Army Pvts. Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were serving as sentries under cover of darkness in France’s Argonne Forest in 1918 when reality set in: The two soldiers were surrounded by more than a dozen Germans, and in danger of being killed or taken prisoner. The German raiders opened fire on the the two men, wounding Johnson three times and Roberts twice, but Johnson fought on with an aggression that shocked the Germans even after his weapon wouldn’t fire anymore.
An account of what became known as the Battle of Henry Johnson was documented in a letter to the soldier’s wife, Edna, and read into the Congressional Record a few months later. His commanding officer, Col. William Hayward, credited the 5-foot-4 Johnson — nicknamed “Black Death” — with stopping the Germans in the early hours of May 15, 1918, from dragging away Roberts.
Johnson concussed one German with the butt stock of his rifle, and then sunk a heavy bolo knife he was carrying into another’s head, killing him. He stabbed to death at least one more attacker who was beating Roberts, allowing the Americans to toss hand grenades that prompted the rest of the Germans to flee.
Johnson is one of two World War I soldiers who posthumously will receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s top award for combat valor, at the White House on Tuesday. The other is Sgt. William Shemin, who braved enemy fire repeatedly on Aug. 7-9, 1918, in France to recover fellow American soldiers who had been shot until he himself was wounded. Though praised by their fellow soldiers at the time, they were both denied the Medal of Honor for generations.
Concerns about racism have permeated both cases: Johnson and Roberts, both black men, received the prestigious Croix de Guerre for their valor from the French government, but went unrecognized by the U.S. military for decades. Johnson’s French award included a gold palm, indicating unusually great valor. Shemin, a Jew, received the Distinguished Service Cross, one step below the Medal of Honor, but little explanation was provided why the higher award for which he had been nominated was not approved.
The efforts to get the two men recognized have been filled with starts and stops, and the work handed down by generations of supporters. In Johnson’s case, it was bolstered by the office of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D.-N.Y.), who submitted a 1,258-page recommendation for the award in May 2011 after numerous new documents were discovered. In Shemin’s case, his daughter Elsie Shemin-Roth, 86, collected records and enlisted the help of Missouri’s congressional delegation.
“A lot of people advocated for this over a long period of time, so for this to happen now nearly 100 years later, it’s pretty incredible,” said a former staff member of Schumer’s, Caroline Wekselbaum, 32, who plans to attend the ceremony Tuesday and estimated that she spent thousands of hours on Johnson’s case. “This wasn’t my only job, but I dedicated a lot of time to this, and a lot of people did.”
A source in Schumer’s office said a local historian and Vietnam veteran, John Howe, came to them with the story in 1999, but died a few years later. The effort to get Johnson the Medal of Honor was blocked in 2003 by Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who wanted more evidence, Schumer’s office said. The Army approved a Distinguished Service Cross, but Schumer’s office kept looking for more documentation of the soldier’s valor.
Schumer’s office credited Wekselbaum, in particular, with uncovering new evidence. One of her finds was a cablegram from Gen. John J. Pershing, the top U.S. general during the war. He cited the heroism of Johnson and Roberts in a memo to Washington while denying German propaganda that alleged that black American soldiers serving overseas were being mistreated, and said they faced a force of some 20 men.
“Before day light on May 15 Private Henry Johnson and Private Roberts while on sentry duty at some distance from one another were attacked by German raiding party estimated at 20 men, who advanced in 2 groups attacking at once from flank and rear.” Pershing wrote in the May 20, 1918, message. “Both men fought bravely in hand to hand encounters, one resorting to use of bolo knife after rifle jammed and further fighting with bayonet and [rifle] butt became impossible.”
The source called Pershing’s memo “the holy grail” in the case, and expressed frustration with the way Johnson was treated. As a black soldier in World War I, he and his colleagues in the 369th Infantry Regiment were loaned to the short-handed French military, but not allowed to fight in the U.S. force.
“The guy was a second-class citizen,” the official in Schumer’s office said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the case candidly. “He wasn’t even allowed to fight under our flag.”
Shemin-Roth said in a recent news conference in Missouri that a wrong has been righted, and all is forgiven in her family. She credited retired Col. Army Erwin A. Burtnick, a leader in the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. organization, with urging her to seek the upgrade, and Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R.Mo.) with helping.
“Though my father always told me that his war experience was never about medals, I knew in my heart that he was deserving of the highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor,” she said. “When the president called me last month to tell me that he had approved the Medal of Honor, I felt an enormous sense of pride as an American Jew, and for him, and for our family, and for the entire Jewish community.”
Shemin served in the 4th Infantry Division’s 47th Infantry Regiment, and suffered shrapnel wounds while earning the Medal of Honor. He later sustained a gunshot wound to the head, but recovered and went on to play college sports at Syracuse University and raise a family with three children. He died in 1973.
Johnson’s life after World War I was filled with highs and lows. A member of the New York National Guard, he deployed with an all-black unit that became known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” the 369th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers were honored with a parade when they returned to New York, but the injuries that Johnson sustained were never properly documented, so he did not receive a Purple Heart or the medical benefits he had earned. He died destitute in July 1929, 11 years after his heroism.
Correction, June 2: An earlier version of this story reported that Johnson had a son named Herman, citing earlier news accounts. As noted in this new Checkpoint piece, the Army no longer believes that is the case.