© 2022 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

World War I Museum pays tribute to an ‘often-forgotten’ hero with faces of Kansas City veterans

Vietnam veteran Jerry Lakey shows an image from his Air Force days along with an image of his father, Delbert Lakey. Both men are included in the mosaic of Sgt. Henry Johnson along with Lakey's great, great uncle at the National World War I Museum and Memorial.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Vietnam veteran Jerry Lakey shows an image from his Air Force days along with an image of his father, Delbert Lakey. Both men are included in the mosaic of Sgt. Henry Johnson along with Lakey's great, great uncle at the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

Pvt. Henry Johnson, a Harlem Hellfighter and World War I hero, was denied recognition by the U.S. military until decades after his death. For Veterans Day, a mural at Kansas City's World War I Museum and Memorial immortalizes Johnson's story.

Two stern portraits of Army Sgt. Henry Johnson gaze across the east and west corridors of the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

At first, Johnson’s floor-to-ceiling portrait looks like one giant photograph. But as you move closer, the faces of thousands of individuals reveal themselves from within.

It’s through these photos — 3,500, to be exact — that the Museum and Memorial tells not just the story of Johnson but the story of all American service members this Veterans Day.

Service without recognition

Shortly after midnight on May 15, 1918, Johnson stood guard at his post at the edge of the Argonne Forest in France, when he came under attack by German snipers.

The 26-year-old Army private sent his sentry partner, Pvt. Needham Roberts, to alert the troops serving under French command. Then he started hurling grenades toward the sound of the wire cutters.

Roberts didn’t get far — he was struck by the Germans’ own grenades.

Johnson ran to Roberts’ aid, suffering gunshots from the descending German raiding party. After his rifle jammed, Johnson used the gun as a club. When that shattered, he used a bolo knife to fend off the attackers.

By sunrise, four Germans lay dead and another 10-20 were wounded. Johnson had 21 wounds himself, but managed to save Roberts.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Vietnam veterans and National World War I Museum and Memorial volunteers Bob Dudley, left and Jerry Lakey search the Sgt. Henry Johnson mosaic mural for their own images Tuesday at the Museum and Memorial.

Johnson was a native of Albany, New York, and a member of the all-Black 15th New York National Guard Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

He was promoted to sergeant, awarded the French Croix de Guerre — the “Cross of War” — and earned the nickname “Black Death.” Johnson planned to return to Albany to resume life as a Red Cap Porter, but his injuries were too severe for him to find sustained work.

However, those injuries were never documented by the U.S. Army. There was no Purple Heart waiting for him at home, and no disability pension for his shattered foot. He couldn’t hold a job and started drinking, and in 1929, he died at the age of 37.

It would take decades longer for Johnson to posthumously receive the Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Cross and The Medal of Honor — the highest recognition of valor from the U.S. military.

“It’s a really powerful and profoundly important experience for an often-forgotten story to be told, representing those many who served whose stories very often slip into the distant past and are often forgotten,” says Matt Naylor, president and CEO of the World War 1 Museum and Memorial.

Johnson’s mural was created by The People’s Picture, which has created about 30 different mosaics like it, and came as part of America 250, celebrating the country’s 250th anniversary coming up in 2026.

Each tile is roughly 1.5 by 2 inches in size, and together make up the lines and shading to recreate Johnson’s portrait. The images span veterans from all branches of the U.S. military, from all eras.

“It’s important that we tell stories that might otherwise be forgotten, the sacrifice that they have made that’s often distanced from many of us now,” Naylor says. “And Veterans Day helps us remember that there are the few who protect the many.”

“I was proud of my uniform”

Included within the 3,500 photos are some of the World War I Museum and Memorial’s own volunteers.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Bob Dudley displays his portrait that is one of 3,500 used to create a mural of World War I hero Sgt. Henry Johnson that is on display at the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

Bob Dudley, 74, is one of them. Dudley says the country’s failure to recognize Johnson’s heroics feels a lot like the prevailing attitude soldiers received coming home in the early 1970’s from Southeast Asia.

“I was spit on,” says Dudley, a 29-year Army veteran who served in Vietnam, and who has volunteered at the museum for more than a decade.

Dudley remembers being told to remove his uniform when he came home, so people wouldn’t recognize him as military. “I was proud of my uniform and I kept mine on,” he says.

He sees Veterans Day as a strong reminder that the U.S. still has work to remember its veterans.

“It is a day that I think our country does attempt to recognize why we have the freedoms we have,” he says. “I think when you come in, you look at that, you do see the wide range of Americans who said, ‘I will serve my country.’”

Jerry Lakey, 73, is a Vietnam veteran and another museum volunteer whose photo helps make up Johnson’s image — along with a photo of his father, Delbert Lakey, an Army veteran who served in the South Pacific in World War II, and a great, great uncle who fought in World War I.

Lakey served in the Air Force for four years, and says walking past this mural and seeing the different faces makes him reflect on the lives lost.

“I mean, that’s 3,500 people or something, but you know that’s just one Army regiment,” he says. “There’s millions and millions. And compared to how many have died in wars, it’s just a drop in the bucket.”

But he’s also disappointed about how long it took for Johnson to get his due.

“It’s nice that he’s finally recognized, but it’s 100 years too late,” Lakey says.

The museum has installed two identical murals of Johnson to view inside for free. But the display is only temporary: Naylor says it will be removed after one month.

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.