Thursday, May 24, 2018
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World War I hero’s story to be told on PBS' ‘History Detectives’


Tukufu Zuberi, left, at Arlington Cemetery meets with Tara Johnson and DeMarqus Townsend, descendants of one of the men honored in his World War I poster, Our Colored Heroes.


It’s not always in the movies when an unassuming figure takes on an enemy, is injured, and single-handedly cuts down a number of his opponents and sends the rest running for their lives before he rescues his wounded companion.

It happened in real life, and when this week’s History Detectives broadcasts on PBS stations Saturday at 8 p.m., some Toledoans will tune in to hear the story about the heroic act of one of their forebears, Henry Johnson, who in World War I was a member of the Harlem Hellfighters of the 369th Infantry of the New York National Guard.

His granddaughter, Tara Johnson and her son, DeMarqus Townsend, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and a University of Toledo student, are in Saturday’s History Detectives. The show will be broadcast on WGTE-TV (Channel 30).

When program host Tukufu Zuberi visited the grave site of the figure in his poster, he was surprised to meet the soldier’s Toledo relatives at Arlington National Cemetery. Mr. Zuberi is key in this week’s program because he was the inspiration behind it. As a collector of posters showing blacks in combat, he wanted to uncover the story behind one he owns from World War I that’s titled “Our Colored Heroes.” It shows two black men, one injured and the other clearly winning the battle against several white men in uniform, who depict a party of more than 20 Germans that attacked the black men while they were on sentry duty.

Mr. Zuberi learned that the hero in his poster is Henry Johnson who fought off the German patrol and saved the life of his fellow soldier, Needham Roberts. The heroic act brought Johnson and Needham the honor as the first Americans to receive France’s Croix de Guerre, its most distinguished honor for bravery. When the pair returned to their own country, the social mores of the times dictated that they not be recognized at all.

When Sergeants Johnson and Roberts returned to the states, there were some celebrations, Ms. Johnson said during a telephone interview. However, no sooner than the ticker tape fell were some Harlem Hellfighters killed and burned in uniform while others, such as Johnson and Needham, were left to their own demise. Within a couple of years, Roberts, of New Jersey, who had been seriously injured, committed suicide. Ms. Johnson said that her grandfather turned to alcohol to dull his pain before he died in his 30s. His misery cost him work and his family.

“He had been injured over 21 times, and you can’t work because of those injuries. You have a hard time coping with those pains of war,” said Ms. Johnson. “They didn’t get benefits or medical assistance or psychological help.”

She said Henry’s wife and children left him to live with her parents, who refused to let him visit in their home. Ms. Johnson’s father, Herman Johnson, was a Tuskegee Airman who lived in Kansas City, Mo., where he was a distinguished civic leader. She runs his insurance business in Kansas City.

Ms. Johnson said that because Herman Johnson was young when his father died, he didn’t know where his father’s body was interred. Then the family learned that he had been in a pauper’s graveyard in his hometown of Albany, N.Y. However, when someone recognized his name, his body was then transferred to Arlington National Cemetery.

“My father didn’t start telling me the story until I was 16, and I didn’t have a true appreciation of the impact. I was proud of my dad, I was proud of them both. It was an interesting story and a sad story,” she said about the Harlem Hellfighters’ experience.

“[Grandfather] was an ordinary guy who was 5-feet, 4 inches, 130 pounds, and couldn’t get work or see his family,” said Ms. Johnson, whose husband, Curtis Johnson, who played football for the University of Toledo and the Miami Dolphins, is a retired Toledo firefighter. The couple lost their son, Curtis Johnson, Jr., in a house fire nearly two years ago. Another son, BillyDee Townsend, attends UT.

Now the family hopes to see Sergeant Johnson awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

“Here we have petitioned for this for a while. They said we didn’t have enough evidence, but now we have evidence from commanding officers,” Ms. Johnson said.

Contact Rose Russell at: or 419-724-6178.

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