Two World War I soldiers were posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama almost 100 years after they put their lives at risk to save their comrades in the French battlefields.
Sergeant William Shemin of Bayonne, New Jersey, and Private Henry Johnson, of Albany, New York, were recognized with the United States’ highest military honor for valor.
According to ABC News, Obama said in Tuesday’s White House ceremony, “It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve and there are surely others whose heroism is still unacknowledged and uncelebrated.”
Johnson was a member of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters. He, along with Private Needham Roberts, fought off an army of a dozen Germans on May 15, 1918, during their night sentry duty. A heavily wounded Johnson was able to force the Germans to retreat, thereby successfully preventing the enemy from taking Roberts in as prisoner, Obama said.
Johnson advanced towards the enemy wielding only a knife.
Obama said, “Henry was one of the first Americans to receive France’s highest award for valor but his own nation didn’t award him anything. Not even the Purple Heart, though he had been wounded 21 times, nothing for his bravery, though he had saved a fellow soldier at great risk to himself. His injuries left him crippled, he couldn’t find work, his marriage fell apart, and in his early 30’s he passed away. America can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson, we can’t change what happened to too many soldiers like him who went uncelebrated, because our nation judged them by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. But we can do our best to make it right.”
Johnson died in 1929 at a veterans hospital in Illinois, according to Daily Mail.
Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard accepted the award on Johnson’s behalf, while Shemin’s daughters, Elsie Shemin-Roth and Ina Bass, received the medal on their father’s behalf.
It took Elsie of suburban St. Louis years to gather and collect the records supporting the bid for her father.
Elsie learned of a law in early 2000’s that offered a provision to review the cases of Jewish soldiers who were denied medals in World War II. She subsequently began fighting for the introduction of a law that would allow similar reviews for Jewish soldiers who fought in World War I.
In an interview in December, she said, “This was anti-Semitism, no question about it. Now a wrong has been made right and all is forgiven.”
Her father died in 1973.
Addressing Shemin’s daughters, Obama said, “Sgt. Shemin served at a time when the contributions of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked,” Obama said. “But William Shemin saved American lives, he represented our nation with honor, and so it is my privilege on behalf of the American people to make this right and finally award the medal of honor to Sgt. Shemin.”
Although Former President Bill Clinton awarded Johnson with the Purple Heart in 1996, Obama said it was an honor to present him with the Medal of Honor “97 years after his extraordinary acts of courage and selflessness.”
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