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In 1917, Henry Johnson was working as a railroad porter in Albany, New York, when the United States declared war on Germany. At the time, before the Selective Service Act introduced conscription, African-American volunteers were only allowed in four all-black regiments in the Army and a few National Guard units. Johnson enlisted in the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, which was converted into the 369th Infantry Regiment for the purposes of the war. The regiment belonged to the largely black 93rd Division of the American Expeditionary Force, a hastily assembled division that would be among the first American forces to arrive in France. Most of the 369th’s soldiers came from Harlem, San Juan Hill (around 59th Street in Manhattan) and Williamsburg, Brooklyn; after their exploits in France, they would be dubbed the “Harlem Hellfighters.”
In the early months of 1918, with France stretched to its limits in its struggle against Germany, U.S. General John Pershing lent the 369th to the Fourth Army, though he made it clear he considered black soldiers inferior to whites. In fact, Pershing went even further in his directive to the French Military Mission, writing that the black man lacked a “civic and professional conscience” and was a “constant menace to the American.” To their credit, the French paid little attention to Pershing’s warnings. They sent the 369th to the western edge of the Argonne Forest, in the Champagne region of France.
Outfitted in French military garb, Johnson and another private, Needham Roberts of New Jersey, were serving sentry duty on the night of May 4, 1918, when German snipers began firing on them. Johnson began throwing grenades at the approaching Germans; hit by a German grenade, Roberts could only pass more of the small bombs to Johnson to lob at the enemy. When he exhausted his supply of grenades, Johnson began firing his rifle, but it soon jammed when he tried to insert another cartridge. By then the Germans had surrounded the two privates, and Johnson used his rifle as a club until the butt splintered. He saw the Germans attempting to take Roberts prisoner, and charged at them with his only remaining weapon, a bolo knife.
Johnson stabbed one soldier in the stomach and another in the ribs, and was still fighting when more French and American troops arrived on the scene, causing the Germans to retreat. When the reinforcements got there, Johnson fainted from the 21 wounds he had sustained in the one-hour battle. All told, he had killed four Germans and wounded some 10 to 20 more, and prevented them from breaking the French line. The French awarded both Johnson and Roberts the Croix de Guerre; Johnson’s included the coveted Gold Palm for extraordinary valor. In all, some 500 members of the Harlem Hellfighters earned the Croix de Guerre during World War I, showing France’s appreciation for their sacrifice.
When Johnson and his fellow Hellfighters arrived home in February 1919, they were honored with a parade up New York’s Fifth Avenue. Thousands of spectators lined the route to watch Johnson lead nearly 3,000 troops in an open car towards Harlem, holding a bouquet of lilies. The celebration had a dark side, however: The 369th were given their own parade because they weren’t allowed to join the official victory parade alongside other returning U.S. troops.
Though former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I, and the government used his image on Victory War stamps and army recruiting materials, Johnson’s discharge papers made no mention of his many wounds, and he received no disability pay after the war. Johnson returned to Albany, and to his job as a railroad porter, but his injuries made it difficult for him to work, and he soon began to decline into alcoholism and poverty. His wife and children left him, and he died penniless in 1929 at the age of 32. As far as anyone in his family knew, he ended up in a pauper’s grave in Albany.
Starting in the 1990s, however, Johnson’s story began gaining more recognition. Albany erected a monument in his honor, and a campaign was launched to get the United States government to posthumously recognize Johnson for his service. Spearheaded by Johnson’s son Herman—who was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II—and New York politicians including Senator Chuck Schumer, the efforts gained ground over the years, and in 1996 President Bill Clinton awarded Johnson a Purple Heart. In 2001, historians from the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs confirmed that Johnson had in fact received a burial with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in July 1929, unbeknownst to his family. In 2002, the U.S. Army awarded Johnson the nation’s second-highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross.
Still, Schumer and other Johnson supporters continued their dedicated campaign to win Johnson the recognition they felt he deserved, and had been denied solely because of the color of his skin. After nearly two decades, their efforts were finally rewarded last month when the White House announced that Johnson would receive the Medal of Honor on June 2. Among the new information that convinced the U.S. Army to bestow its highest award was a communiqué from Pershing, written shortly after the Argonne battle, commending Johnson’s performance. As reported by NBC News, one of Senator Schumer’s staffers turned up the previously unknown document in her research, along with firsthand accounts of the battle from Roberts and other soldiers. Herman Johnson passed away in 2004, and Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard accepted the Medal of Honor on behalf of Henry Johnson.
William Shemin, a fellow World War I veteran, was also awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor in the White House ceremony; his daughters, Ina Bass and Elsie Shemin-Roth, accepted on his behalf. As a member of the 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, in August 1918, Shemin took control of his platoon after its officers were injured or killed, until he was struck by a German machine gun bullet that pierced his helmet. Shemin, who was Jewish, received the Purple Heart for his combat injuries and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in December 1919, but—like Johnson—was denied the nation’s highest honor, likely due to the rampant discrimination of the era.
“Black Death” – Henry Johnson – American’s First World War Hero
Henry Johnson was a World War I soldier who singlehandedly beat back a German assault while critically wounded. He was a great American hero and received the highest military honor of two different countries. One of those countries, however, his very own, didn’t bestow that medal until nearly 100 years after his service in WWI.
The honor this man deserved was not awarded by the U.S. government upon his return home, because he was black. But that racism was eventually overcome, if only by the undeniable memory of his heroism.
15th Infantry, in France, wearing French helmets.
