This Day In History: June 2

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Harlem Hellfighter Henry Johnson is awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. The medal comes after a decades-long effort by Johnson's family and New York Senator Chuck Schumer to recognize Johnson's bravery and service during World War I.

Henry Johnson, a railroad porter from Albany, New York, enlisted in the army in 1917, after America's entry into the war in Europe. He joined an all-Black National Guard unit, which became the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment of the American Expeditionary Force. General John J. Pershing sent the regiment to serve under French command in 1918, in order to preserve the racial segregation of the American army, which then deployed Black regiments only for menial support roles.

The soldiers of the 369th, many of whom came from Harlem, earned the nickname the "Harlem Hellfighters" for their valor in battle. They spent 191 days on the front lines, the longest stretch of active combat of any comparable regiment during the war; as a result, they also sustained more casualties than any other regiment. Some 171 members of the 369th received the prestigious French military honor, the Croix de Guerre.

Private Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were assigned to night sentry duty on May 15, 1918, in the Argonne Forest between the French and German lines. When a German raiding party attacked, Roberts was badly wounded, and Johnson was left to single-handedly fight off a dozen or more German soldiers. He threw grenades and fired at them with his rifle before resorting to hand-to-hand combat, using only the butt of his rifle and a bolo knife for weapons. By the time French reinforcements arrived an hour later, Johnson had been wounded 21 times. However, he had killed several Germans and wounded up to a dozen more. He had preserved the French line from a German incursion and prevented the capture of his fellow soldier.

For his extraordinary bravery, France quickly awarded Johnson with the Croix de Guerre, the nation's highest award for valor. At home in the United States, he earned the nickname "the Black Death." One reporter even called the events of May 15 "the battle of Henry Johnson." After the war, Johnson starred in the 369th regiment's victory parade down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and he featured on commemorative stamps and army recruitment materials. However, Johnson never received disability pay from the army. He returned to his job as a railroad porter in Albany, struggling with his extensive war injuries. Johnson eventually died in poverty at age 32, in 1929.

In the 1990s, Johnson's son, Herman Johnson, began lobbying for his father to receive posthumous military honors. Herman Johnson was a veteran himself, having served as a Tuskegee Airman in World War II. President Bill Clinton awarded Henry Johnson the Purple Heart in 1996. Senator Chuck Schumer took up Johnson's cause, and in 2002 the US Army awarded Johnson the Distinguished Service Cross, the branch's second-highest honor. Schumer's staff unearthed documents which bolstered Johnson's case, including a memo from General Pershing praising his heroism and an eyewitness account of the attack from Private Roberts. Finally, on June 2nd, 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Henry Johnson the posthumous Medal of Honor, America’s highest military award for valor.