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'History Detectives' Probe Army Hero

history detectives johnson

U.S. Army Sgt. Henry Johnson of Albany, a World War I hero and the subject of a 94-year lobbying effort to award him the Medal of Honor for his exploits, will be featured in the PBS program "History Detectives."

Host Tukufu Zuberi, who collects period posters that depict African-American soldiers in combat, said he was intrigued by a piece of art he found titled, "Our Colored Heroes," that shows Johnson.

Zuberi wondered if the poster reflect the facts of war, or was it made with a hidden agenda?

Zuberi and co-host Elyse Luray will investigate the historical record. A key interview subject is U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, who has lobbied on behalf of Johnson's Medal of Honor recognition for years.

Johnson served under French command because the U.S. Army was segregated. Although he suffered 21 wounds in a May 1918 battle, Johnson fought with a rifle, bolo knife and his bare hands to repel a 20-soldier German unit. He was assisted by another soldier, Neadom Roberts, who was also black. A testimonial read into the Congressional Record four months after the battle described "two brave colored boys fighting like tigers at bay."

Gen. John J. Pershing, commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, wrote a memo on May 20, 1918, and mentioned reports that described a "notable instance of bravery and devotion."

Zuberi's poster included a quote attributed to Pershing about "continued fighting after receiving wounds and despite the use of grenades by a superior force."

The high bar of documentation required for the nation's highest military award thwarted previous bids to win the Medal of Honor for Johnson, apparently for lack of confirmation of his valorous deeds.

Johnson was the first American soldier to receive the Croix de Guerre from the French government. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second highest honor. Schumer and others continue to press to upgrade that to the Medal of Honor.

Now, the history detectives will take a crack at solving lingering questions and clearing the logjam.

Watch Preview: WW1 poster, map of Valley Forge, a transistor radio on PBS. See more from History Detectives.

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