Ninety-seven years ago Sergeant William Shemin and Private Henry Johnson performed heroic deeds during the waning months of WWI. But racism and anti-Semitism delayed them from being honored for their service.
On Tuesday, June 2, President Barack H. Obama, bestowed on each man the coveted Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest awards long after their deaths.
Shemin’s medal was accepted by his daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth of Webster Grove, Mo. Johnson’s medal was accepted by Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard.
This recognition event, where overlooked Black and Jewish service members are honored for heroism, continues a trend that stretches back to the Clinton administration, as the U.S. military tries to correct past injustices.
Both of the Soldiers were given the highest honors for their military valor by the French government.
Johnson served with the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment, which came to be known as the Harlem Hellfighters, which were formed in New York.
Although they fought hard for their country during WWI, Black Soldiers were not allowed to serve in the ranks of the U.S. Army during the war. Instead they fought with French Soldiers.
While on night sentry duty on May 15, 1918, Private Johnson and a fellow soldier received a surprise attack by a German raiding party consisting of at least 12 soldiers. While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Johnson mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier was badly wounded, Private Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces.
Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Displaying great courage, Private Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated.
Fellow soldier Melville Miller said about Johnson in a 1977 documentary called Men of Bronze: “He shot and he cut and he swung his rifle around. He had 21 wounds in his body but he refused to die.”
Shemin served with the 4th Infantry Division. The White House describes his actions:
“While serving as a rifleman from August 7-9, 1918, Sergeant Shemin left the cover of his platoon’s trench and crossed open space, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue the wounded. After officers and senior non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire, until he was wounded, August 9.”
Johnson died in 1929; Shemin in 1973.
Shemin eventually was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his courage under fire. And for years, his daughter has fought for him to be recognized with the Medal of Honor.
Sgt. Johnson received the Purple Heart in 1996 and a Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. His cause was taken up by the office of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., which assembled more than 1,000 pages of documentation.
Until this week, Johnson’s highest recognition came from France, the country to which the U.S. had assigned his all-Black unit. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palm.
Johnson never received any veterans benefits, although he suffered from his wounds inflicted on him in war. He complained to the Black press about his inability to secure benefits, but the U.S. War Department retaliated by refusing his veterans benefits until he died in Washington, D.C.