In 1917, a young man working as a Red Cap porter at an Albany, New York train station joined the 15 th New York National Guard Regiment. Due to U.S. segregation policies, it was an all-black regiment. Due to be shipped out to France as the U.S. declared war on Germany and its allies, the 15 th New York was renamed the 369 th Infantry Regiment and placed within the American Expeditionary Force under General John J. Pershing.
Johnson arrived in France on New Years Day, 1918. The African-American troops of the U.S. Army were harassed, sometimes even killed, by their Caucasian counterparts who would sometimes refuse to fight alongside them. The officers also distrusted them, harassed them, and issued disparaging remarks and pamphlets to French military and civilians about their black soldiers.
Thus, black regiments were very poorly trained and most often assigned to menial labor like carrying supplies and digging ditches and latrines.
The French, however, didn’t nearly conform to the U.S. military’s blind prejudice. When their Fourth Army, short on troops, was offered the 369 th Infantry Regiment to reinforce their line, they gladly took on the soldiers and put them to use as just that. They were given French rifles and helmets and stationed at Outpost 20 in the Argonne Forest, in France’s Champagne region, just West of the infamous battlefields of Verdun.
William Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts standing with their French Croix de Guerre medals in 1918.
In the early morning hours of May 14 th , 1918, Johnson and Needham Roberts of Trenton New Jersey were on guard duty. Just before 2 AM, shots from German snipers whizzed by and they knew the enemy was on the prowl.
Right at 2 AM, Johnson and Roberts heard the snip and clip of cutters on the perimeter wire and readied themselves for an attack. Johnson, with a box of grenades at his side, told Roberts to run back and alert the French troops.
As Roberts ran, Johnson began to hurl grenades out of the trench, towards the Germans. From the darkness, the Germans responded in kind with grenades and gunfire. Roberts couldn’t leave his comrade behind and ran back to help, but he was struck by a German grenade and severely wounded in his arm and his hip.
When he was out of grenades, Johnson fired his rifle. He was hit by answering rifle fire, taking hits in his hands and face. He fired round after round until grabbing an American ammo cartridge by mistake and jamming his French rifle.
Suddenly, the Germans were all around, jumping into the trench. At least a dozen soldiers descended upon the two wounded men thought to be inferior by their white U.S. comrades. Johnson, already with numerous bullet holes in his body, proved that notion of inferiority to be completely false.
William Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts in 1918.
Using his rifle as a club, he swung at the enemy, landing crippling blows until his stock finally shattered. Johnson was hit over the head and collapsed. Perhaps if he had been alone, he would have called it quits, obviously outnumbered and badly injured. But he could see the German soldiers grabbing Roberts, taking him away as a prisoner.
Johnson leaped up, pulled out his bolo knife and charged into the enemy once more.
The knife he gripped in his hand was adopted by the U.S. Army almost ten years earlier. The Army first encountered it in the Spanish-American war, wielded by native guerrilla fighters in the Philippines. Mostly used for agricultural purposes, this big knife, often between a foot and two feet long, was made by metal workers all across the country. Weighted along the back of its sharp, curved blade, the bolo made an exceptional slicing and hacking weapon that could cleave bones with one well-balanced swing.
The Germans in that trench received a quick lesson in just how terrifying this weapon was when wielded by a man committed to fighting to his last breath.
Johnson stabbed one soldier in the stomach. He killed an officer as he was shot in the arm. One German tried to tackle him by jumping on his back but instead was stopped by Johnson’s blade between his ribs. Overwhelmed by his ferocity and with the sound of French and American troops running towards the skirmish, the Germans ran back into the night.
Colonel Hayward’s “Hell Fighters” in parade. The famous 369th Infantry marching in New York City in honor of their return to this country.
As the reinforcements arrived, Johnson collapsed. He had been shot, stabbed, beaten and hit with grenade shrapnel, taking a total of 21 severe injuries in his desperate fight.
The whole French force in the region gathered to see Johnson and Roberts awarded the Croix du Guerre, the county’s highest military honor. They were the first U.S. soldiers ever to earn this distinction. Johnson’s medal was further adorned with the Gold Palm. He became known as “Black Death.”
Upon his return home, Johnson, promoted to Sergeant, lead a parade of 3,000 men from the 369 th through New York City to Harlem. More than 500 men of the 369 th had earned the Croix du Guerre since Johnson and Roberts and furthermore became one of the most decorated U.S. regiments to serve in WWI. They garnered the nickname the “Harlem Hellfighters.” But despite this, the parade Johnson led was for black servicemen only since they weren’t allowed to participate in the main victory parade.
To add further insult to Johnson’s injuries, no mention of his battle wounds was made in his discharge papers. This meant he not only that he did not receive a Purple Heart but also was denied medical benefits due to an injured veteran, even when the U.S. Army was using his story as propaganda for recruitment.
A 1946 biographical cartoon of Henry Johnson created by Charles Alston.
Because of his injuries, he couldn’t keep a job. Descending into alcoholism, he was left by his wife and three children. In 1929, he died at the age of 32, a discarded American hero.
But his memory did live on. His son, Herman Johnson, who served in the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, along with New York Senator Chuck Schumer and others, fought to have his father’s valor officially recognized. In the 1990s, a monument was erected in Albany in Johnson’s honor and President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him the Purple Heart. In 2002, the U.S. Army granted him the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest honor the military has. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the top honor, the Medal of Honour. The French had long since recognized him as a war hero.
Before Johnson’s son passed away in 2004, he got to stand at his father’s grave. Herman Johnson had spent most of his life believing his father was laid to rest in some unknown pauper’s grave. But military records found in 2001 revealed Johnson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors.
WWI 'Harlem Hellfighter' Henry Johnson to Receive Medal of Honor
They called Sgt. Henry Johnson "Black Death," a soldier from the all-black "Harlem Hellfighters" unit who fought off two dozen Germans with a gun and then a knife during World War I.
