later on in his life. It's disgusting.

BOWMAN: That's Caroline Wekselbaum, who led a research team for Sen. Chuck Schumer that helped pave the way for the Medal of Honor. Starting in the Clinton Administration, the military began to award medals for those who were overlooked. Sgt. Johnson got a Purple Heart in 1996, a Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. But the highest medal for valor eluded him - that is until Wekselbaum and her team found new evidence four years ago, including a May 1918 memo from none other than Gen. John Pershing, the commander of American troops in World War I. He called Johnson's actions a notable instance of bravery and devotion and said he deserved credit.

WEKSELBAUM: Having a Pershing endorsement is the holy grail of evidence, but it's not the only thing.

BOWMAN: The team found After Action Reports, eye-witness accounts that somehow eluded the Army's medal board for years. Their packet of more than 1,200 pages helped Army officials finally approve the Medal of Honor. Wekselbaum will be among those at the White House ceremony today. She said it's never too late to correct a historical injustice. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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