ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Two days before President Barack Obama announced a posthumous Medal of Honor for black World War I soldier Henry Johnson, a family got staggering news about the legacy of heroism that had inspired them for generations and through three wars. They weren’t related to Johnson by blood after all.
A U.S. Army general visited Tara Johnson last month with word that Henry Johnson was not her grandfather, and that her father, World War II Tuskegee airman Herman Johnson, was not the hero’s son.
“Dad’s birth certificate didn’t have Henry on it,” she told The Associated Press in an interview this week. The name of the man listed on the document found by Pentagon researchers vetting Johnson’s lineage was one relatives had never heard mentioned as the father.
“All we have ever known is Henry Lincoln Johnson,” she said. “My family is going through an identity crisis; this shocked our foundation.”
She said they’re at a loss to explain what had been a given for so long. Her father spoke warmly of Henry Johnson, recalling his sense of humor and trips to the park as a boy before the life of the man he knew as his father began to fall apart and the family broke up.
Henry Johnson was a railroad porter in Albany before the war. He enlisted in the Army and won acclaim for rescuing a comrade despite suffering grenade and gunshot wounds in a ferocious hand-to-hand battle with German raiders in 1918. Returning from France, he was honored with parades and glowing newspaper stories about his exploits with the 369th Infantry Regiment, a unit known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”
But while France awarded him the Croix de Guerre for heroism, Johnson was given no medals by a U.S. military mired in Jim Crow-era racism.
Hobbled by his wartime injuries and unable to work, Johnson took to drinking. He died destitute in 1929 at age 32 at an Illinois veterans hospital.
Johnson’s memory was revived in the 1970s by Albany-area veterans and public officials who believed he had been unfairly denied the honors he deserved, and they worked for decades, joined by Herman Johnson’s family, to right that wrong.
On Tuesday, the president handed the Medal of Honor to New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson because the military found no known blood relatives of Johnson.
Tara Johnson had expected for months to be in that soldier’s place once it became clear the uphill fight for the honor was won. Still, she was at the ceremony along with her cousin, a Vietnam veteran also named Herman Johnson. Her son, DeMarqus Townsend, a Marine who fought insurgents in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, couldn’t make it. Johnson said she was glad for the invitation to the White House and happy to be with the people from Albany who made the day possible.
“The highlight for me was hearing the commander in chief telling Henry Johnson’s battle story. It was breathtaking,” she said after the ceremony.
“Tara’s been great,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, whose staff uncovered documents in 2011 that provided the final evidence that Johnson deserved the medal.
He credited Herman Johnson and his family with helping keep the medal campaign alive and thought it was right they should be represented at the White House.
Herman Johnson traveled from his Kansas City, Missouri, home for events in Albany and lived long enough to join then-Gov. George Pataki and others for an Arlington National Cemetery ceremony marking a belated award of the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest medal for bravery, to Henry Johnson in 2002.
After Herman Johnson’s death in 2004 at age 87, his daughter — also from Kansas City — took on a greater role.
“This has been a long journey, ever since I was a kid,” said Tara Johnson, now 56.
Morena Walker-Howe’s late husband, Vietnam veteran John Howe, is widely credited with energizing the effort in Albany to recognize the hometown hero.
She said her husband was so confident in the campaign for the Medal of Honor that he told designers of one new Johnson monument in the city to leave an empty spot on the stone to add it later.
“Tara and I had bonded through this experience,” Walker-Howe said, and she remembers Tara visiting to talk to students at a charter school named for Henry Johnson.
She said she, too, was bewildered, “to find this out after all these years.”
Jack McEneny, a former Albany County historian and state assemblyman, was involved in efforts as early as 1972 to restore the memory of Johnson. He believes Herman Johnson’s mother, for whatever reason, held out Henry Johnson as the father, deciding, perhaps, “I’m going to give my child a role model.”
He said he thinks Henry Johnson had a “great influence” on Herman, who was born in Schenectady.
“There’s no question in my mind he went to his grave believing Henry Johnson was his father,” McEneny said.
On Tuesday, Tara Johnson put a wreath on Henry Johnson’s grave, which was rediscovered in Arlington National Cemetery in 2002.
“He’s always going to be my grandfather,” she said.
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