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Albany Declares Henry Johnson Day

Albany's most famous war veteran has been remembered at city hall. WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas attended the ceremony honoring Henry Johnson.

"As a young man Henry Johnson joined millions of other African Americans on the great migration from the rural south to the industrial north and people in search of a better life. He landed in Albany, where he mixed sodas at a pharmacy, worked at a coal yard and as a porter at a train station. And when the United States entered World War I, Henry enlisted. He joined one of only a few units that he could, the all-black 369th infantry regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters. Soon, he was headed overseas. At the time our military was segregated. Most black soldiers served in labor batallions, not combat units, but General Pershing sent the 369th to fight with the French army, which accepted them as their own. Quickly, the hellfighters lived up to their name, and in the early hours of May 15, 1918, Henry Johnson became a legend."  President Barack Obama spoke in June 2015, awarding Henry Johnson the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.

Johnson suffered 21 wounds and rescued a fellow soldier while singlehandedly repelling an enemy raid in France May 15, 1918.  He and 17-year-old fellow soldier Needham Roberts received the French military’s highest recognition, the Croix de Guerre. 

Sheehan Dandles
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Center: Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan with Jim Dandles, President of the 369th Veterans Association.

Albany Mayor Kathy M. Sheehan announced that June 5 will be designated Sergeant Henry Johnson Day each year.   "The highlight of my term was attending the Medal of Honor ceremony for Sgt. Henry Johnson for conspicuous gallantry... in World War I. When President Barack Obama presented this award to Command Sgt. Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard, it was an incredibly moving moment."

June 5, 2017, the first commemoration of the day, will mark the 100th anniversary of Private Johnson’s enlistment.   "The army first used him as a great recruiting tool until he started to speak out about the segregation in the military, about the way the black soldiers were treated, about the fact that in order for him to be in combat, he had to fight for the French. African-Americans were not allowed to fight in combat for the U.S. Military in World War I. So, he started to speak truth to power and that was when he was shut out, when he was not provided with benefits, he was not provided with the recognition that he should have received."

In February 1919, the Harlem Hellfighters returned to New York for a parade up Fifth Avenue, and Johnson returned to Albany, where historians say he died, destitute, in 1929, at age 32.

It wasn't until 1996 that Johnson was awarded the Purple Heart. He received the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.

Jim Dandles, President of the 369th Veterans Association, is spearheading a drive to raise money needed to have a bronze Medal of Honor cast and placed on each of the two bronze and granite monuments, located in Albany.  "The monument's gonna cost between $16,000 to $18,000. We raised $12,000, we're lacking approximately $6,000. We're accepting donations of any kind. You may send them to The Henry Johnson Memorial. PO Box 1157, Albany, NY 12201. Again, The Henry Johnson Memorial. PO Box 1157, Albany, NY 12201. And we also have a GoFundMe account which was just activated."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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