Ceremony Marks 100th Anniversary Of Henry Johnson's Epic WWI Battle (WAMC)

The following story was originally broadcast on WAMC Northeast Public Radio on May 15, 2018.

 Ferris Coin Co., of Albany, N.Y., commissioned the limited run of silver coin-shaped “medals” which will be available in June and will go on pre-sale shortly.

Ferris Coin Co., of Albany, N.Y., commissioned the limited run of silver coin-shaped “medals” which will be available in June and will go on pre-sale shortly.

Today was the 100th anniversary of distinguished war veteran Henry Johnson's heroics in battle in France. WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas was in Albany’s Washington Park as officials remembered the native Medal of Honor winner.

Sgt. Henry Johnson enlisted in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters. Sent overseas, Johnson suffered 21 wounds and rescued fellow soldier Needham Roberts while singlehandedly repelling an enemy raid in France on May 15th, 1918.

At the Henry Johnson statue in Washington Park, Albany County Legislature Chairman Andrew Joyce paid tribute. "Johnson exposed himself to enemy fire to rescue his fellow Harlem Hellfighters. The red cap porter from Albany pulled out his last remaining weapon, a weighty bolo knife, and smashed it into the skull of a German, saving Roberts’ life and causing many of the remaining Germans to retreat. Henry Johnson killed four Germans and wounded an estimated 10 to 20 more that morning. He rescued his fellow-soldier from the arms of the enemy and prevented the Germans from capturing intelligence and breaking through the lines. Henry Johnson's actions led to President Theodore Roosevelt to call him one of the five bravest Americans to serve in World War I."

The day after the battle, Johnson received the French military’s highest recognition, the Croix de Guerre. 

To mark the latest milestone, a long-time Albany coin dealer commissioned the striking of 500 commemorative coin-shaped medallions. In March, Ferris Coin kicked off a nationwide competition to design the obverse and reverse sides of the medal. Chris Costello's designs were chosen for both sides of the coin. Costello’s artwork has appeared on 23 U.S. coins and medals, including one Congressional Gold Medal.

Micheal Dozois owns Ferris Coin.   "On the obverse, which is the front, depicts Henry Johnson in the Argonne Forest, where the battle of Henry Johnson took place. On the reverse of the coin is gonna be a depiction of Albany City Hall. We're gonna be making 500 1-ounce silver coins, 10 of 'em gonna be donated to the city of Albany, and the rest will be available for collectors."

After World War I Johnson returned to Albany, where historians say he died, destitute, in 1929, at age 32. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

It wasn't until 1996 that Johnson was awarded the Purple Heart.   He received the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. In September 2014, New York Senator Chuck Schumer spearheaded a push that resulted in Johnson receiving a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor in June 2015.  County Legislator Wanda Willingham: "There've been a total of 3,500 members of the armed forces who have received a Congressional Medal of Honor in 155 years, but only 89, or just 2 percent, have gone to African-Americans, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Henry Johnson is one of those 89. He's also one of only three Albany County residents known to have received the Medal of Honor."

Johnson's Medal of Honor is on permanent display in Harlem at the 369th Division headquarters.

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  • Ferris Coin Co., of Albany, N.Y., commissioned the limited run of silver coin-shaped “medals” which will be available in June and will go on pre-sale shortly. Interested buyers can reserve their spot to purchase by entering their contact information at ferriscoin.com/henry-johnson or by calling the shop at (518) 434-3860.
Duncan Crary