But when the war ended and the lauds from President Theodore Roosevelt and the French, who awarded him their nation’s highest award for valor, the "Croix de Guerre avec Palme," faded into the recesses of American history, Johnson couldn’t even get a pension. It was an era of racial segregation and Johnson, who spoke out against racism in the Army in a 1919 speech, died at age 32 after having spent his post service career as a porter for the rail service.
Now, nearly a century after his efforts in battle, the White House announced this week that Johnson will receive the Medal of Honor. Johnson and another WWI veteran, William Shemin, a Jewish sergeant who lied about his age in order to serve, and eventually led a platoon in battle, will be awarded the nation’s highest military honor on June 2.
Shemin’s daughter will accept the award on his behalf. Johnson’s award will be accepted by Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard.
For New York lawmakers, including former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the quest to ensure Johnson’s efforts were recognized was a nearly twenty year saga requiring exhaustive research, getting legislation approved by Congress to waive the statute of limitations, and advocacy by historians.
Bill introduced for Henry Johnson Medal of Honor campaign - Times Union http://t.co/61XzZxpMg6 via @TimesUnion— Paul Tonko (@RepPaulTonko) September 11, 2014
"Sgt. Henry Johnson, an Albany resident and Harlem Hellfighter, is a true American hero, who displayed the most profound battlefield bravery in World War I, yet the nation for which he was willing to give his life shamefully failed to recognize his heroics, just because he was a black man," Schumer said in a statement.
"This century-old injustice finally made right will be a profound gesture that will rectify a sad chapter in American history. And our nation will finally say ‘Thank-you’ to Sergeant Johnson, and the countless other African Americans who put their lives on the line for a nation that failed to treat them with full equality before the law," Schumer said.
In the early 1900s, Johnson, who was living in Albany, New York, was inspired by the Army’s recruitment efforts to join an African American regiment nicknamed "the Harlem Hellfighters" to help with the campaign in Europe. Johnson and his comrades were deployed to Europe and given menial tasks like digging latrines.
But as France struggled to keep up its war efforts, Gen. John Pershing lent the French the "Harlem Hellfighters" with one bit of advice: Keep a close watch on the black soldiers because they are "inferior" to whites, according to the New York State Military Museum.
The French outfitted Johnson, who was a private at the time, and fellow soldier Needham Roberts, a private from Trenton, New Jersey, in French helmets and weapons, taught them a smattering of French phrases and sent them to an outpost at the edge of the Argonne Forest, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
It wasn’t long before Johnson heard the "snippin’ and clippin'" of Germans cutting the wire fences near the French camp. He and Roberts jumped into action and lobbed grenades into the night in the direction of German fire, according to historical accounts.
Eventually, the two men were surrounded. Johnson swung his gun, which had jammed, at the enemy forces and when that broke and he was hit on the head, he whipped out a bolo knife and slashed a path for he and Roberts to escape.
"Each slash meant something, believe me," Johnson later said, according to historical records and Smithsonian Magazine. "I wasn’t doing exercises, let me tell you."
When it was all done, Johnson had killed four German soldiers and wounded roughly 20 more. He suffered 21 wounds during the melee and his effort helped hold the line against the Germans.
"There wasn’t anything so fine about it," Johnson would later say, according to the Smithsonian article. "Just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that."
Johnson returned to his home country a hero and rode with the Harlem Hellfighters in a Fifth Avenue parade. He was also promoted to sergeant and the military used his likeness to recruit and sell war stamps with an ad campaign that read: "Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?"
But because his discharge papers didn’t mention his injuries, which included a severely damaged foot, or his battle efforts, Johnson never received a pension. Nor did he receive, at the time, the Purple Heart, which is awarded to those wounded in military service.
Johnson’s story faded into history.
Then, in 1999, a local historian and Vietnam veteran John Howe brought Johnson’s story to the attention of Schumer’s office, according to congressional aides.
Sgt. Henry Johnson's story is one of heroism and courage. Thanks to @SenSchumer he will get the honor he deserves. https://t.co/PwfeOjBw4P— Dan McCoy-CountyExec (@MCCoyCountyExec) May 15, 2015
Staffers struggled to find facts and information that were seemingly lost to history. Schumer took Johnson’s case to some of the highest levels of the Pentagon, office aides said, but the criteria for awarding the Medal of Honor is strict and without thorough documentation and after the death of Howe, the quest was stymied.
Then a few years ago, a young congressional staffer named Caroline Wekselbaum came across an article about Johnson. She asked about previous efforts and asked the senator and his staff if she could poke around on it.
She dug up records online that were thought lost and, because she did military casework for Schumer, she knew what the Army awards branch needed.
After a few weeks of intense searches, she found a communique from Gen. Pershing that few knew existed. Written shortly after the battle, Pershing reported Johnson’s acts and recommended him for bravery.
She then found other documents from Johnson’s foxhole buddy, Needham Roberts, and others who give the needed firsthand accounts.
Armed with this new evidence, Wekselbaum reworked the original Medal of Honor application.
"I loved working on this - it's very gratifying to see it actually happening after years of hard work by so many people, " Wekselbaum told NBC News.
The Army confirmed that new information used to approve Johnson’s award included battle accounts from his colleagues.
"After a formal review, it was determined that Sgt. Henry Johnson’s actions warranted approval," Army spokesman Wayne Hall told NBC News.
Johnson’s story has recently become more well known.
In the 1990s, Albany erected a monument to honor Johnson. The bust was placed in a traffic circle at the intersection of Henry Johnson Boulevard and Willett Street.
