President Obama Rightfully Gives the Valor of 2 NCOs Its Due 97 Years Later
By Pablo Villa - NCO Journal
June 2, 2015
Download the PDF
Sgt. Henry Johnson and Sgt. William Shemin joined the Army at a time when not all Soldiers were treated equally.
Johnson, an African-American, and Shemin, a Jewish-American, were part of an Army that relegated ethnic and religious minorities to smaller roles within the force during World War I. That didn’t stop either man from stepping up in a big way when the lives of fellow Soldiers were at risk. Their individual acts of valor on separate battlefields saved the lives of their comrades. Their heroism occurred despite suffering serious wounds amid arduous conditions.
For nearly a century, their actions went unrecognized by their country.
On Tuesday, after decades of obscurity and years of pushing by family members and veterans’ organizations, President Barack Obama awarded both men the nation’s highest honor.
“We are a nation — a people — who remember our heroes,” Obama said during a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House. “We never forget their sacrifice, and we believe it’s never too late to say, ‘Thank you.’”
Harlem Hellfighter repels a raid
Johnson received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions May 15, 1918, to fight off a German raid party using his Bowie knife. He was on night sentry duty with Pvt. Needham Roberts in an area northwest of Sainte-Menehould, France, between the Tourbe and Aisne rivers. According to the White House, the pair came under a surprise attack by a dozen German soldiers.
While under intense fire and despite his own wounds, Johnson kept an injured Roberts from being taken prisoner. He came forward from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and gravely wounded, Johnson continued fighting until the enemy retreated.
Johnson was in France as part of C Company of the 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, which he joined in June 1917. The all-black National Guard unit would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment — the famed Harlem Hellfighters — part of the 93rd Division, which was ordered to the front lines to fight with the French in 1918. After being awarded France’s highest award for valor, the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, in 1919, Johnson died in 1929 without fanfare. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. But until now, he had been overlooked for the Medal of Honor.
“America can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson,” Obama said. “But we can do our best to make it right. I’m proud to award him the Medal of Honor.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, the command sergeant major of the New York Army National Guard accepted the award on Johnson’s behalf.
“In the modern time that we live in, if you are deserving of something you are rewarded expeditiously,” Wilson said in an interview before Tuesday’s ceremony. “I’m glad there are families and organizations that have pushed and pushed and pushed to make this happen. It’s pretty much all about Albany, it’s all about New York, it’s all about the National Guard. It’s all about Henry Johnson.”
A kid grows up fast
William Shemin was too young to enlist in the Army in 1917. So, much like he would do throughout his military career, he found a way.
“He puffed his chest and lied about his age,” Obama said.
Shemin was serving as a rifleman with G Company, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, during the Aisne-Marne Offensive in the summer of 1918. According to the White House, from Aug. 7 to 9, he left the cover of his platoon’s trench and crossed open space, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machinegun and rifle fire to rescue the wounded.
After officers and senior noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Shemin took command of the platoon until he was wounded by shrapnel and a machinegun bullet, which pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear. He was hospitalized for three months and then was placed on light duty as part of the Army occupation in Germany and Belgium.
For his injuries, he received the Purple Heart and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on Dec. 29, 1919.
“William stepped up and took command. He led rescues of the wounded,” Obama said. “William was cool, calm, intelligent and utterly fearless. A young kid who lied about his age grew up fast in war.”
Shemin was honorably discharged in August 1919. He died in 1973.
His eldest daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth of Webster Grove, Mo., began an effort in the early 2000s to give her father a chance at being awarded the Medal of Honor. Her endeavor was spurred by news that a group of Jewish-American World War II veterans were getting their Army Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross and Air Force Cross citations reviewed for upgrades due to anti-Semitism. Shemin performed actions that were worthy of the Medal of Honor, according to a Distinguished Service Cross recommendation in the family’s possession.
Shemin-Roth’s efforts included contacting the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America and a congressman for help. Eventually, they saw the passage of the William Shemin Jewish World War I Veterans Act in 2011, which allowed Shemin’s case to be resubmitted for review.
Four years later, Shemin-Roth, along with her sister, Ina, joined Obama on stage to receive their father’s Medal of Honor.
‘We have work to do’
Obama concluded the ceremony by saying his administration is working to ensure that minority war heroes who have been previously overlooked are properly honored.
“It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve,” he said. “So, we have work to do as a nation to make sure that all of our heroes’ stories are told.”
His last remarks were directed at the scores of Soldiers who have gone overlooked.
“We know who you are, we know what you did for us and we are forever grateful.”