In the recent PBS series The Great War, considerable time was given to the heroic and tragic story of Henry Johnson, a black soldier during World War I. It made me think of Leroy Johnson and the Army camp on Lake Pontchartrain named after him. What can you tell me about him?
There is no connection between these two military heroes, but both are remembered for their records of service. Henry Johnson was a member of the "Harlem Hellfighters" based in Harlem, New York, the first African-American unit of the U.S. Army to engage in combat during World War I. Reflecting racial discrimination of the time, Johnson's unit initially was assigned menial tasks like unloading cargo and cleaning latrines. The unit later brigaded with a French army colonial unit, which put them in front-line combat. Johnson, who died in 1929, was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor.
Leroy Johnson was born in 1919, a year after World War I ended. A native of Caney Creek in north Louisiana, he entered the U.S. Army at Oakdale in 1943. He was killed in combat during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines on Dec. 15, 1944. According to his citation for the Medal of Honor, which was awarded in 1945, Johnson was killed when he threw himself on two unexploded grenades he spotted as members of his unit were fighting back an assault by enemy soldiers.
The New Orleans Army Air Base, which opened on the New Orleans lakefront in 1942, was renamed Camp Leroy Johnson in 1947. The 150-acre camp remained open until October 1964. That year, then-Gov. John McKeithen signed a 99-year lease turning over the land from the Orleans Parish Levee Board to LSUNO, which had opened in 1958 and is now the University of New Orleans. The site now is home to the Senator Nat G. Kiefer UNO Lakefront Arena and Maestri Field.