President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Johnson a Purple Heart, and the story of the "Harlem Hellfighters" has been crafted into a graphic novel.
Johnson’s son, Herman Johnson, who was a major flew during World War II as part of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen, according to the Smithsonian, was thrilled to learn that his father was buried with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery. Herman Johnson died in 2004.
"It took years of exhaustive research to prove his claim, impassioned advocacy by local historians and by his relations, and legislation passed through both houses of Congress to waive the statute of limitations on his award to get this done, but the effort has finally paid off," Schumer said in a statement. "It will be one of my proudest accomplishments as senator to see our country’s highest military honor bestowed upon Henry Johnson."
Issue 19: Medal of Honor Recipients and Genealogy
The Medal of Honor is the United States’ most prestigious military award, given to those who have demonstrated extraordinary bravery in the line of service. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, 127 recipients received the Medal of Honor for their actions in World War I, with 33 awarded posthumously. However, a number of WWI soldiers were overlooked for the award because of their race. After almost a century, these heroes are finally receiving the recognition they deserve.
In this issue, we learn about the history of the Medal of Honor and what it means today. We also look at resources available for genealogy research, allowing students to find their own family connections to WWI.
Meet America’s Bravest Heroes—World War I
Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation
The Medal of Honor is the highest U.S. military honor one can receive. The Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation provides details of service, rank, division and citations for WWI Medal of Honor recipients.
Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School, College, Adult Learners Format: Online Database
WWI Hero Henry Johnson Finally Receives Medal of Honor
Article by Sarah Pruitt
Though Henry Johnson was hailed as one of the bravest Americans to fight in WWI, due to lasting racism in the U.S. it wasn’t until 2004 that he was granted the Medal of Honor. This article from HISTORY® tells his story from soldier to posthumous Medal of Honor recipient.
Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School Format: Online Article
Racism Kept Some WWI Troops from Receiving Medal of Honor, Lawmakers Say
Article by Richard Sisk
A bipartisan effort is calling for a review of African American troops in WWI to determine if they should be awarded the Medal of Honor. This 2019 article from Military.com describes efforts to address a century’s worth of racism.
Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School, College, Adult Learners Format: Online Article,
Two WWI Soldiers Receive Medal of Honor Posthumously
A century after their service, two soldiers, one African American and the other Jewish, receive posthumous Medals of Honor. This segment from a 2015 episode of PBS NewsHour explores their awards.
Recommended Grade Levels: All Levels Format: YouTube Video (5 Minutes)
“After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and three other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring a machine-gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In his heroic feat the machine-gun nest was taken, together with four officers and 128 men and several guns.”
— Citation for Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Alvin York.
Learn more about Sergeant York's life.
John Lewis Barkley was a U.S. Army Medal of Honor recipient in World War I. He went to France in 1918 and participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the largest American offensive in U.S. military history.
On Oct. 7, Barkley mounted a captured German machine gun to a tank and manned it through German artillery barrages, allowing his regiment to maintain its mission. He was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery and ingenuity. Today, the National WWI Museum and Memorial displays Barkley’s Medal of Honor and portrait on exhibition.
View letters, photographs and more primary source documents from his personal collection.
WWI Genealogical Research Resources
The United States World War One Centennial Commission maintains this list of Genealogical Resources, which provide users with tools to search their own World War I-era family history.
Black and Jewish WWI heroes finally getting Medal of Honor
WASHINGTON — Declaring it’s never too late to make things right, President Barack Obama posthumously bestowed the Medal of Honor on two World War I veterans whose heroic acts nearly 100 years ago went unrecognized in an age of discrimination.
In a tearful, joyful East Room ceremony recalling the battlefield triumphs as well as the prejudices of 20th century America, Sgt. William Shemin and Pvt. Henry Johnson were recognized with the nation’s highest military decoration for saving their comrades on French front lines. Shemin was Jewish and Johnson was black.
“It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve, and there are surely others whose heroism is still unacknowledged and uncelebrated,” Obama said.
“The least we can do is to say we know who you are, we know what you did for us, we are forever grateful,” he said.
Obama applauded the tireless efforts of their advocates, who led Congress to pass an exemption from Medal of Honor rules specifying that heroic actions have to have taken place within five years to be considered.
Shemin’s daughters were full of emotion as Obama handed them the star-shaped medal hanging from a blue silk ribbon that they felt was long denied their father because of anti-Semitism. Ina Bass, 83, thrust the audience a thumbs up and planted a kiss on the president’s cheek, while 86-year-old Elsie Shemin-Roth smiled through her tears.
Veterans of Johnson’s New York National Guard regiment, the 369th known as “Harlem Hellfighters,” watched stoically as Obama described how he died destitute in his early 30s after his injuries left him crippled and unable to work.
“America can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson,” Obama said. “We can’t change what happened to too many soldiers like him, who went uncelebrated because our nation judged them by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. But we can do our best to make it right.”
Obama described how Johnson and a fellow soldier came under attack by at least a dozen German soldiers while on night sentry duty on May 15, 1918. Both were injured, but Johnson single-handedly beat back the invading party and rescued his unconscious brother in arms, armed with just his Bolo knife after his rifle jammed.
Obama said Johnson became famous — feted at a victory parade down Fifth Avenue, his picture printed on recruitment posters and President Teddy Roosevelt writing that he was one of the bravest men in the war. The French, who commanded his unit because U.S. armed forces were segregated at the time, gave him the country’s highest award for valor. A statue of Johnson is displayed in his hometown of Albany, N.Y.
“But his own nation didn’t award him anything, not even the Purple Heart, though he had been wounded 21 times. Nothing for his bravery, though he had saved a fellow soldier at great risk to himself,” Obama said before presenting the award to New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson.
