With Medal of Honor award, family learns WWI hero wasn't kin

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Black and Jewish WWI Heroes Posthumously Honored

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.

An 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."

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With Medal of Honor award, family learns WWI hero wasn't kin
This undated photo provided by the U.S. Army shows Army Pvt. Henry Johnson. Pvt. Johnson was one of two World War I Army heroes on Tuesday June 2, 2015, who finally received the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. (U.S. Army via AP)
In this June 2, 2015 photo, Tara Johnson, poses in the East Room of the White House in Washington before the Medal of Honor ceremony for the late Army Pvt. Henry Johnson. 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. A U.S. Army general visited Tara Johnson last month with word Johnson was not her grandfather, World War II Tuskegee airman Herman Johnson was not the hero’s son. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Barack Obama posthumously bestows the Medal Of Honor for Army Pvt. Henry Johnson to New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Two World War I Army heroes, one black, one Jewish, are finally getting the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Tara Johnson, poses for a photo with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015, before the Medal of Honor ceremony for the late Army Pvt. Henry Johnson. Pvt. Johnson was one of two World War I Army heroes — one black, one Jewish —that finally received the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. Tara Johnson learned only two days before the recent announcement of new honorees that the military determined she is not the granddaughter of WWI hero Henry Johnson. That after decades of campaigning to get him honored. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Barack Obama presents New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, left, with the Medal of Honor on behalf of the late Army Pvt. Henry Johnson during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Johnson was one of two World War I Army heroes - one black, one Jewish - €”that finally received the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: U.S. President Barack Obama presents a Medal of Honor to Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard, who is accepting on behalf of the late Army Private Henry Johnson, for actions while serving in France during World War I, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama also awarded a Medal of Honor to the late Army Sergeant William Shemin for his actions, also during World War I. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama posthumously bestows the Medal Of Honor for Army Sgt. William Shemin to his daughters Ina Bass, left, and Elsie Shemin-Roth, of suburban St. Louis, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Two World War I Army heroes, one black, one Jewish, are finally getting the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
US President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Elsie Shemin-Roth (C) and Ina Bass (L), accepting on behalf of their late father, Army Sergeant William Shemin, for actions while serving in France during World War I, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, June 2, 2015. Obama also awarded a Medal of Honor to the late Army Private Henry Johnson for his actions, also during World War I. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama presents Ina Bass, left, and Elsie Shemin-Roth of Webster Groves, Mo., center, with the the Medal of Honor on behalf of their father, Army Sgt. William Shemin during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Shemin was one of two World War I Army heroes — one black, one Jewish —that finally received the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Barack Obama arrives in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015, for a ceremony to posthumously bestows the Medal Of Honor on Army Sgt. William Shemin and Army Pvt. Henry Johnson. Two World War I Army heroes, one black, one Jewish, are finally getting the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
William Shemin was 19-years-old when his heroics during World War I earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest combat award. His daughter has pushed for him to receive the highest award saying his actions deserved theMedal of Honor, but he was a victim of discrimination against Jewish service members. A new law will allow his case to be reviewed. (Shemin Family Photo/MCT via Getty Images)
In this Jan. 5, 2012 file photo, Elsie Shemin-Roth holds a World War I photo of her father, William Shemin, at her home in Labadie, Mo. Nearly a century after Sgt. Shemin pulled wounded comrades to safety on a World War I battlefield, his heroism has finally earned him the nation's highest service medal. On Thursday, May 14, 2015, the White House announced that President Barack Obama will award the Medal of Honor in tribute to Roth. He died in 1973. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
In this July 10, 2014, file photo, a statue of Henry Johnson is displayed in the Arbor Hill neighborhood in Albany, N.Y. Two World War I Army heroes, Sgt. William Shemin and Johnson are finally getting the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. President Barack Obama plans to posthumously bestow the nation’s highest military honor on both men for their actions in 1918 during a White House ceremony Tuesday, June 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)
A statue of Henry Johnson is displayed in the Arbor Hill neighborhood on Thursday, July 10, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will consider whether the black World War I hero from Albany should be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor nearly 100 years after he single-handedly fought off a German attack, killing several of the enemy and saving a comrade despite suffering serious wounds. Johnson was a solider in an all-black outfit, the 369th Infantry Regiment, a New York National Guard unit based in Manhattan and known as the Harlem Hellfighters. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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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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