When the United States entered the First World War, a young New Yorker named Henry Johnson was one of those who answered the call. Just 5-foot-4 and 130 pounds, Johnson was small in stature but big at heart. So was the unit he was assigned to -- the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment.
The U.S. Army was not yet integrated, but the men of that unit were loaned to the depleted French Fourth Army. The French had fought alongside troops from Senegal and Morocco and, in any event, their ranks were so decimated they welcomed all the help they could get. And the African American soldiers had made their impression in France before they even arrived at the front: On New Year's Day 1918, as the 2,000-strong unit disembarked at the port in Brest, some members of the regiment serenaded their hosts with a jazz version of "La Marseillaise."
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Frederick Douglas once compared being enslaved to being owned by a snake. The black troops assigned to the western front in 1918 turned that symbol on its head. Their regimental insignia featured a fearsome-looking rattler, which in turn led to the nickname "The Black Rattlesnakes." The grateful French troops assigned the black American soldiers a more elegant description: "Men of Bronze." But the name that stuck was "Harlem Hellfighters." According to legend, it was their German foes who coined this phrase, although in truth it was almost certainly the creation of U.S. newspapers. The men in the unit weren't all from Harlem -- Henry Johnson came from Albany -- or even the state of New York, but they took pride in the name. They lived up to it, too: Military records show that it was hell to go up against them on the battlefield.
On this date 102 years ago, on the edge of the Argonne Forest, Pvt. Johnson and a fellow Harlem Hellfighter named Needham Roberts were on nighttime sentry duty when they were attacked by a German unit probing the Allied lines.
Hit by enemy fire, Roberts lay prone in a trench, but he tossed his comrade some grenades, which Johnson threw at the enemy. Shot in the side and the head, Johnson kept fighting even after running out of ammunition, using the butt of his rifle and a bolo knife. Battle reports showed that he killed four of the enemy and wounded at least 10 more -- and prevented a breach in the line. Gen. John J. Pershing personally wrote a battlefield report praising the two Americans.
Their exploits were no secret at the time. The two U.S. privates were awarded the Croix du Guerre, France's highest military honor, and the French Army stationed in Champagne stood at attention while they received it. Johnson's citation included the Gold Palm for extraordinary valor in combat. After the war ended, the Hellfighters were honored with a parade in New York City, with Johnson riding in the lead car. He was featured in a New York Times story at the time, complete with a photograph and his (modest) recounting of the Argonne battle.
But the paperwork in his discharge was screwed up, meaning that Henry Johnson received neither a Purple Heart nor a disability pension. He returned to his job as a railroad porter, but his injuries made that work difficult. He took to drinking, was divorced by his wife and estranged from his children, and he died poor in 1929. Johnson was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery, but even his son -- who would go on to become a Tuskegee Airman -- didn't know about it until 2002
"Learning my father was buried in this place of national honor can be described in just one word -- joyful," Herman Johnson said as he stood at his father's grave in 2002. "I am simply joyful."
How many stories are there like that? One wonders. Johnson's exploits were rediscovered during an exhaustive Pentagon examination of its own medal-awarding practices. This review was prompted by Congress, which included language in its 2002 Department of Defense budget appropriation instructing the military services to see whether Jewish or other minority servicemen had been unfairly overlooked when it came to awarding the nation's highest award for valor going back to 1941.
In time, the review was expanded to an even earlier time, which is how relatives of Henry Johnson and another long-dead World War I soldier named William Shemin found themselves in the East Room of the White House on June 2, 2015, for the posthumous awarding of the Medal of Honor.
"America is the country we are today because of people like Henry and William -- Americans who signed up to serve, and rose to meet their responsibilities, and then went beyond," said President Obama. "The least we can do is to say: ‘We know who you are. We know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.'"
The evidence that these men were passed over because of racial animus is circumstantial at best. In wartime, records are simply misplaced. People move on to the next crisis. What is not in doubt was their bravery and extraordinary skill as soldiers.
William Shemin joined the U.S. Army on Oct. 2, 1917, at age 18. Assigned to the 4th U.S. Infantry Division, he was sent to Europe. By the following August, he found himself and his unit pinned down by Germans near the French town of Bazoches. Shemin, by then a 19-year-old sergeant, led his troops out of the trenches into the field of fire three times to rescue members of their platoon, each time coming under heavy machine-gun fire.
On the third occasion, Shemin was hit in the head by a German bullet. His helmet deflected it enough to save his life, but he was hospitalized for three months. He was awarded the Purple Heart that Henry Johnson was denied, and a Distinguished Cross as well, but the paperwork citing him for consideration for the Medal of Honor never went anywhere. Later, long after the war, his 12-year-old daughter Elsie was sitting on her front porch in the Bronx when a visitor came calling.
His name was Jim Pritchard and he was a Bayonne, N.J., policeman -- and one of the men rescued by William Shemin. Pritchard told Elsie that her father deserved the Medal of Honor, but hadn't received it because he was Jewish. Seventy-four years after that visit, Elsie proudly accepted it from the commander-in-chief at that East Room ceremony. "The president called me and we had a lovely, lovely conversation," she recalled. "He's a mensch."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.