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Associated Press
In this July 10, 2014 file photo, a statue of Henry Johnson is displayed in the Arbor Hill neighborhood in Albany, N.Y. The secretary of defense has recommended awarding a posthumous Medal of Honor to the black soldier from upstate New York who saved a comrade while fighting off a German attack in France during World War I. Sen. Charles Schumer says Tuesday that Chuck Hagel has sent Congress a letter saying Sgt. Henry Johnson should receive the nation's highest military decoration for bravery in combat.

New interest in long-denied honor

Sgt. Henry Johnson was working as a train station porter when he enlisted in the unit that became known as the Harlem Hellfighters. About midnight May 15, 1918, he was standing guard duty with another soldier in France when they were attacked by about two dozen Germans.

Both Americans were wounded. But Johnson, who stood 5 feet 4 inches tall and who served in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, fought off the attack, using his knife and rifle to kill or wound several of the enemy trying to drag the other American away. Johnson won one of France's highest military medals, but Jim Crow-era racism kept Johnson from receiving U.S. military honors at the time.

Johnson returned to Albany, New York, after the war, plagued by his wounds. He died a destitute alcoholic at 32. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 2003, Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military honor.

According to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, the secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, has recommended a posthumous Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration, for Johnson, who was from upstate New York.

The president gets the final word on the medal request, which requires passage of special legislation because Johnson's actions were more than five years ago. Schumer said he'd sponsor the legislation that would exempt Johnson from the Medal of Honor rules.

If approved, Johnson would become the 89th black soldier to receive the Medal of Honor and the second for heroism during World War I, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.