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Army discovers sad surprise in family history of new Medal of Honor recipient Henry Johnson

New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, left, accepts the Medal of Honor on June 2 on behalf of the late Henry Johnson, a World War I hero who was denied the Medal of Honor. (Shawon Thew/EPA)

When President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor on Tuesday to the late Sgt. Henry Johnson, a World War I hero, it was accepted by the senior enlisted soldier in the New York National Guard on behalf of Johnson’s unit. That hints at a sad wrinkle in the 97-year wait to award the soldier the nation’s top award for valor: Some of those who believed they were his closest surviving family members actually weren’t related at all.

The soldier received the Medal of Honor for fighting off a German raider force that had wounded him and a fellow sentry early on May 15, 1918, in France’s Argonne forest. The German soldiers were trying to carry away the other sentry, Pvt. Needham Roberts, but Johnson used his rifle and a bolo knife to kill several of them and prevent the others from dragging Roberts away.

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For decades, one of Johnson’s public backers was Herman Johnson, who said he was Henry’s son, a World War II veteran and a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. Herman Johnson accepted the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, on Henry Johnson’s behalf in 2003 at Arlington National Cemetery, where the older Johnson is buried.

“I don’t want to take it home and put it in my dresser drawer,” Herman said at the time, according to an online collection of news accounts of the ceremony. “I want it displayed so people can see it.”

Herman Johnson died the following year, leaving a daughter, Tara, who was listed as Henry’s granddaughter in the application for the Medal of Honor that the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.-N.Y.) submitted on his behalf in 2011 after finding new documentation of the World War I hero’s valor. But it turns out that neither Herman nor Tara are descendants of Henry Johnson, the Army learned recently while tracking his genealogy.

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“The Army believes this to be a case of historical inaccuracy, not fraudulent representation,” the Army said in a statement responding to questions Tuesday. “While we appreciate the Johnson family fighting for the award and keeping the memory and valorous acts of Henry Johnson alive, we regretfully cannot recognize them as PNOK,” or primary next of kin.

It’s unclear how the Army did not catch the discrepancy in 2002, as the Distinguished Service Cross for Henry Johnson was approved. The service has not been able to find any records that outline how the Army determined that Herman Johnson was the primary next of kin, allowing him to accept the previous award, said the service’s statement.

Two sources with knowledge of the Medal of Honor case said Tara Johnson had no knowledge that she wasn’t the actual granddaughter of Henry Johnson. The World War I war hero was married when he deployed — a commanding officer later sent a letter to his wife, Edna, praising his heroism — but she is believed to have left him after he returned and struggled with the wounds he suffered in combat.

Tara Johnson is still credited as a key supporter of the effort to get Henry Johnson the Medal of Honor, and she was invited to Tuesday’s Medal of Honor ceremony, the sources said. In a way, she and her father became proxy members of Henry Johnson’s family, and championed him for years.

“Everyone was shocked at the results and believes that Herman truly thought Henry was his father, but that turned out not to be the case,” said one of the sources. “That’s why it’s being given to his unit.”

During the White House ceremony, Obama noted the tough life Henry Johnson had led.

“Henry was one of the first Americans to receive France’s highest award for valor,” Obama said. “But his own nation didn’t award him anything – not even the Purple Heart, though he had been wounded 21 times. Nothing for his bravery, though he had saved a fellow soldier at great risk to himself. His injuries left him crippled. He couldn’t find work. His marriage fell apart. And in his early 30s, he passed away.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson accepted the Medal of Honor on Henry Johnson’s behalf Tuesday. He was flanked by veterans of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the all-black unit that Johnson served in during World War I.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a closed book, but it’s another chapter in the book of Henry Johnson being a hero,” Wilson said of the Medal of Honor ceremony.