Johnson museum imageVietnam veterans and National World War I Museum and Memorial volunteers Bob Dudley, left and Jerry Lakey search the Sgt. Henry Johnson mosaic mural for their own images Tuesday at the Museum and Memorial. 

World War I Museum pays tribute to an ‘often-forgotten’ hero with faces of Kansas City veterans

By Carlos Moreno
via the KCUR Public Radio System station (MO) web site

Pvt. Henry Johnson, a Harlem Hellfighter and World War I hero, was denied recognition by the U.S. military until decades after his death. For Veterans Day, a mural at Kansas City's World War I Museum and Memorial immortalizes Johnson's story.

Two stern portraits of Army Sgt. Henry Johnson gaze across the east and west corridors of the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

At first, Johnson’s floor-to-ceiling portrait looks like one giant photograph. But as you move closer, the faces of thousands of individuals reveal themselves from within.

It’s through these photos — 3,500, to be exact — that the Museum and Memorial tells not just the story of Johnson but the story of all American service members this Veterans Day.

Service without recognition

Shortly after midnight on May 15, 1918, Johnson stood guard at his post at the edge of the Argonne Forest in France, when he came under attack by German snipers.

The 26-year-old Army private sent his sentry partner, Pvt. Needham Roberts, to alert the troops serving under French command. Then he started hurling grenades toward the sound of the wire cutters.

Roberts didn’t get far — he was struck by the Germans’ own grenades.

Johnson ran to Roberts’ aid, suffering gunshots from the descending German raiding party. After his rifle jammed, Johnson used the gun as a club. When that shattered, he used a bolo knife to fend off the attackers.

By sunrise, four Germans lay dead and another 10-20 were wounded. Johnson had 21 wounds himself, but managed to save Roberts.

Johnson was a native of Albany, New York, and a member of the all-Black 15th New York National Guard Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

He was promoted to sergeant, awarded the French Croix de Guerre — the “Cross of War” — and earned the nickname “Black Death.” Johnson planned to return to Albany to resume life as a Red Cap Porter, but his injuries were too severe for him to find sustained work.

However, those injuries were never documented by the U.S. Army. There was no Purple Heart waiting for him at home, and no disability pension for his shattered foot. He couldn’t hold a job and started drinking, and in 1929, he died at the age of 37.

It would take decades longer for Johnson to posthumously receive the Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Cross and The Medal of Honor — the highest recognition of valor from the U.S. military.

Read the entire article on the KCUR web site here:


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