WASHINGTON, D.C. (Army News Service) -- President
Barack Obama honored two World War I Soldiers with Medals of Honor
June 2, 2015 ... saying it was long overdue and the nation will work as long
as it takes to make sure all the heroes' stories are told.
The White House ceremony comes nearly a century after the valorous
acts of Pvt. Henry Johnson, who was African-American, and Sgt.
William Shemin, who was Jewish.
Image of WWI Medal of Honor recipients, Henry Johnson and William
Shemin, created by USA Patriotism! from images by U.S. Army
"It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William
Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve," the
president said. "There are surely others, whose heroism is
still unacknowledged and uncelebrated."
Shemin served on the battlefields of France and risked their
lives to save others, Obama said.
"They both left us decades ago, before we could give them
the full recognition that they deserved," Obama said. But it
is never too late to say "thank you," he said.
"America is the country we are today because of people like
Henry and William - Americans, who signed up to serve, and
rose to meet their responsibilities - and then went beyond,"
"The least we can do is to say: We know who
you are. We know what you did for us. We are forever
grateful," he said.
Johnson enlisted in the Army and
was assigned to Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry
Regiment, - an all-black National Guard unit, which would
later become the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the
He is credited with helping
fight off a German raiding party and protecting a fellow
Soldier from capture, May 15, 1918.
assigned as a rifleman to Company G, 47th Infantry Regiment,
4th Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces, in
He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire
to rescue wounded troops during combat operations during the
Aisne-Marne Offensive in France, Aug. 7-9, 1918. After
platoon leaders had become casualties, Shemin took command
and displayed initiative under fire, until he was wounded by
shrapnel and a machine-gun bullet.
JOHNSON HONORED IN FRANCE, NOT AT HOME
Image of Henry Johnson, Medal of Honor recipient, courtesy of U.S.
Johnson was ordered to the front lines in 1918. Johnson and his
unit were attached to a French army command in the vicinity of the
Tourbe and Aisne Rivers, northwest of Saint Menehoul, France.
Obama said Johnson "became a legend" when he and another
Soldier, Needham Roberts, were confronted in the pitch-black,
pre-dawn hours by a German raiding party of at least a dozen men
while on sentry duty.
Johnson fired until his rifle was
empty; he and Roberts threw grenades and both of them were hit, with
Roberts losing consciousness, Obama said. As the enemy tried to
carry away Roberts, Johnson fought back. After his gun jammed, he
used it and a Bolo knife to take down the enemy and protect Roberts
While Johnson was one of the first Americans to
receive France's highest award for valor, "his own nation did't
award him anything - not even the Purple Heart, though he had been
wounded 21 times," Obama said.
"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 30s, he passed away," Obama said.
While the nation cannot change what happened to Johnson and other
Soldiers like him, who were judged by the color of their skin, "we
can do our best to make it right," Obama said, noting Johnson
received a Purple Heart in 1996. He received a Distinguished Service
Cross in 2002.
"Today, 97 years after his extraordinary acts
of courage and selflessness, I'm proud to award him the Medal of
Honor," Obama said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, of the
New York National Guard, accepted the medal on Johnson's behalf.
Soldiers from the 369th were among the attendees.
left the Army as a sergeant, Wilson noted in an interview Monday.
The legacy of Johnson, through his valorous acts that night and as a
leader and noncommissioned officer, continues on, he said.
"It's a blessing; it's an honor; it's a good thing that Henry
Johnson is finally being recognized as a hero," Wilson said.
SHEMIN REPRESENTED NATION WITH HONOR
Image of William Sheman, Medal of Honor recipient, courtesy of
Shemin repeatedly ventured out of the trenches into the
open field to rescue wounded comrades, Obama said. The open
space separating the Allies from the Germans was a
"bloodbath," he said.
"Soldier after Soldier ventured
out, and Soldier after Soldier was mowed down," Obama said.
"Those still in the trenches were left with a terrible
choice: die trying to rescue your fellow Soldier, or watch
him die, knowing that part of you will die along with him."
Shemin could not sit by and ran out in the "hell of No
Man's Land" three times, racing through heavy machine-gun
fire to carry Soldiers to safety, Obama said.
the battle, which stretched on for days, Shemin stepped up
and took command after officers became causalities. He
reorganized depleted squads and led rescues of the wounded,
Shemin, the son of Russian immigrants,
was devoted to service and the nation, Obama said.
But he served at a time when the contributions and heroism
of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked,
the president said.
"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. William
Shemin," Obama said.
Shemin's daughters, Elsie
Shemin-Roth and Ina Bass, accepted the Medal of Honor on
behalf of their father, who died in 1973.
He was a
wonderful, hardworking, generous man, who loved serving his
country, said Shemin-Roth during an interview Monday. He had
high expectations for his three children and 14
"He told us all to always do more than
you are asked," she said. He taught the entire family how to
properly salute and fold a flag.
While he could not sleep well at night, had painful wounds from
the war and shrapnel in his back, was deaf in one ear, and had a
"nervous disorder" - today some would call Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder - he still had the "most wonderful sense of humor," she
"He directed our lives to be good, productive
Jewish-American citizens," she said. "We all loved him dearly. But
we also know that he'd been through much too much."
By Lisa Ferdinando
Army News Service
Medal of Honor Citations >
| William Shemin
Comment on this article