Republican William Hayward: Commanding Officer of the Harlem Hellfighters

On June 2, President Barack Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor on Henry Johnson (1897-1929) for his heroism during World War I when he had been a private in the all-African-American 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed “the Harlem Hellfighters.” The award was made possible when an historian working with U.S. Senator Charles Schumer’s office, found a contemporaneous account of his heroism in a letter by his commanding officer, Col. William Hayward, printed in the September 4, 1918 Congressional Record. (Hayward wrote the letter to Johnson’s wife as Johnson was recuperating from his wounds. It is reprinted in full in Emmet J. Scott’s 1919 book, The American Negro in the World War here. The dramatic story of Johnson was well known in the United States within hours of the event. It was named “The Battle of Henry Johnson.”
That Johnson, who died in 1929, was buried in Arlington Cemetery came to light in 2001 by a Tuskegee Airman named Johnson who believed at the time that he was his relative.  See here and here. Johnson’s receipt of the Medal of Honor marks, presumably, the last chapter of the story of the Harlem Hellfighters.
By James Thunder | July 29, 2015

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