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Hagel recommends Medal of Honor for World War I hero

Aug. 27, 2014 - 07:08AM   |  
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ALBANY, N.Y. — The secretary of defense has recommended a posthumous Medal of Honor for a black World War I soldier from upstate New York who saved a comrade while fighting off a German attack in France, Sen. Charles Schumer said Tuesday.

Chuck Hagel has sent Congress a letter saying Sgt. Henry Johnson should receive the nation’s highest military decoration for bravery in combat, Schumer said. The railroad porter from Albany was serving in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment when he killed or wounded several enemy soldiers while saving a fellow soldier from capture.

The president gets the final word on the medal request, which also requires passage of special legislation in Congress because Johnson’s actions were more than five years ago. Schumer said he’ll sponsor the legislation that would exempt Johnson from the Medal of Honor rules specifying that heroic actions have to have taken place within five years to be considered.

“Johnson should have received this recognition 95 years ago, and providing an exemption for him now is the right thing to do,” said Schumer, a New York Democrat.

If approved, Johnson would become the 89th black soldier to receive the Medal of Honor and the second for heroism during World War I, according to the Mount Pleasant, South Carolina-based Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

The Virginia-born Johnson was working as a train station porter when he enlisted in the unit that became known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” Around midnight on May 15, 1918, he was standing guard duty with another soldier when they were attacked by about two dozen Germans.

Both Americans were wounded, but despite his injuries, the 5-foot-4 Johnson fought off the attack, using his knife and rifle to kill or wound several of the enemy who were trying to drag his comrade away.

His actions earned him one of France’s highest military medals, but historians believe rampant Jim Crow-era racism at a time when the services were segregated kept Johnson from receiving American military honors. In 2003, Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military honor.

Johnson returned to Albany after the war. Plagued by his war wounds, he died a destitute alcoholic at age 32 at a veterans hospital in Illinois in 1929 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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