WASHINGTON, June 3, 2015 – President Barack Obama honored two World War I soldiers with Medals of Honor yesterday, 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 Army Pvt. Henry Johnson, who was African-American, and Sgt. William Shemin, who was Jewish.
“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.”
Johnson and Shemin served in 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, he said, it is never too late to say thank you.
“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,” he said.
“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 known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” that later became the 369th Infantry Regiment.
He is credited with helping fight off a German raiding party and protecting a fellow soldier from capture, May 15, 1918.
Shemin was assigned as a rifleman to Company G, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces, in France.
He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to rescue wounded troops during combat operations during the Aisne-Marne offensive in France, between Aug. 7 and Aug. 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.
Honored In France, Not At Home
Johnson was ordered to the front lines in 1918. His unit was 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, on sentry duty were confronted in the pitch-black, pre-dawn hours by a German raiding party of at least a dozen men.
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 from capture.
While Johnson was one of the first Americans to receive France’s highest award for valor, “his own nation didn’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.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, New York National Guard senior enlisted advisor, accepted the medal on Johnson’s behalf. Soldiers from the 369th were among the attendees.
Johnson 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
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 idly 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.
In a battle that stretched on for days, Shemin stepped up and took command after officers became causalities. He reorganized depleted squads and led rescues of the wounded, Obama said.
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 Jews 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.
Shemin was a wonderful, hardworking, generous man who loved serving his country, Shemin-Roth said in an interview Monday. He had high expectations for his three children and 14 grandchildren.
“He told us all to always do more than you are asked,” she said adding that he taught the entire family how to properly salute and fold a flag.
While he couldn’t 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’s post-traumatic stress disorder — he still had the “most wonderful sense of humor,” she said.
“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.”