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Henry Lincoln Johnson
1897 – July 5, 1929
Soldier


While most Americans have never heard of this man, his is quite possibly the most compelling soldier's story you will ever hear and one which deserves to be told over and over again.

Henry Johnson was born in Alexandria, Virginia moved to Albany, New York when he was in his early teens. He worked as a redcap porter at the Albany Union Station on Broadway. Johnson enlisted in the Army June 5, 1917, joining the all-black New York National Guard unit, the 369th Infantry Regiment, based in Harlem. Assigned to the French command in World War I, Johnson arrived in France on New Year’s Day, 1918. While on guard duty on May 14, 1918, Private Johnson came under attack by a German raider party. Johnson displayed uncommon heroism when, using his rifle and a bolo knife, he repelled the Germans, thereby rescuing a comrade from capture and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers.

In the wee hours of May 14, 1918, a German raiding party of at least two dozen soldiers operating in the Argonne Forest, set out to capture American soldiers. The Germans came upon a post occupied by Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, and surprised the newly-armed Americans. Johnson was immediately wounded and Roberts was captured. Johnson then went after the German raiders, firing his Lebel rifle until it jammed, then using it to club the enemy until it broke in half.

Johnson managed to grab a grenade from one of the Germans, which he threw into the raiders, killing several of them. He then pulled his knife and dragged the disabled Roberts back to their post, still fighting off Germans along the way.

When French troops arrived a few hours later, they found Johnson and Roberts inside their post laughing and singing songs. They also found dead and dying German soldiers strewn about the ground.

Johnson sustained 21 separate wounds during the fight.

Since Sgt. Johnson's unit was comprised solely of black troops, at the time they were not allowed to fight with the U.S. forces. Thus the 369th, known as the Harlem Hellfighters was attached to the 16th Division of the French 4th Army. Johnson from Brooklyn, New York was forced to fight under the French flag though he volunteered for the U.S. Army.

Because of Sgt. Johnson's super-human deeds and self-less determination to save his comrade Needham Roberts, France awarded him that nation's highest military honor, the French Croix de Guere with Gold Palm. The citation for the award reads as follows:

Johnson, Henry (13348), private in company C, being on double sentry duty during the night and having been assaulted by a group composed of at least one dozen Germans, shot and disabled one of them and grievously wounded two others with his bolo. In spite of three wounds with pistol bullets and grenades at the beginning of the fight, this man ran to the assistance of his wounded comrade who was about to be carried away prisoner by the enemy, and continued to fight up to the retreat of the Germans. He has given a beautiful example of courage and activity.

Upon Johnson's return to the United States, he received a ticker tape parade along New York City's Fifth Avenue. After hearing his story, former President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Johnson to be "one of the five bravest men who fought in World War I."

While France saw fit to bestow their highest honor upon Johnson, his own country has yet to do the same. Eighty years later, as directed by Governor Pataki, the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs submitted an official Congressional Medal of Honor nomination on Johnson's behalf.

In 2001, Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera approved Johnson's nomination for the CMH. However, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Henry Shelton recommended that he not receive the award due to "failure to follow procedure." Despite that setback, Gov. Pataki continued to petition President Bush to award Johnson the CMH, but Bush has not responded.

The fact that Johnson never received the CMH is truly maddening when you consider how another American was given the award. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was awarded the CMH for stealing away from Corregidor in the middle of the night and leaving his men behind, only to be starved and tortured by the Japanese. However, Johnson fought off between 20 and 30 Imperial German soldiers in order to save his fellow soldier, sustaining numerous wounds in the process, and his efforts are largely ignored by his own country.

Though the U.S. government has never recognized Johnson's bravery with the CMH, they did see fit to use him to help recruit young black men into the Army. They not only paraded him about in 1918, but used his image in a 1976 recruiting poster which declared: "Johnson left a trail of destruction a half mile long."

Sadly, unable to continue his job as a porter on the railroad because of his wounds, he became destitute and an alcoholic. He died in an Albany, NY Veteran's hospital separated from his wife and family at the age of 32. Until fairly recently, Johnson's son did not even know where his dad was buried.

It was a shame that in 1917, when Henry Lincoln Johnson walked into the Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn and signed up to fight for his country, that he was never allowed to fight under his own flag. It was also a shame that like many soldiers, Johnson had great difficulty returning to his life at home because of physical and undoubtedly emotional wounds. It is an even further shame that after 90 years, this man who gave himself to his country has not received the same recognition that others have while sacrificing much less.

The story of Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson is one worthy of a Hollywood war movie starring an Oscar cast. It is also truly an American tragedy. Unfortunately, this is an ongoing tragedy.

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