Nearly 100 years later, former Harlem Hellfighter to be awarded Medal of Honor

WASHINGTON (NEWS10) – Tuesday morning, one of Albany’s own will posthumously be awarded the nation’s highest military medal for his courageous service during World War I.

After a decades-long fight, Henry Johnson will finally get his due. 8News sister station NEWS10 ABC’s anchor Mark Baker is in Washington D.C. for the ceremony at the White House.

It took 78 years for Johnson to be awarded his Purple Heart and almost a century to be recognized with the Medal of Honor. About the only timely honor he received was to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery when he died in 1929.

It was at his gravesite that members from his famed regiment came to pay their respects.

“It means a culmination of hoping to come true, and it comes true,” Retired Maj. Gen. Nathanial James said.

The Harlem Hellfighters are steeped in history. They were dubbed the Hellfighters by the Germans because of how tough they fought. The most celebrated of them all was Henry Johnson.

Johnson bravely fought off more than a dozen Germans to save a fellow soldier after a sneak attack in France in 1918.

“We’ve had Black heroes before,” Retired Gen. George Jones said. “He’s just another in a long line of Black heroes.”

Such heroics paved the way for African-American soldiers, like the veterans who stood at Johnson’s grave.

“It made me what I am today,” Jones said.

Not even allowed to fight under U.S. command during WWI, the Harlem Hellfighters have proven themselves in every conflict since.

“When we took the unit to West Africa, we were very shocked to find out our African brothers knew about the Harlem Hellfighters,” Retired Col. Reginald Sanders said.

And Johnson finally receiving his Medal of Honor is another milestone for the proud veterans.

“I never thought I would live to see the day we have a Black president, but I did,” James said. “It’s like Henry Johnson after we tried to get that medal for so long. I wondered if I’d live long enough to see it; well, I’m here.”

Johnson has been interred in Arlington National Cemetery for 86 years. He died penniless and didn’t receive help to recover from his wounds that never allowed him to return to work as a train porter.

But soon a new inscription will be engraved on his tombstone – Medal of Honor – something money could never buy.

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