By Laurel Busby
A quest to create a World War I memorial of unsung heroes has connected some Palisadians on a mission with sculptor Manuelita Brown.
The future memorial, which is designed to enrich the L.A. National Cemetery, would include three reliefs around the base and an approximately 8-foot tall bronze statue of Henry Johnson, the epitome of WWI’s unappreciated and rarely remembered heroes.
Part of an African American regiment sent to fight with the French as the U.S. joined the war, Johnson used a knife to fend off more than 20 German soldiers, save his injured fellow guard from being kidnapped and also prevented the camp from being invaded.
At the time, Johnson’s 369th infantry regiment, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” had been sent to fight for the French, while white regiments stayed home because the U.S. refused to place white soldiers under French command.
A scene of Johnson in battle will top the memorial not only because he was a hero who saved lives while suffering 21 injuries, but also because he continued to suffer once he returned home. His severe injuries left him unable to perform his former job as a porter, and he received no disability pay, dying penniless about a decade later.
“He had a very damaged leg and foot and died in complete poverty,” said Brown, an Encinitas sculptor. “Immediately after fighting the Germans and saving his comrades, the French awarded him their highest medal of honor in 1918, but . . . awards from America came posthumously.”
Johnson could have lived and died two more times before he received America’s highest medal of honor. It was two years ago, almost a century after his heroism, that President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Medal of Honor, while President George W. Bush had previously honored him with the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.
Diane Elder, one of the Palisadians leading the charge to bring the memorial to the cemetery, said, “That’s an awful long time for somebody with that kind of valor to go unrecognized, and it was very sad for him to be uncared for. It’s a very sad, sad story.”
Johnson did receive some recognition during his lifetime, as President Theodore Roosevelt called him one of the five bravest Americans to fight in WWI, and his image was used on Victory War stamps and Army recruiting materials.
In 1919, he also led a parade of the “Harlem Hellfighters,” who were named by the Germans for their fighting tenacity, but the parade was segregated as the regiment was not allowed to take part in the main parade with other returning U.S. Troops. Hank Elder, a member of Pacific Palisades Sons of the American Legion, has a strong sense of mission in bringing new awareness to Johnson and other unsung heroes of WWI.
He also feels a vital connection to the cemetery itself. His grandfather, a WWI bi-plane pilot, is buried there, and he has been visiting it every year for more than 50 years.
All the wars prior to WWI have memorial statues at the cemetery, and Elder is working to continue the memorial tradition with this new piece, which will also commemorate some other rarely recognized WWI heroes—women who contributed as nurses and ambulance drivers, biplane pilots who were pioneers in military reconnaissance and aviation, and the 369th regiment and men in the trenches generally.
Both Elder and Brown would like this piece to provide a teaching moment and be one part of a deeper educational experience in the cemetery, which is the final resting place for at least 6,500 WWI veterans.
As part of this process, Elder has studied WWI and related history, which helped him discover not only how seminal the warwas to the development of issues still affecting the world today, ranging from our reliance on fossil fuels to varied worldwide political realities, but also how much history he thought he knew that was incorrect.
“This project has provided self-realization—the things I took for granted that made me prideful going down the street are not true,”Elder said.“I told Manuelita ‘I think I’ve been radicalized.’ She said ‘No, you’re being woke.’ I like that. That’s what I feel like.”
During his research, Elder learned about memorable Americans whose graves are in the cemetery, including William True Bennett, a white brigadier general who led one of the first African American troops in the Civil War; William Jenifer Powell, who created the first African American flying school in Santa Monica, which became a training ground for future Tuskeegee Airmen; and 100 “buffalo soldiers.”
Through this cemetery, “the living history begins to present itself,” Elder said.“It’s not a dead place. The idea is to ultimately have a walk of heroes. If we’re as smart as we hope we are, it will become an edutainment for field trips.”
As their chosen sculptor, Brown couldn’t be a more ideal match for the project. A former math teacher, she brings a teaching element to her artwork, and she has a hidden weapon in investigating the past because her son, Vincent, is a history professor at Harvard University.
Through reading about Johnson partly through books her son recommended, she began to get a picture of who Johnson was, how his intense battle progressed, and how the war impacted others. She endeavored to communicate the essence of his experience in her sculpture, which is currently a two-foot model to aid in fundraising.
Brown researched fighting techniques to make sure Johnson’s stance and arm positions would look realistic, and she added specific elements like the French helmet he wore. The French also provided the rifle that broke during the fight as African American soldiers at the time were not issued weapons by the U.S. or trained in how to use them. In additions to accurate details, Brown sought to build a connection between viewers and Johnson.
In general, “I want people to identify with the person in the sculpture, so they can see themselves in that person,” Brown said. “I also want the sculpture to tell the story.”
Brown has achieved this feat with many of her other sculptures, including a life-sized Sojourner Truth filled with warmth and vitality that she created in hopes that she could one day find a public space for it. A professor at UC San Diego saw it and was so moved that he proposed that the university buy it, which it did.
Another piece, a bust of Thurgood Marshall, was sculpted because Brown thought UC San Diego’s Thurgood Marshall College needed a monument. She gifted the bust to them (aside from the costs of casting and bronzing), and it now greets students entering that college’s administration building.
These pieces, which honor and provide connection with figures in African American history, are an essential part of Brown’s work, which she does in part because “others are not doing them so often, and it’s an area I wanted to make sure that is represented.” Her range, though, is diverse and includes pieces like Triton, UC San Diego’s mascot, and a group of eight playful dolphins cavorting in water in La Jolla.
For Brown, none of her work seems truly finished until the pieces are installed for the public to view.
“If somebody really loves one and interacts with it, then I feel like I’ve finished the job,” Brown said, adding that creating sculptures for her is a bit like parenting. “If the child never leaves home, I don’t feel like I’ve contributed. If the child is out there, contributing to what’s happening, I can take pride. I have the same sort of feeling about the sculptures.”
For the new piece, the WWI centennial next year is central to why the memorial is being orchestrated by the Sons of the American Legion and the nonprofit Remembering All Our Heroes, of which Diane Elder is president. This WWI monument would provide a retrospective window into history and would also be the first new statue in 70 years at the West L.A. VA cemetery.
About $200,000 is required to create, install and maintain the memorial, and Brown “hopes there are a fairly large number of people who make contributions and feel like they’re part of the process.
“While it would be wonderful if one person made one big contribution, it would be even better if there were a thousand people and they all came to the unveiling and felt like they were a part of it. That would be the most gratifying of all.”
If interested in contributing, checks can be sent to Remembering All Our Heroes, P.O. Box 1721, Pacific Palisades, CA. 90272.