ARLINGTON, Va. – Herman Johnson always believed that his father, a heroic black World War I soldier who single-handedly fended off a German attack, lay in a pauper’s grave unrecognized by the government.
On Thursday, the 85-year-old Johnson saw the newly found grave at Arlington National Ceremony where Henry Johnson was buried more than 70 years ago – with full military honors.
With New York Gov. George Pataki at his side, an emotional Herman Johnson placed a wreath of chrysanthemums and carnations beside his father’s white headstone as a lone military bugler played “Taps.”
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Herman Johnson. “I’m extremely happy to know that my father is in a respectable grave.”
The younger Johnson, Pataki and New York military officials are hoping the find breathes new life into their push to get Henry Johnson recognized with the Medal of Honor, an oversight they believe is due at least in part to race.
Johnson, from Albany, N.Y., joined the Army National Guard’s “Harlem Hellfighter” unit during World War I. Because of strict segregation rules at the time, the black American unit fought under the French in Europe. On May 14, 1918, Johnson fought off a German raiding party with a rifle and later with a knife after he ran out of ammunition. Wounded 21 times by the Germans, he nonetheless rescued a wounded comrade. France awarded Johnson its highest honor, the Croix de Guerre. He was the first American to receive the French accolade and was cited by former President Theodore Roosevelt as one of the five bravest Americans during World War I, Pataki said.
Yet, Johnson died in 1929, in his mid-30s, a poor alcoholic undecorated by his own country.
“Some people ask me if it’s racism that he didn’t receive the Medal of Honor. I say, ‘Certainly,’ ” Herman Johnson said. “What he did ought to be honored. I’m not condemning anyone … but we have a chance to make it right.”
The Medal of Honor application, submitted in 1996, was approved by then-Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera in 2001. But Joint Chiefs Chairman Harry Shelton did not concur. The matter is still open and could be reconsidered.
Herman Johnson served with the legendary Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and lived in Kansas City, where he worked in real estate.
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