Obama said it similarly took too long for America to properly honor Shemin, who was 19 when his platoon was involved in a bloody fight on the western front beginning on Aug. 7, 1918. Obama said over the course of three days, Shemin repeatedly raced through heavy machine gun fire to rescue fallen comrades. “Eventually, the platoon’s leadership broke down. Too many officers had become casualties. So William stepped up and took command,” Obama said.
A German bullet pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear. Shemin was hospitalized for three months and was left partly deaf. Shrapnel wounds eventually left him barely able to walk, although he earned a degree from Syracuse University and ran a nursery business in the Bronx before his death in 1973.
“Sergeant Shemin served at a time when the contributions in heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked,” Obama said. “But William Shemin saved American lives. He represented our nation with honor. And so it is my privilege on behalf of the American people to make this right.”
Black and Jewish WWI heroes finally getting Medal of Honor/>FILE - In this Jan. 5, 2012, file photo, Elsie Shemin-Roth flips through a book documenting the heroic acts of her father, William Shemin, during World War I, at her home in Labadie, Mo. Two World War I Army heroes, Shemin and Pvt. Henry Johnson are finally getting the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. President Barack Obama plans to posthumously bestow the nations highest military honor on both men for their actions in 1918 during a White House ceremony Tuesday, June 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
WASHINGTON — Two World War I Army heroes — one black, one Jewish — are finally getting the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France.
Sgt. William Shemin repeatedly dodged gunfire to pull wounded comrades to safety during three days of bloody battle. And Pvt. Henry Johnson rescued a wounded comrade from his all-black regiment while single-handedly fighting off a surprise German attack.
President Obama plans to posthumously bestow the nation's highest military honor on both men for their actions in 1918 during a White House ceremony Tuesday. The award comes after efforts by advocates for the two men led Congress to pass an exemption from Medal of Honor rules specifying that heroic actions have to have taken place within five years to be considered.
Shemin's daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth of suburban St. Louis, worked for years to gather documents in support of the bid for her father and plans to accept the award from Obama on his behalf. In the early 2000s, she learned of a law that reviewed cases of Jews who may have been denied medals they earned in World War II and fought for passage of a law to provide similar review for Jewish World War I veterans.
"This was anti-Semitism, no question about it," Shemin-Roth, who is in her 80s, said in an interview in December when Congress passed the exemption for her father, who died in 1973. "Now a wrong has been made right and all is forgiven."
Johnson supporters pushed for the Medal of Honor for decades — with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer taking up the case, which was initially rebuffed for lack of documentation. His staff picked up the case again years later when a trove of military records became available online, including a communique from Gen. John Pershing describing Johnson's brave acts after coming under attack by at least 12 German soldiers while on night sentry duty on May 15, 1918.
"While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Johnson mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties," the White House said in a statement. "When his fellow soldier was badly wounded, Private Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces. Private Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Displaying great courage, Private Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated."
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Sgt. Henry Johnson of the 369th Infantry Regiment was awarded France's highest award for valor. Now he will posthumously received the Medal of Honor.
Johnson joined the Army on June 5, 1917. He was assigned to C Company, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, an all-black National Guard unit that would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment.
The unit was ordered into battle in 1918, and Johnson and his unit were brigaded with a French Army colonial unit in front-line combat.
Johnson will be honored with the Medal of Honor for his actions on May 15, 1918, near the Tourbe and Aisne Rivers, northwest of Saint Menehoul, France.
According to information from the White House, Johnson and a fellow soldier were on night sentry duty when they were attacked by a German raiding party of at least 12 soldiers.
While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Johnson mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier was badly wounded, Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces.
Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. He held back the enemy force until they retreated.
For his valor, Johnson became one of the first Americans to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France's highest award for valor.
When Johnson returned home to his adopted state of New York after his tour of duty, he was unable to return to his pre-war job as a redcap porter at Albany's Union Station because of the severity of his combat injuries.
He died in July 1929 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.
Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, of the New York National Guard, will accept the Medal of Honor on Johnson's behalf.
Our View: Honor WWI hero, 95 years late
A statue of Henry Johnson is displayed in the Arbor Hill neighborhood in Albany. The secretary of defense has recommended awarding a posthumous Medal of Honor to the black soldier from upstate New York who saved a comrade while fighting off a German attack in France during World War I. (Photo: AP/Mike Groll)
Sgt. Henry Johnson could, nearly a century after he sustained injuries amid acts of heroism in the Great War, finally receive the Medal of Honor, the highest military award.
It is an honor our nation owes to the half-million black troops who fought for this country in World War I without the benefit of equal treatment at home, to the memory of Johnson and to our own legacy.
"Johnson should have received this recognition 95 years ago, and providing an exemption for him now is the right thing to do," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said Tuesday. Schumer has shepherded legislation that waives the five-year statute of limitations Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has recommended the posthumous award. The next step is up to President Barack Obama, who should quickly agree to honor a man who risked everything for a nation that all but denied his service, and champion a full review of others who history has forgotten.
The effort to ensure the nation properly paid tribute to Johnson's dedication and bravery started long ago.
In 1988, then-Rep. Joe DioGuardi, a conservative Republican whose district included parts of Ossining, New Rochelle, Yonkers and Mount Vernon, introduced similar legislation to put Johnson and World War II Seaman Dorie Miller on the track to receive the Medal of Honor. He worked for years on the issue with Rep. Mickey Leland of Texas, a Democrat who was head of the Congressional Black Caucus. (Leland died in a plane crash in 1989, during a humanitarian trip to Ethiopia.)
