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After 85 Years, a Medal for a Wartime Hero

February 14, 2003

After 85 Years, a Medal for a Wartime Hero


ALBANY, Feb. 13 — A black World War I private who fought off German soldiers and saved a comrade in 1918 was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross today, eight years after a coalition of New York veterans' groups, military organizations, historians and politicians began seeking recognition for him.

The private, Henry Lincoln Johnson, was honored during a ceremony at the Pentagon in which Lt. Gen. Roger C. Shultz presented the medal to Mr. Johnson's only surviving son, Herman A. Johnson. Senator Charles E. Schumer and Representatives Michael R. McNulty and Charles B. Rangel made remarks to about 60 people attending the ceremony, including relatives and black veterans.

"Though it took 85 years, it's still great whenever you get it," said Mr. Johnson, 86, a real estate agent from Kansas City, Mo. "I think my father would have been extremely happy. He knew what he did — we all did — and he was not recognized for it because of the discrimination at the time." The criteria for the medal include "extraordinary heroism" involving "risk of life."

His father was slight, only about 5 feet 4 inches tall. He grew up in Albany and worked as a redcap porter at Union Station here before the war. He joined the New York National Guard in 1917, and became part of a black regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters, that fought in France.

During the early hours of May 15, 1918, Private Johnson and another soldier, Needham Roberts, were on sentry duty when more than a dozen Germans attacked their outpost. Private Johnson fought them and was wounded 21 times, but managed to pursue the enemy soldiers as they fled with Private Roberts as a captive. He overcame the Germans, and carried Private Roberts back to safety.

"He was a private, he was a nobody," said John L. Howe, a Vietnam veteran who has led the efforts to recognize Mr. Johnson. "When he was in the trench line, he was seriously wounded, and that fulfilled his obligation as a soldier. He didn't have to do any more, but he rallied and chased down the enemy."

For his actions, the French awarded Private Johnson the Croix de Guerre with Palm for bravery, but, like many other black veterans, he was not comparably recognized by his own government.

The National Guard did promote him to sergeant, and when he returned from he was in a ticker-tape parade in New York City. Later, he was celebrated as a hero in national advertisements for postwar stamps.

Over the next decade, Mr. Johnson's fame faded, and he died largely forgotten in 1929. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Mr. Johnson's legacy, however, was to inspire younger generations of black men who learned of his actions through stories and history books. In 1995, Mr. Howe and other admirers started a campaign to seek recognition for Mr. Johnson.

In 1996, he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart for his injuries, and his supporters are trying to have him awarded a Medal of Honor, the nation's highest honor.

Paul Boyce, a spokesman for the Army, said that he was not familiar with the specifics of Mr. Johnson's case, but that the Army has recently been reviewing the service records of black and Asian-American soldiers "to determine whether their acts of bravery were appropriately recognized at that time."

Senator Schumer vowed today to continue fighting for a Medal of Honor for Mr. Johnson, but expressed satisfaction that he had been awarded the cross.

"It's the culmination of years of work by Albany veterans groups — both black and white — to rectify an enormous injustice," he said. "There was hardly a dry eye in the house."

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