Congressmen push to award Harlem Hellfighter posthumous Medal of Honor

The nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, is reserved for soldiers who exhibit extreme valor in wartime efforts. However, for many years, minority soldiers, such as Sgt. Henry Johnson, have been denied the distinction.

Now, Congress is pushing to waive a law on the books that says too much time has passed for Johnson to posthumously receive the award.

The bill, introduced to the Senate by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and its House companion bill brought by Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., seeks a one-time waiver of the “five-year rule” for Johnson’s posthumous award of the Medal.

“This is basically legislation that we’ve tried to get passed multiple times… We think that the heroic acts that were demonstrated by this young man decades ago deserve some recognition,” Sean Mager, a representative for Tonko’s office, told

A black teen in the segregated South, Henry Johnson relocated to Albany, N.Y. where he worked various odd jobs before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1917, shortly after the U.S. declared war on Germany.

The 369th Regiment, or Harlem Hellfighters, was one of the most successful units in the war, never losing any ground during their entire deployment. In spite of the battalion’s military prowess, American soldiers refused to work with the all-black unit, and the Hellfighters were led by French allies instead.

Johnson’s story became legendary one night when while on patrol, a German battalion raided his camp, leaving Johnson with more than 20 gunshot wounds. Despite his injuries, Johnson almost single-handedly fought off his attackers armed only with a rifle and a bolo knife, using the rifle as a club once it had run out of bullets.

All told, Johnson left four Germans dead and injured at least 20 others, who retreated.

For his heroics, Johnson was awarded one of the French government’s highest honors, the Croix de Guerre. The still heavily segregated U.S., however, gave Johnson only a chauffeured car in New York’s victory parade in 1919—no awards or military benefits.

Eleven years later, Johnson died destitute, estranged from his family and still unrecognized for his service.

Johnson’s legacy would continue to go unmentioned in American history for several decades more. It wasn’t until 1996 that President Clinton awarded Johnson a posthumous Purple Heart.

In 2003, Johnson’s son Herman, a Tuskegee airman and war hero in his own right, accepted the Distinguished Service Cross—the army’s second highest honor—on his father’s behalf.

Still, for Tonko, Johnson’s accomplishments will not have been fully recognized until he is awarded the Medal of Honor.

“The superhuman bravery [Johnson] demonstrated in defense of his nation and fellow soldiers is a great source of pride for our communities… It is well-past time for Congress to recognize Sgt. Henry Johnson’s selfless actions that saved countless lives and award him the Medal of Honor,” Tonko told

This isn't the first time Congress has waived the five-year requirement. Earlier this year, Union First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing was posthumously awarded the Medal for his service in the Civil War.

Mager says that they are hopeful that Congress will eventually look into changing the five-year rule completely, but for now, they are focused on getting Johnson the recognition he deserves.