ROCHESTER, NY (05/20/2015)(readMedia)-- Rochester resident Louis Wilson, the Command Sergeant Major of the New York National Guard, will represent World War I hero Sgt. Henry Johnson during a White House Medal of Honor award ceremony on June 2.
Johnson, a New York National Guard Soldier who died in 1929, is being honored for a May 14, 1918 incident in which he fended off an attack by as many as 24 German soldiers.
While the French Army, which Johnson's unit was fighting with, honored him with a medal, he was denied any U.S. military medals until the award of a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross in 2003.
That award is now being upgraded to the nation's highest military honor.
Because Johnson has no living relatives, Wilson, a retired Rochester police officer and the highest ranking enlisted Soldier in the 10,400-member New York Army National Guard, will accept the medal from President Barack Obama on his behalf.
"It's an incredible honor," Wilson said.
"I am excited, happy, that I am the person selected for this to represent the Soldiers and especially the enlisted corps for this. To receive this honor on his behalf from the president," he added.
Johnson, an Albany New York resident, joined the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard in June of 1917 as America began gearing up for war.
Because he was African-American Johnson had to enlisted in what were then known as "colored regiments."
The 15th Infantry had been organized in 1913 to allow the black residents of Harlem to serve. The unit was renamed the 369th Infantry after it arrived in France and became famous as the Harlem Hell Fighters for the number of Croix De Guerre medals its Soldiers received while fighting with the French Army.
Because the U.S. Army's leadership didn't trust the black Soldiers, they were assigned to logistics duties instead of being trained to fight in the trenches.
But the French Army-whose African colonial troops had been fighting since 1914-didn't care about skin color. The 369th Infantry as loaned to the French, who were desperate for fresh troops in the face of renewed German attacks.
The 369th Infantry traded their American rifles and helmets for French rifles and helmets and went into the French trench line facing German troops.
On May 14, 1918, Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were on outpost duty when a German raiding part of as many as 24 men attacked them. It was standard German practice to capture prisoners for intelligence gathering purposes.
Johnson and Roberts stood their ground. When Roberts was wounded, Johnson continued fighting with his rifle, a knife, and even bare fists: killing at least four of the Germans-including one with the knife-and wounding the others.
The French Army gave Johnson the Croix de Guerre with palm. His own Army gave him nothing, although former President Theodore Roosevelt lauded him as "one of the five bravest American Soldiers of the war."
Johnson was written about in the newspapers and then forgotten.
But in the 1990s a campaign began to have the Army relook at Johnson's case. In 2003 he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Another look at his record and relevant documents resulted in the decision to present the Medal of Honor.
The opportunity to represent Henry Johnson , the New York Army National Guard and the Army at the White House ceremony is tremendous, Wilson said.
"With Sgt. Johnson I can equate that he was a New York National Guard Soldier and, in a way, I am his command sergeant major," Johnson said. " I have been thinking about that a lot lately."
He also feels a special connection to Johnson because they share the common bond of being African-American as well as being National Guard Soldiers, Wilson said.
" But unlike his day in which he was never recognized, today we are recognized," Wilson said. " He paved the way for African American Soldiers."
"Where they served in segregated units today we fight side-by-side as a team," he added.
Johnson will be joined at the White House ceremony by his wife Teresa and Major General Patrick Murphy, the commander of the New York National Guard.