At the time, the Department of the Army and Department of the Navy opposed such action.
DioGuardi, in an interview Wednesday with the Editorial Board, recounted how he came to realize that of the half-million black men who served in World War I and million African-Americans in World War II, not a single one had received the nation's highest honor, though tales of legendary heroism abound. He first heard about how the country had overlooked Johnson and other war heroes from Leroy L. Ramsey, who worked for the state Department of Education on integrating Mount Vernon schools. As a New Yorker, DioGuardi said he was mystified by segregation and racism in the armed services.
In 1991, World War I Cpl. Freddie Stowers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor, after a Defense Department review advocated by Leland, DioGuardi and others. At that time, it felt like honors for Johnson and Miller were just around the corner.
Fix history's mistakes
Miller's story — as a cook-turned-gunner at Pearl Harbor — is well-known.
Amid the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller, assigned to the mess, dragged his mortally wounded captain off the deck, then manned a ship machine gun though he had never fired the gun before, he shot down four Japanese planes before running out of ammunition. He later died in battle at sea in 1943. A Navy ship was named after him the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor he's been portrayed in movies. Yet, he still has not been granted a much-deserved Medal of Honor.
Johnson, of Albany, was part of the all-black "Harlem Hellfighters." As part of the New York National Guard, he served under French command due to segregation. In 1918, he and a fellow soldier were on patrol in France when they were ambushed by German soldiers. They were severely outnumbered, and both sustained injuries. Johnson fought off the attackers and got his comrade to safety.
Johnson was awarded the Croix de Guerre, France's highest military medal. In 2003, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military honor.
Johnson returned to Albany after the war. In 1929, he died at age 32 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Johnson has no surviving relatives. Still, his memory and his heroism should not be forgotten or discounted. A Medal of Honor for Johnson and Miller are more than deserved. Decades later, we still need a full accounting of the heroism displayed by black troops who served their nation, even as they were deemed second-class citizens at home.
The Medal of Honor for our forgotten heroes would acknowledge their sacrifice, and help salve our nation's scars of racism and disenfranchisement, which continue to hurt us all.
WWI Hero Sgt. Henry Johnson Receives Long Overdue Medal of Honor
Almost a century after their service, Sgt. Henry Johnson* and Sgt. William Shemin were finally awarded the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony for their heroics in World War I. Both had been overlooked previously, though Johnson, an African American, was one of the first Americans to receive the Croix de Guerre avec Palme from the French government.
A fair bit of information about both soldiers can be found online, and while their bravery is beyond dispute, personal details about Sgt. Shemin are mostly accurate, while Sgt. Johnson’s are frequently distorted. As the genealogist who had the privilege of researching both of these Medal of Honor cases for the Army, I had the opportunity to seek out and steep myself in more than 1,300 pages of Sgt. Johnson’s paper trail, so I’d like to clarify some misconceptions.
- His full name was William Henry Johnson, but Sgt. Johnson preferred to go by his middle name of Henry and only occasionally used his full name for formal purposes, such as when he married. This is why, for instance, newspaper reports of his death can be found under both the names of Henry Johnson and William Henry Johnson.
- As seen here in his death certificate, Sgt. Johnson died on July 1, 1929 in Washington, D.C. and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Assertions that he died elsewhere (such as New York or Illinois) or on other dates are probably due to confusion with records of other soldiers with similar names.
- He was born in West Salem, a district of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The notion that he was born in Alexandria, Virginia likely stems from his profile in the book Rank and File: True Stories of the Great War by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., but is mistaken. Documents such as his World War I draft registration card demonstrate that Sgt. Johnson himself consistently reported West(ern) Salem/Winston-Salem as his place of birth.
(New York Abstract of WWI Military Service, Ancestry)
- Sgt. Johnson was born between 1887 and 1897. Such a range may sound strange to 21st century ears, but accuracy and consistency in dates is a relatively recent development, as is our emphasis on birthdays. In all likelihood, the soldier did not know his own date of birth, and his lack of certainty is reflected in his paper trail, though he mostly claimed March 15th or May 15th of various years.
- A close examination of his death certificate (above) will also reveal that Sgt. Johnson did not die from alcoholism as some claim. He suffered a number of conditions that worsened through the 1920s, but ultimately died from myocarditis.
- Nor is it true that he was neglected by the government. The article below, published on May 22, 1920, reveals that he was hospitalized at Walter Reed, and additional records show him receiving disability compensation and care at home and several medical facilities over the last decade of his life.
- Though he regrettably has no known living relatives, Sgt. Johnson’s courageous service was not entirely forgotten until now. In addition to the many who have campaigned vigorously on his behalf for the Medal of Honor since the 1990s, his admirers included Langston Hughes and fellow Medal of Honor recipient Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who aptly described him as “one of the five bravest Americans” to serve in the war.
* While it is customary in award situations to use the rank of the soldier at the time of the relevant incident, I have opted to refer to Henry Johnson by his highest attained rank.
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Your research concerning Henry Johnson is spot on. After reading the article after the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to him, I did some of my own research, and found exactly what you did, using ancestry.com, fold3, and newspapers.com. From newspapers.com I read articles, most of which inaccurately identified him as Henry Lincoln Johnson. I also found that he was identified as Henry Lincoln Johnson on Find A Grave, and contacted them twice via email, letting them know that Henry Johnson was never reflected as his name on official government records or correspondence, only in newspaper articles. I was completely rejected once, and ignored the second time when I sent a detailed correspondence via email to another of their email addresses. What surprised me more, was that Find A Grave is bought by Ancestry.com, which should be trying to provide accurate information to those doing research. Well, the bottom line is, if I couldn’t get Find A Grave, i.e. Ancestry.com to correct the error that they are perpetuating, maybe you can. Anyway, thanks for your research, and best regards.
