A member of the best-known African-American unit of World War I, popularly known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” is scheduled to receive a posthumous Medal of Honor on Friday from President Barack Obama for heroism during combat.
The Medal of Honor will be bestowed upon Private Henry Johnson for his actions while serving as a member of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, American Expeditionary Forces, according to a White House news release.
Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson, New York National Guard, will join the president at the White House to accept the Medal of Honor on Private Johnson’s behalf. Army Sgt. William Shemin, who was Jewish and from the Bronx, NYC, is also scheduled to be honored for rushing three times across a battlefield to pull wounded comrades to safety in August 1918.
Nearly 100 years ago, then-Private Johnson, a train station porter from Albany, distinguished himself during combat near the Tourbe and Aisne Rivers, northwest of Saint Menehoul, France, on May 15, 1918.
From the White House:
While on night sentry duty on May 15, 1918, Private Johnson and a fellow Soldier received a surprise attack by a German raiding party consisting of at least 12 soldiers.
While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Johnson mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier was badly wounded, Private Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces.
Private Johnson [put] himself [in] grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Displaying great courage, Private Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated.
The “Harlem Hellfighters” were a group of brothers serving as U.S. soldiers amid intense racism. “The French called them the Men of Bronze out of respect, and the Germans called them the Harlem Hellfighters out of fear,”according to NPR.
Dubbing themselves “Men of Bronze,” the soldiers of the 369th were lucky in many ways compared to other African American military units in France in 1918. They enjoyed a continuity of leadership, commanded throughout the war by one of their original organizers and proponents, Colonel William Hayward. Unlike many white officers serving in the black regiments, Colonel Hayward respected his troops, dedicated himself to their well-being, and leveraged his political connections to secure support from New Yorkers. Whereas African American valor usually went unrecognized, well over one hundred members of the regiment received American and/or French medals, including the first two Americans – Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts – to be awarded the coveted French Croix de Guerre.
Spending over six months in combat, perhaps the longest of any American unit in the war, the 369th suffered approximately fifteen hundred casualties but received only nine hundred replacements. Unit histories claimed they were the first unit to cross the Rhine into Germany; they performed well at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, earning the epithet “Hell Fighters” from their enemies. Nevertheless, the poor replacement system coupled with no respite from the line took its toll, leaving the unit exhausted by the armistice in November. Although the 369th could boast of a fine combat record and a regimental Croix de Guerre, the unit was plagued by acute discipline problems resulting from disproportionate casualties among the unit’s longest-serving members and related failures to assimilate new soldiers. After considerable effort by Colonel Hayward, the 369th was welcomed home with a parade in February 1919 and reabsorbed into the National Guard.
Congratulations, Private Johnson, and thanks to President Obama for recognizing a brave solider.