Henry Johnson, Albany's WWI hero, gets new honor a century after battle (Times Union)

The following article originally appeared in the Times Union on May 13, 2018.

Silver medallion cast for 100th anniversary of soldier's famous fight against German soldiers

By Steve Hughes

 Draft of the 3D sculpt for the Ferris Coin Silver round commemorative medal for Sgt. Henry Johnson. The sculpt is based on original artwork by Chris Costello. (Provided)

Draft of the 3D sculpt for the Ferris Coin Silver round commemorative medal for Sgt. Henry Johnson. The sculpt is based on original artwork by Chris Costello. (Provided)

Henry Johnson was one of the United State’s first heroes of World War I and he was among the last to be recognized by his country.

In Albany, Johnson’s story is legendary, retold over and over in recent decades as his son and veterans groups and then politicians fought to win for him the recognition he deserved for fighting off nearly two dozen German soldiers and saving a fellow soldier May 15, 1918 in France.

Tara Johnson said she hopes someday her grandfather’s story is made into a movie that shows the different layers of the man beyond that one morning in France. He was a man who served his country, spoke out against racism, suffered the aftermath of war but kept his sense of humor, she said.

“I think this is a story that needs to be told,” she said.

Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of Johnson’s battle in France’s Argonne Forest.

To mark the milestone, long-time Albany coin dealer Ferris Coin commissioned 500 commemorative coin-shaped medallions for the battle that nearly 100 years later earned Johnson the Medal of Honor, the American military’s highest decoration.

It took 97 years for Johnson’s valor to be fully recognized because of a combination of poor record keeping and Jim Crow-era racism, only to eventually be pushed into the light after a drawn-out effort by Albany-area veterans and family members.

The medallion, expected to be unveiled next month, will be nearly pure silver, said Mike Dozois, one of three partners at Ferris Coin.

Ferris decided to create the medallion to honor Johnson and the city where Ferris Coin stood for more than 85 years, Dozois said. The business moved last year from Central Avenue to Wolf Road.

“We’re pretty excited,” he said. “The artist worked really hard on this and we’re proud to be a part of it.”

They held a contest that drew more than 50 submissions from around the country. The winner was Chris Costello, a Massachusetts-based artist.

The first 10 coins will be awarded to winners of Albany’s Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service.

Number 369 will go to the 369th Veterans Association. The remainder will be available for sale and a portion of the proceeds will go toward supporting the 369th veterans, Dozois said.

Tara Johnson said she was happy to hear that a local business was working to keep her grandfather’s story alive.

“My concern was to make sure the 369th and my grandfather’s image were protected,” she said. “I think a contest was an exciting thing to do.”

Henry Johnson moved to Albany as a child and worked various jobs, including as a railroad porter. He enlisted on June 5, 1917.

On May 15, 1918, Johnson was standing sentry in the Argonne alongside Private Needham Roberts.

The inexperienced pair had drawn the midnight to 4 a.m. shift, charged with watching the edge of the French lines. The two were members of the 369th Infantry Regiment, an all-black unit that had been integrated into the French Army because white American troops would not fight alongside them.

An hour into their watch, a German sniper began firing at them. Johnson later told an interviewer that he laid out a box of grenades nearby, preparing for further trouble.

During the attack, Roberts was seriously wounded by a German grenade. He was unable to do more than hand Johnson additional grenades as the Germans advanced.

Using grenades, a rifle and finally a large machete-like knife, Johnson fought off close to two dozen German soldiers and saved Roberts from being captured. The final bloody tally is uncertain but the accepted narrative is that Johnson, who stood only 5-foot-4, killed at least four Germans and wounded as many as 20 more. For his part, Johnson suffered 21 wounds in the hour-long fight, most of them from knives and bayonets.

The skirmish made Johnson one of the war’s first American heroes and earned him the nickname “Black Death.”

In an interview months later, he seemed largely unfazed by what he had done, summing up the tale matter-of-factly.

“That’s about all. There wasn’t so much to it,” he said.

In recognition of his bravery, France awarded him the Croix de Guerre with the gold palm, the country’s highest military honor. Johnson became the first American to receive the award. Back home, his story was used as a recruiting tool to draw more black Americans to enlist.

When the 369th, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, was sent home at the end of the war, they were greeted as heroes with a parade in New York City. They had spent 191 days at the front, the most of any American unit in the war.

But the goodwill toward Johnson was short-lived in the Jim Crow era. He kicked off a promotional speaking tour in St. Louis after detailing the discrimination that black troops faced during the war, including being treated as servants, rather than soldiers. He struggled to hold a job because of his physical limitations from war wounds. His wife left him and he fell into alcoholism. He died July 1, 1929 at Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., from myocarditis, a type of heart disease.

For 97 years, Johnson’s story was incompletely recognized, despite being on par with other famous American war heroes’ exploits like those of Sgt. Alvin York and Major Charles Whittlesey. The story itself was full of errors, as researcher Megan Smolenyak discovered while doing research for the U.S. Army to support Johnson’s nomination for the Medal of Honor.

It was assumed that Johnson had not received a pension or the health care afforded to other veterans. Neither of those were true, according to Smolenyak’s research. His birth place, birth date, where he enlisted and where he died have all been cited differently, depending on the source of the information.

Even his gravesite was lost for a time. His family originally believed he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Albany. Decades later his gravesite was discovered at Arlington National Cemetery under his birth name, William Henry Johnson.

But Johnson’s legacy lived on. And a relentless push by Albany veterans and his son, Herman Johnson, forced the country to recognize Johnson properly.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded him a Purple Heart. In 2002, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. But the nation’s highest recognition, the Medal of Honor, eluded his family.

Finally, a staffer for Sen. Charles Schumer discovered a letter from Gen. John J. Pershing, praising Johnson’s actions. That recognition of Johnson’s valor from the leader of American troops in World War I fulfilled the final requirement and in 2015, President Barack Obama added Johnson to the list of Medal of Honor winners.

In a final twist to the cloudy story of Johnson, Smolenyak discovered that Herman Johnson had a different man’s name listed as his father on his birth certificate. The honor can only be presented to the honorees or their direct descendants. That meant that the Medal of Honor was presented to Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard, rather than Herman Johnson’s daughter, Tara Johnson.

His great-grandson, Demarqus Townsend, of Toledo, Ohio, served eight years as a Marine and was deployed to Iraq. In an interview with PBS before Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor, Townsend reflected on Johnson and the possibility of finally receiving the award.

“He wasn’t a glory seeker. He had one mission, and that was to bring Needham Roberts, his buddy, his fellow soldier, back. That’s why it’s so important that he gets his due,” Townsend said.

 

 

Duncan Crary