I uncovered over 1,300 pages of documents about this soldier, but it’s an uphill battle convincing others that they’ve got it wrong. If you think the fact that FindaGrave won’t correct it is maddening, try looking at his Wikipedia page which some have tried to get updated. I find it very frustrating that (Wm) Henry Johnson is still out there under a fictional bio. He earned the Medal of Honor and we can’t even get his name right, much less all his other specifics. Thanks very much for your efforts. Maybe we’ll eventually make some progress on this front.
Two WWI Heroes Will Finally Be Awarded The Medal of Honor They Deserved
Finally, after almost a century since their brave feats during the First World War, two WWI heroes – Army Sergeant William Shemin and Army Private Henry Johnson – are to get the highest military honor they so long deserved — the Medal of Honor.
President Barack Obama will posthumously give the said military honor to these two WWI heroes in an awards ceremony set to take place on June 2.
Both the WWI heroes displayed extraordinary bravery while engaged in battle in France during the Great War. Army Sergeant Shemin, who was a Jew, ran through a raging battlefield thrice so that he could pull back his wounded comrades to safety. Meanwhile, Army Private Johnson fought off a German attack just so he could rescue a fellow member of his all-black regiment during the said conflict.
Campaigns for the awarding of the Medal of Honor to these two WWI heroes – who both hailed from New York – had been a long and arduous process. Their actions long merited the recognition but they may have been overlooked because of discrimination.
The Medal of Honor is awarded to Armed Forces members who display distinct gallantry.
Army Sergeant William Shemin
Johnson was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and moved to New York as a teenager. He enlisted in the Army, June 5, 1917, and was assigned to Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment – an all-black National Guard unit, which would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment.
Known as the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, was ordered to the front lines in 1918. Johnson and his unit were attached to a French army command in the vicinity of the Tourbe and Aisne Rivers, northwest of Saint Menehoul, France.
While on night sentry duty, May 15, 1918, Johnson and a fellow Soldier, Pvt. Needham Roberts, received a surprise attack by a German raiding party of at least 12 enemy soldiers.
While under intense fire and despite his own wounds, Johnson kept an injured Needham from being taken prisoner. He came forward from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and gravely wounded, Johnson continued fighting until the enemy retreated.
For his valor, Johnson became one of the first Americans to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest award for valor.
Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002, with the official ceremony taking place in 2003.
Johnson died in 1929 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. He will be the second black Soldier to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in World War I. The first was Cpl. Freddie Stowers.
Since Johnson has no next of kin, Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, of the New York National Guard, is to attend the White House ceremony and accept the Medal of Honor on Johnson’s behalf. (army.mil)
Army Private Henry Johnson
Shemin was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, Oct. 14, 1896. He graduated from the New York State Ranger School in 1914, and went on to work as a forester in Bayonne.
Shemin enlisted in the Army, Oct. 2, 1917. Upon completion of basic training at Camp Greene, North Carolina, he was assigned as a rifleman to Company G, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces, in France.
While serving as a rifleman during the Aisne-Marne Offensive, Aug. 7-9, 1918, he left the cover of his platoon’s trench and crossed open space, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue the wounded.
After officers and senior noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Shemin took command of the platoon until he was wounded by shrapnel and a machine-gun bullet, which pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear.
He was hospitalized for three months and then received light duty as part of the Army occupation in Germany and Belgium.
For his injuries, he received the Purple Heart and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Dec. 29, 1919.
Shemin was honorably discharged in August 1919, and went on to receive a degree from the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University. After graduation, he started a greenhouse and landscaping business in Bronx, New York, where he raised three children.
Johnson said that he was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on July 15, 1892 when he registered for the World War I draft, but used other dates on other documents and may not have known the exact date of his birth.    He moved to Albany, New York when he was in his early teens and worked as a redcap porter at the Albany Union Station on Broadway.  
Johnson enlisted in the United States Military on June 5, 1917, joining the all-black New York National Guard 15th Infantry Regiment, which, when mustered into Federal service, was redesignated as the 369th Infantry Regiment based in Harlem.
The 369th Infantry joined the 185th Infantry Brigade upon arrival in France, but was relegated to labor service duties instead of combat training. The 185th Infantry Brigade was in turn assigned on January 5, 1918, to the 93rd Infantry Division.
Although General John J. Pershing wished to keep the U.S. Army autonomous, he "loaned" the 369th to the 161st Division of the French Army. Supposedly, the unreported and unofficial reason he was willing to detach the African-American regiments from U.S. command was that vocal white U.S. soldiers refused to fight alongside black troops. These regiments suffered considerable harassment by white U.S. soldiers and even denigration by the American Expeditionary Force headquarters, which went so far as to release the notorious pamphlet Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops, which "warned" French civilian authorities of the alleged inferior nature and supposed tendencies of African-American troops to commit sexual assaults.  Johnson arrived in France on New Year's Day, 1918.
The French Army and people had no such problem and were happy about and welcoming to the reinforcements.  The 369th Infantry regiment, later nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters", was among the first to arrive in France, and among the most highly decorated when it returned. The 369th was an all-black unit under the command of mostly white officers, including their commander, Colonel William Hayward. The idea of a black New York National Guard regiment had first been put forward by Charles W. Fillmore, a black New Yorker. Governor Charles Seymour Whitman, inspired by the brave showing of the black 10th Cavalry in Mexico, authorized the project. He appointed Colonel Hayward to carry out the task of organizing the unit, and Hayward gave Fillmore a commission as a captain in the 15th Infantry Regiment, New York National Guard. The 15th New York Infantry Regiment became the 369th United States Infantry Regiment prior to engaging in combat in France.
