Black WWI Hero Located at Arlington

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Herman Johnson always believed that his father, a heroic black World War I soldier who single-handedly fended off a German attack, lay in a pauper's grave unrecognized by the government.

On Thursday, the 85-year-old Johnson saw the newly discovered grave at Arlington National Ceremony where Henry Johnson was buried more than 70 years ago — with full military honors.

With New York Gov. George Pataki at his side, an emotional Herman Johnson on Thursday placed a wreath of chrysanthemums and carnations beside his father's white headstone as a lone military bugler played ``Taps.''

``I'm overwhelmed,'' said Herman Johnson. ``I'm extremely happy to know that my father is in a respectable grave.''

The younger Johnson, Pataki and New York military officials are hoping the discovery breathes new life into their push to get Henry Johnson recognized with the Medal of Honor, an oversight they believe is due at least in part to race.

``Some people ask me if it's racism that he didn't receive the Medal of Honor — I say, 'Certainly,''' Herman Johnson said. ``What he did ought to be honored. I'm not condemning anyone ... but we have a chance to make it right.''

The Medal of Honor application, submitted in 1996, was approved by then-Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera in 2001. But Joint Chiefs Chairman Henry Shelton did not concur. The matter is still open and could be reconsidered.

It was the campaign to get Johnson the Medal of Honor that led to the revelation that he was buried in the nation's cemetery of heroes.

Johnson, from Albany, N.Y., joined the Army National Guard's ``Harlem Hellfighter'' unit during World War I. Because of strict segregation rules at the time, the black American unit fought under the French in Europe. On May 14, 1918, Johnson fought off a German raiding party with a rifle and later with a knife after he ran out of ammunition. Wounded 21 times by the Germans, he nonetheless rescued a wounded comrade. France awarded Johnson its highest honor, the Croix de Guerre. He was the first American to receive the French accolade and was cited by former President Theodore Roosevelt as one of the five bravest Americans during World War I, Pataki said.

Yet Johnson died in 1929, in his mid-30s, a poor alcoholic undecorated by his own country.

Herman Johnson believes that if his father had been recognized when he returned home he ``might have been a different man.''

The younger Johnson said his parents divorced when he was about 6 years old. He moved away from Albany and only saw his father sporadically. Herman Johnson was in his early teens when his father died. He was led to believe he had been buried in a pauper's cemetery paved over to make way for Albany International Airport. Johnson even went once to the airport and looked out on the runway, believing it was his father's grave.

Herman Johnson went on to serve with the legendary Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and live in Kansas City, Mo., where he worked in real estate. He still operates a cemetery there.

Henry Johnson's final resting place remained undiscovered until state military officials researching his military service for the Medal of Honor last year came upon a newspaper clipping from a black newspaper in upstate New York that mentioned his burial at Arlington National Cemetery, located just outside Washington.

At first, a search of microfilm records at Arlington turned up only a William Henry Johnson. When New York officials asked the cemetery to check the paper records, they saw that ``William'' had been crossed out and that other dates and records matched up.

``He got at least an appropriate burial,'' Pataki said. ``But we're not going to stop until we get him the Medal of Honor.''

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