Sergeant Henry Johnson in 1918, wearing his French Croix de Guerre (Wikipedia/public domain)

US First World War soldier poised for top bravery honour, almost 100 years on

Posted on on 04 September 2014
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A black American soldier could finally be decorated with his country's highest bravery medal, almost a century after his heroic actions during the First World War.

Sergeant Henry Johnson has been recommended for the Medal of Honor, US Senator Charles Schumer has announced.

After years of campaigning, Mr Schumer says Johnson's name has been put forward by Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel. But legislation will still be needed before President Obama can give final  approval. 

The Medal of Honor, awarded by the President of the United States in the name of Congress, honours bravery above and beyond the call of duty.

Senator Schumer says Henry Johnson was unjustly denied recognition because of segregation in America's First World War army.

Sergeant Johnson was on guard in the Argonne region of north-eastern France when his sentry post came under German fire on May 15th 1918.

Although heavily outnumbered and suffering more than 20 wounds, he saved a fellow soldier, Private Needham Roberts, from capture.

'Harlem Hellfighters'

Johnson fought off his attackers, armed with a jammed rifle, a large bolo knife and his bare hands.

As an African American soldier in the segregated US Army, he was serving at the front under French command in the 369th Infantry Regiment, a unit known as the "Harlem Hellfighters."

France decorated Johnson and Roberts with one of its highest military honours, the Croix de Guerre.

Johnson's award carried the additional Gold Palm. But for decades the actions of the sergeant from New York State went unrecognised by his own country.

A posthumous award of the Purple Heart came in 1996, followed in 2003 by the Distinguished Service Cross.

New York Senator Charles Schumer says the Medal of Honor is long overdue: “We should never forget that Henry Johnson put his life on the line for America when our nation did not treat him with the equality and dignity that comes with full citizenship rights.

"Segregation was the reason he did not receive our nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, and that injustice needs to be rectified with all due speed."

A final hurdle still has to be overcome. Under current US law, the Medal of Honor has to be awarded within five years of the cited act of gallantry.

Senator Schumer says he will introduce legislation allowing President Obama to consider Henry Johnson's case as soon as possible: "Providing an exemption for him now is the right thing to do.

"I will not stop pushing until the President has signed off and Johnson gets the recognition he deserves."

Sources: Senator Charles E. Schumer press release; Wikipedia/various

Image: Wikimedia/Needham Roberts 1918/public domain

Posted by: Peter Alhadeff, Centenary News