The 369th got off to a rocky departure from the United States, making three attempts over a period of months to sail for France before finally getting out of sight of land. Even then, their transport, which had stopped and anchored before it could get out of the harbor due to a sudden snowstorm, was struck by another ship due to poor visibility. The captain of the transport, the Pocahontas, wanted to turn back, much to the dismay of his passengers. The by-now angry and impatient members of the 369th, led by Hayward, took a very dim view of any further delay. Since damage to the ship was well above the waterline, the ship's captain admitted that there was no danger of sinking. Hayward then informed the captain that he saw no reason to turn back, aside from cowardice. Hayward's men repaired the damage themselves and the ship sailed on. According to Hayward's notes, they "landed at Brest. Right side up" on December 27, 1917. They acquitted themselves well once they finally got to France. However, some time passed before they saw combat.
The French Army assigned Johnson's regiment to Outpost 20 on the edge of the Argonne Forest in the Champagne region of France, equipping it with French rifles and helmets.  While on observation post duty on the night of May 14, 1918, Johnson came under attack by a large German raiding party, which may have numbered up to 36 soldiers. Using grenades, the butt of his rifle, a bolo knife and his bare fists, Johnson repelled the Germans, killing four while wounding others, rescuing Needham Roberts from capture and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. Johnson suffered 21 wounds during the ordeal.   This act of valor earned him the nickname of "Black Death", as a sign of respect for his prowess in combat.
The story of Johnson's exploits first came to national attention in an article by Irvin S. Cobb entitled "Young Black Joe" published in the August 24, 1918 Saturday Evening Post. 
Returning home, now-Sergeant Johnson participated (with his regiment) in a victory parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City in February 1919.  Johnson was then paid to take part in a series of lecture tours. He appeared one evening in St. Louis, and instead of delivering the expected tale of racial harmony in the trenches, revealed the abuse that black soldiers had suffered, such as white soldiers refusing to share trenches with blacks. Soon afterwards, a warrant was issued for Johnson's arrest for wearing his uniform beyond the prescribed date of his commission and paid lecturing engagements dried up. 
The French government awarded Johnson the Croix de guerre with a special citation and a golden palm.  He was the first American to receive the award.  
In June 1996, Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart by President Bill Clinton. In February 2003, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second highest award, was presented to Herman A. Johnson, one of the Tuskegee Airmen  John Howe, a Vietnam War veteran who had campaigned tirelessly for recognition for Johnson, and U.S. Army Major General Nathaniel James, President of the 369th Veterans' Association, were present at the ceremony in Albany.  At the time, Herman Johnson mistakenly believed he was the son of Henry Johnson. 
Medal of Honor Edit
On May 14, 2015, the White House announced that Johnson would receive the Medal of Honor posthumously, presented by President Barack Obama.  In the June 2 ceremony, Johnson's medal was received on his behalf by Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. Obama said, "The least we can do is to say, 'We know who you are, we know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.'" 
The official citation reads: 
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to
Private Henry Johnson
United States Army
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:
Private Johnson distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a member of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, American Expeditionary Forces, during combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the Western Front in France on May 15, 1918. Private Johnson and another soldier were on sentry duty at a forward outpost when they received a surprise attack from a German raiding party consisting of at least 12 soldiers. While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Private Johnson mounted a brave retaliation, resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier was badly wounded, Private Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces. Private Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and gravely wounded himself, Private Johnson continued fighting and took his Bolo knife and stabbed it through an enemy soldier's head. Displaying great courage, Private Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated. Private Johnson's extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.
Veterans Bureau records show that a "permanent and total disability" rating was granted to Johnson on September 16, 1927, as a result of his tuberculosis. Additional Veterans Bureau records refer to Johnson receiving monthly compensation and regular visits by Veterans Bureau medical personnel until his death. 
Johnson died on July 1, 1929, in Washington, D.C., of myocarditis.  He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on July 6, 1929.
In 1919, co-founder of the American Legion Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of former United States President Theodore Roosevelt, referred to Johnson as one of the "five bravest Americans" to have served in World War I. 
Interest in obtaining fitting recognition for Johnson grew during the 1970s and 1980s. In November 1991, a monument was erected in Albany, New York's Washington Park in his honor, and a section of Northern Boulevard was renamed Henry Johnson Boulevard.
In December 2004, the Postal facility at 747 Broadway was renamed the "United States Postal Service Henry Johnson Annex".
On September 4, 2007, the Brighter Choice Foundation in Albany, New York, dedicated the Henry Johnson Charter School, with Johnson's granddaughter in attendance.
A 1918 commercial poster honoring Johnson's wartime heroics was the subject of a 2012 episode of the PBS television series History Detectives. 
As of December 3, 2014, the national defense bill included a provision, added by Senator Chuck Schumer, to award Johnson the Medal of Honor. 
For many years, it was thought that Herman Archibald Johnson was the son of Henry Johnson. In tracking Henry Johnson's genealogy prior to his being awarded the Medal of Honor, however, it was discovered that there was no family connection.   The Army was quoted as saying, "While we appreciate the Johnson family fighting for the award and keeping the memory and valorous acts of Henry Johnson alive, we regretfully cannot recognize them as PNOK," or primary next of kin. 
In December 2014, the City School District of Albany established a Junior Reserve officers' Training Program (JROTC) at Albany High School named the Henry Johnson Battalion in honor of him.  The program currently enrolls over 100 cadets.
In 2017, Albany-area PBS station WMHT aired a documentary about Henry Johnson entitled "Henry Johnson: A Tale of Courage."