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Long-delayed Medal of Honor awarded to Harlem Hellfighters' Sgt. Henry Johnson displayed in New York Capitol

By Eric Durr | New York National Guard | Nov. 10, 2015

ALBANY, N.Y. - The Medal of Honor awarded to a New York National Guard Soldier 97 years after his acts of heroism is now on display in the New York State Capitol.

The display honoring Sgt. Henry Johnson, a member of New York's 369th Infantry Regiment — known as the Harlem Hellfighters — was opened Monday, Nov. 9, by Maj. Gen. Patrick Murphy, the adjutant general of New York.

Murphy also awarded Johnson New York State's highest military honor, the Medal for Valor, to commemorate his heroism. Command Sgt. Major Anthony McLean, the top enlisted Soldier in the New York Army National Guard's 369th Sustainment Brigade, accepted the Medal.

The 369th Sustainment Brigade carries the lineage and honors of the World War I unit.

Johnson's Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously by President Barack Obama on June, 2. Because Johnson has no living relatives, the medal was accepted by New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson.

"Sgt. Henry Johnson was a hero and a patriot who for far too long was denied the recognition and honor he deserved," said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. "I'm proud to host his long overdue Medal of Honor at the Capitol and I thank Sen. (Charles) Schumer and Sgt. Johnson's many supporters for their efforts to right this historic wrong."

New York Sen. Charles Schumer had pushed hard for Johnson to be recognized with the Medal of Honor.

"As we approach Veterans Day, I encourage New Yorkers to visit this display and learn more about Sgt. Johnson's incredible life, as well as take a moment to acknowledge the many brave men and women who have served in defense of our nation and its ideals," the governor said.

"It is more than fitting that we recall the service of Sgt. Henry Johnson and display his Medal of Honor to the greater Albany community that Johnson called home," Murphy said. "It is also right that we present the State of New York's highest military decoration for bravery to recognize Albany's Sgt. Henry Johnson as one of our state's finest heroes."

Because Johnson was from Albany and because so many Albany residents worked hard to bring his story to light, "this is where the medal belongs," said Barbara Smith, a former member of the Albany Common Council. "It was just incredibly emotional, it brings tears to my eyes."

Johnson, who was originally from North Carolina, was living in Albany and working as a porter at the city's train station when he journeyed south to New York City in June 1917, just after the United States entered World War I, to enlist in the 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, an all-African-American regiment of the New York National Guard.

The regiment was federalized, renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment and shipped overseas to France. But the segregated United States Army didn't think the black Soldiers could fight. They were used as a support troops.

The French Army, though, which counted on black troops from its African colonies to fight and fight well, was happy to use the 369th's Soldiers as infantrymen.

On the night of May 14 and 15, 1918, Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts were on outpost duty when a German raiding party which numbered more than a dozen men attacked their position out in front of the trenches. The two Americans fought back with grenades and rifle fire, and when Roberts was knocked unconscious and the Germans tried to carry him away, Johnson attacked them with his bolo knife.

Johnson was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for his valor but received no American medal. When his unit returned home he was sent on a speaking tour and lauded for his courage, but when he spoke out about the unfair treatment of black American Soldiers he was shunted aside.

He died in 1929 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan praised Johnson for his heroism on the battlefield, and off, when he spoke up about the unfair treatment of African-American veterans. The people of Albany have a special affection for Henry Johnson, but it is especially fitting that his Medal of Honor will be in the state Capitol where all New Yorkers come, Sheehan said.

"So, as proud as we are of this story, and what it says about the city of Albany, it is a story that must be told much more largely," Sheehan said.

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko praised all the members of the Albany Chapter of the 369th Veterans Association who worked with him and other politicians to make sure Johnson's story was heard.

Along with the Medal of Honor, the display features a World War I French helmet like those Johnson and the other members of the 369th Infantry wore into battle, an Army-issue bolo knife like the one used by Johnson , a 369th patch, and the flag of the 15th New York ( Colored) Infantry Regiment.