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How the White House and media got it wrong on Medal of Honor recipient Henry Johnson

Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard accepts the Medal of Honor on behalf of World War I war hero Henry Johnson during a ceremony at the White House in Washington June 2, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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When President Obama described the life of World War I hero and recent Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Henry Johnson at the White House last week, he zeroed in on a decoration that Johnson didn’t receive despite being wounded numerous times: the Purple Heart.

“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 solder 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.”

That narrative was repeated in the media numerous times before and after the ceremony, including by The Washington Post. But history is more nuanced than that.

[Obama awards Medals of Honor to World War I soldiers — 97 years after their heroism]

For one, the modern Purple Heart recognizing those wounded in combat was not created until 1932, three years after Johnson’s death. World War I veterans began to receive it on May 28, 1932, some 14 years after Army Gen. John J. Pershing had suggested creating an award. It initially was designed to recognize “military merit,” but soldiers could receive it after turning in an earlier award recognizing injuries, the Wound Chevron, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Johnson did not receive any American awards for bravery before dying in 1929, but at least one popular photograph of him shows him wearing the Wound Chevron on his sleeve, suggesting he had been recognized for being wounded in combat, Army officials said in e-mailed response to questions from The Washington Post. It is here:

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation freely, said the president was aware of the history of the Purple Heart during the ceremony. He and other administration officials did not know about the Wound Chevron, though.

“We became aware of the Wound Chevron after the remarks,” the official said. “The fact remains that the full extent of Private Johnson’s heroism and valor wasn’t properly recognized until now. There is much work ahead to recognize others whose heroism is still unacknowledged and uncelebrated.”

The commonly repeatedly narrative for Johnson also often holds that the injuries suffered in combat played a role in his early death. But Veterans Bureau records dated Sept. 16, 1927 — about two years before his death — state that he actually was granted a permanent and total disability rating for active tuberculosis, a respiratory ailment. As detailed in this Army assessment, it was the leading cause for disability discharges during World War I.

[It took 97 years to get these soldiers the Medal of Honor. How it happened.]

Veterans Bureau records from May 1923 show that Johnson drew $90 per month in compensation and was regularly visited by Veterans Bureau medical staff until his death. According to this U.S. government inflation calculator, that financial compensation would translate to about $1,245 per month in 2015 — just above the modern poverty level of $11,770 for one person.

To verify details about Johnson’s life, the Army turned to Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist who has worked on repatriation efforts for the U.S. military and a variety of other topics, including first lady Michelle Obama’s family history.

Smolenyak wrote about Johnson last week for the Huffington Post, detailing a variety of misconceptions about the soldier’s life and death. She said some of them may have come from the late Herman Johnson, a man who claimed to have been Johnson’s son for years before his death. Herman likely truly believed he was related to Henry, but wasn’t and may have conflated stories he heard about his actual father with the World War I hero, Smolenyak told The Post in an interview.

“I think he really believed that his father was William Henry Johnson,” she said.

As Checkpoint noted last week, Herman and his granddaughter, Tara, thought they were Johnson’s closest surviving relatives, and Tara would have accepted the Medal of Honor on his behalf. But Smolenyak’s review of 1,300 pages of records about Johnson determined that wasn’t the case.

Another Johnson family also says that it is related to the war hero, and wants to accept the award and turn it over to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture now under construction in Washington. Christopher Noble, 58, of Cocoa, Fla., said his grandmother, the late Emma Johnson Cooper, was Henry Johnson’s sister.

[Army discovers sad surprise in family history of Medal of Honor recipient]

“I’m not here for political game or to scorn the Democratic Party or President Obama anything like that,” said Noble. “We just want the medal for the family and for it to be on display at the Smithsonian.”

Noble said his late mother, Bessie Cooper Noble, investigated the family’s connection to Henry Johnson for years, and told stories about him. He has approached the Army with family photographs and details about his family history, but doesn’t have records to verify the relationship, he said.

The Army believes that Johnson had no children or siblings, an official with knowledge of his case said. The Medal of Honor was accepted by Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, the senior enlisted soldier in the New York National Guard, on behalf of the 369th Infantry Regiment. Johnson served with the unit, the Harlem Hellfighters, during World War I.