Twenty-one year old Henry Johnson of New York wanted lo be part of an American Army, but the Army didn’t want him - because he was Black in a regiment commanded by Black officers.
The year was 1917, and America had gone to Europe to fight m a world war against the Kaiser and the "Huns". There were Black soldiers in the U.S. Army, to he sure, but. always in units whose officers were "dependable " whites. Henry Johnson had enlisted in the 15th New York National Guard, a unit with Black officers. Since the segregated U.S. Army could not accept the idea that Black Americans could lead troops in battle, the 15th was sent off to fight with the French Army.
Sergeant Henry Johnson and his squad were put out in a forward listening post in the Argonne Forest. Their job was lo gel early warning of German patrols probing out across no-man's-land, possibly marking the path for a major attack on the French lines. About midnight on that dark night, a strong German patrol moved in silence across the shell-pocked fields with an unusual goal: to capture and learn more about these new Black American soldiers.
Henry Johnson's buddy Needham Roberts first heard the noise, and Henry fired an illuminating narc. Exposed, the German patrol rushed Johnson's position, throwing grenades. Roberts fell back, badly wounded, hut Johnson, his leg broken by a grenade fragment, brought down three attackers with well-aimed rifle shots, then another with the butt.
Johnson looked across the dugout to sec three Germans dragging his wounded buddy Roberts over the parapet edge. Hobbling on one good kg, Johnson lurched across the dugout and killed another German with his knife. As reinforcements appeared, the Germans fled, dodging Johnson's grenades until they were out of range of his arm.
At least a dozen battle-hardened German soldiers attacked Henry Johnson's position. They failed in their mission, leaving four of their number dead at his feet. The grateful French government bestowed upon Henry Johnson that nation's highest award for valor the coveted Croix de Guerre.
Skip ahead now to that fateful day of December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes roared down out of the sky to inflict a terrible blow upon the U.S. Navy, at anchor in Pearl Harbor. On duty on the battleship West Virginia that December dawn was Seaman Dorrie Miller. The U.S. Navy allowed Blacks to serve on ships, but not to fight. Dorrie Miller served the food. Before that hour of hell was over, Dorrie Miller was serving lead to the diving Japanese attackers.
When the bombers hit the West Virginia, its skipper was mortally wounded. Amid a hail of shot and shell, mess steward Dorrie Miller moved his captain to a place of safety. Then this untrained mess steward, "not white enough to fight" by Navy standards of that day, manned an abandoned machine gun emplacement and took on the Japanese Air Force face to face. He gave up his position only when ordered to do so later in the battle. For his heroism under enemy fire, Dorrie Miller won the Navy Cross and, after he was killed in action two years later, a warship was commissioned in his honor.
Of the million and a half Black Americans who served their country in two great World Wars, Henry Johnson and Dorrie Miller stand at the forefront for conspicuous gallantry under enemy fire. But neither Johnson nor Miller nor any other Black servicemen, were awarded the nation's highest decoration for bravery in combat, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Black servicemen have won the Congressional Medal in every other. war going back to the Civil War. Black heroes won the Medal in Korea and in Viet Nam. But to this day the Defense Department has resisted every effort to confer the nation's highest tribute on brave men like Henry Johnson and Dorrie Miller.
I know, for securing the Congressional Medal of Honor for these two American heroes was a cause I undertook during my years in Congress. My partner in this just cause was the late and beloved Rep. Mickey Leland of Texas, whose tragic death in a plane accident on a mercy mission to hunger-ravaged Ethiopia was a tremendous loss for the whole world.
In October of 1987 Mickey and I lined up well over 100 fellow Members of Congress, representing all points on the political spectrum, as co-sponsors of legislation to extend the statute of limitations to award Congressional Medals to Sergeant Henry Johnson and Seaman Dorrie Miller. Perhaps naively, we thought such broad support in Congress would assure easy passage. We were wrong.
The Defense Department had lots of reasons why our bills should be dismissed. Henry Johnson got the Croix de Guerre, because he fought with the French Army; that should be enough. Dorrie Miller got the Navy Cross and that should he enough. Too many years had gone by to reopen the cases. It would he unfair to bestow this high award on just two servicemen, ignoring the heroism of so many others, etc. etc.
Now Mickey and I (and many other Congressmen) understood that the racism which permeated the armed forces in the days of Johnson and Miller meant that many meritorious cases would never be reopened and treated fairly. But we firmly believed that bestowing the Congressional Medal on these two heroes, even years after the fact, would not only correct two clear cases of justice denied, but also atone for the slights suffered by so many. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have put it, too many brave men were judged not on the content of their character, hut on the color of their skin. "When justice is threatened anywhere, it is threatened everywhere."
Because of Defense Department opposition, Congress took no action on the bills Mickey and I introduced. But now we are in a new decade with a new Congress. In honor not only of two long-fallen war heroes, but also of my fallen friend and colleague Mickey Leland, I am working to persuade the Defense Department, at long last, that the time has come to confer our nation's highest award on Henry Johnson and Dorrie Miller, as two outstanding heroes among the gallant Black Americans who rose to the defense of their country in time of war.