Medal of Honor recipient's story finally comes to light

Sgt. Henry Johnson and the Harlem Hellfighters parade through New York in February 1919.


By CINDY CLAYTON | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 15, 2015

It's time to set the record straight for Sgt. Henry Johnson.

Some of what history has recorded about the heroic soldier who posthumously received the Medal of Honor recently at The White House is accurate. Even though he was wounded, he fought off German soldiers during an attack in France and saved a comrade from being captured.

Much of the rest of Johnson's story has been altered over time: his real name, the place where he was born, where and how he died. Even the family who believed he was their storied patriarch was stunned to learn they weren't related at all.

As heroes go, Johnson's predicament isn't all that unusual. History sometimes gets it wrong about historical figures, heroes and ancestors until researchers uncover information disproving long-held beliefs.

"It's really interesting — it's surprising how much of our history we get wrong," said genealogist and author Megan Smolenyak. "It's really frustrating and it's an uphill battle to get people to accept new information. They just want to accept what they've seen over and over again."

The Army asked Smolenyak to research Johnson along with Sgt. William Shemin, who also posthumously received the medal at the White House on June 2. Many felt the two men were denied the highest award military personnel can receive for gallantry because of discrimination.

Smolenyak, who has traced the relatives of more than 1,000 soldiers for the Army, has uncovered other historical mix-ups, including that the wrong Annie Moore had been credited as being the first person to reach Ellis Island. Smolenyak is a nationally known genealogist who has worked on TV shows, including "Finding Your Roots," and "Who Do You Think You Are?," and has written several books. She lives in New Jersey and has a home in Williamsburg.

Smolenyak approached the medal recipients' family trees as she would anyone else by searching military records, birth certificates and even Google.

"We all thought they were going to be routine," Smolenyak said of the two soldier's cases. But the Army must research every case to make sure the medal is given to the right family.

She found articles written over decades about Johnson that portrayed a man who came home a wounded hero only to be forsaken by the government. A broken man who died of alcoholism and was buried in a pauper's grave.

But the details in those accounts didn't match up with official documents. The brave World War I soldier's name was believed to be Henry Lincoln Johnson, but records show he was William Henry Johnson. He preferred to use his middle name.


The soldier was born in Winston Salem, N.C., and spent his youth in the Western Salem neighborhood, Smolenyak said. There were no vital records in the state from that time to verify his birthday, which other records put between 1887 and 1897. He also used March 15 on some records and May 15 on others. She believes he may have been confused about his date of birth.

At some point, Johnson ended up living in New York, although many people had believed he was born there. After enlisting in the Army in Albany and entering in 1917, he was assigned to Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, an all-black National Guard unit that later became the 369th Infantry, according to Smolenyak and the White House website. The unit famously became known as the Harlem Hellcats.

In 1918, Johnson's unit was sent to fight on the front lines with a French Army unit. In May, Johnson and a fellow soldier came under attack by at least 12 Germans, taking heavy fire. Johnson was wounded, but he kept fighting. When the other soldier was wounded, Johnson kept him from being captured by fighting an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat, according to the White House. He kept fighting until the enemy retreated.

His actions earned him the Croix de Guerre for bravery from France and many felt he also should be recognized by his own country. Army officials told The Washington Post that Johnson received the Wound Chevron, which he wore on his sleeve. But he left the Army a sergeant without a hero's medal.

Johnson did enjoy some fame upon his return. He was part of a big parade in New York welcoming soldiers home. He was sent by the Army on a speaking tour which included speeches in New York, New Jersey Washington and Missouri.

Newspaper accounts of his speeches made him famous enough that people wanted to claim a connection or kinship with the hero. One man even claimed to be him, but was caught, Smolenyak said. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. also included Johnson in a book he wrote about soldiers who served in "The Great War."

Johnson spent the last decade of his life in Washington and records show he spent some time in the Army hospital in 1920 or 1921.

Some accounts say Johnson got no support from the government, but Smolenyak found that wasn't true. Johnson still suffered with his war wounds, but did get help from the government.

He died in 1929 of myocarditis, a heart problem. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

There are newspapers accounts of his death, Smolenyak said. "He wasn't entirely forgotten, but his fame faded quickly. He was struggling when he died, but not necessarily in poverty."

Tara Johnson told reporters she has believed all her life that Henry Johnson was her grandfather. Her father, named Herman, talked about the man he believed had been his father as having a sense of humor, she told the Associated Press.

But Smolenyak found that Johnson's name wasn't on her father's birth certificate.

"He got older, he had sort of mixed family circumstances and there was room for wishful thinking to slip in there," Smolenyak said of Tara Johnson's father. "Nobody ever checked."

Tara Johnson had long been part of a widespread effort to have the man she believed was her grandfather finally get his due.

The news that they weren't related, delivered by three Army officials who visited her home, was devastating, she told the AP.

Smolenyak was equally disappointed.

"There were so many false leads," Smolenyak said. She spent extra time following trails and reading records to check her own work to be absolutely sure Tara Johnson and her father weren't related to the soldier.

"I burned a lot of time hoping to find connections that just turned out not to be true," Smolenyak said. "I wanted it to be them."

Tara Johnson told the AP that she will always consider Johnson her grandfather. She was invited to the White House for the medal ceremony, but was not the one to accept it. Because the soldier has no living relatives, the medal was accepted by a command sergeant major from the New York National Guard.

Smolenyak researched Tara Johnson's family tree for her and for another group of people who believed they were related to Johnson.

"It's not much of a consolation prize," she said.


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Sgt. Henry Johnson of the 369th Infantry Regiment was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for bravery during an outnumbered battle with German soldiers, Feb. 12, 1919.