Harlem, NY — A hundred years after The Great War began, there’s still one U.S. veteran who’s fighting. He and his supporters are trying to win a war for recognition. Despite the fact that Sgt. Henry Johnson almost single-handedly carried out one of the most heroic acts in the history of the U.S. military, he never received the nation’s highest honor, simply because of his skin color.
Now, however, there’s a movement underway in Congress to have Johnson fully recognized for valor. But with the make up of Congress having just been changed in last week’s election, it remains an open question as to whether or not full recongition will soon be given to the most distinguished soldier in the regiment dubbed The Harlem Hellfighters.
The 1,400 or so soldiers who comprised the 369th Regiment may be the most remarkable group of men you may never have heard of.
“The worst thing the country did to them,” Max Brooks, author of the graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters, said in an interview with PIX11 News, “was after the war, when their memory was intentionally ignored.”
There is a New York State highway sign next to the 135th Street exit in Harlem that points out that the adjacent street has been officially renamed The 369th Harlem Hellfighters Drive, in honor of the storied group of enlistees. They were the first Americans of any color to fight in World War I.
“They were first in everything,” said Michael Mowatt-Wynn, Ph.D, chief historian and CEO of the Harlem and The Heights Historical Society.
“More days in combat than any other American unit,” Brooks pointed out, “[and] the first unit of any color to reach the Rhine River.”
They also never lost an inch of ground during their entire wartime deployment.
Despite that, as Mowatt-Wynn explained, “They were reviled by the American [government], but they were accepted by the French, [who] loved the exotic element they brought over there.”
Specifically, the U.S. government placed the Hellfighters, a regiment of volunteers from throughout New York State, under French command. The African-Americans were given French helmets, rifles and ammunition, and often took orders in French.
The soldiers based in Harlem gave back two invaluable gifts to the French: their freedom from an intense German Army, and a musical style the likes of which the Europeans had never heard, and never wanted to forget: jazz.
The 369th’s band toured France and other parts of Europe in the months between first arriving on the continent and being declared combat ready.
“To this day,” said Mowatt-Wynn, “[they were] the most outstanding musicians of their day.”
The band toured Europe led by, coincidentally, James Reese Europe. He was, at the time, a household name in ragtime and jazz so big that future legends
Eubie Blake, Bill Bojangles Robinson and future Puerto Rican megastar Rafael Hernandez jumped at the chance to join the 369th Regiment Band.
But that band was also part of a band of brothers. Their fighting acumen came to be renowned and feared.
“The term ‘Hellfighters,'” said Mowatt-Wynn, “was coined not by the Americans, or the Allies, but by the Germans, because these guys fought like hell.”
The Hellfighters, who were also nicknamed Men of Bronze, helped to win the war with amazing heroics, like those of the unit’s most storied soldier.
“The story of Henry Johnson,” said Brooks, “to me is the most fascinating, because if he had been white, he would have been America’s most celebrated warrior.”
Johnson was on night patrol when a German unit raided, leaving him with 21 wounds. Still, Johnson fought off the attack almost single-handedly with his rifle, which he used as a club when it ran out of bullets. When the rifle butt broke, he used his bolo knife, to kill four Germans and wound at least twenty, who retreated in fear.
Brooks, in his graphic novel, is very clear about why he’s publicizing Johnson’s story. “Ya think it’ll be enough to get me my medal a’ honor?” Johnson asks in the book, days after his heroic act.
Also shortly after his heroic act, the French government awarded Johnson its highest honor, the Croix de Guerre, with a leaf cluster and star.
For its part, the United States ended up giving Johnson his own, chauffered car in the victory parade in New York in September 1919. But it gave Johnson little else. No awards, no benefits.
“[It] shocks me he is not part of the national fabric,” said Brooks in an interview with PIX11 News.
Johnson died, penniless, 11 years after the war.
It wasn’t until seven decades later that his son, Herman Johnson, a Tuskeegee Airman hero in World War II, received, in his father’s memory, the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award.
As for the highest, the Medal of Honor, “There’s no two ways about it,” said Mowatt-Wynn. “In any other circumstances, he would’ve gotten it at that point.”
At this point, however, standing in the way of the Congressional Medal of Honor is Congress itself.
It can only bestow the award within five years of the heroic act. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) led the U.S. Senate in suspending that rule, but will a House of Representatives known for gridlock?
The answer to that question comes from the member of congress from Henry Johnson’s hometown, Albany. “When we go back [to Washington],” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D – Albany/Schenectady), “we’ll start to set an agenda. I hope people can come together to posthumously recognize a hero.”
Posted: Nov 12, 2014 12:32 PM EST
&amp;lt;em class=”wnDate”&amp;gt;Wednesday, November 12, 2014 12:32 PM EST&amp;lt;/em&amp;gt;Updated: Nov 12, 2014 12:33 PM EST &amp;lt;em class=”wnDate”&amp;gt;Wednesday, November 12, 2014 12:33 PM EST&amp;lt;/em&amp;gt;