President Obama Honors World War I Heroes

Sgts. Henry Johnson and William Shemin posthumously given medal of honor.
30:04 | 06/02/15

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Transcript for President Obama Honors World War I Heroes
An honor long over due for two heroes of World War I. One an African American the other Jewish President Obama is going to award sergeant Henry Johnson and Sargent William Shannon the medal of honor. Hi everyone I'm Caroline Costello in New York the soldiers fought bravely on the battlefields of France nearly a hundred years ago and may have been denied the military's highest honor. Because of discrimination it's. Let's bring in ABC's Willie Martinez apple on Louie how significant after almost a hundred years these two heroes finally seeing on. There it's very significant recognizing the honor and the bravery of these two individuals. In the battlefields of France on 97 years ago. As you mentioned probably they didn't get the medal of honor at the time because of discrimination period. I'm but there are efforts always under way to trying to get. The justification important. And passed it and honored heroes to receive the medal of honor and that is what is happening in this case. Individuals a step forward in the last fifteen or twenty years presenting evidence that these two individuals. Private Johnson and Sargent Shimon bowl practices. Deserved to receive the medal of honor and that is what we're seeing today in the culmination of a very long effort to get them is right or wrong from 97 years. What do we know about history. You know how discrimination racial or religious discrimination played a role. In how soldiers were honored to even though there on the battlefield side by side with others. It's it's an excellent point today to lead over the last couple of years we have seen several events here at the White House for President Obama has presented council liners. Rectifying wrongs of that past period. In some cases as far back as World War II when talking about Jewish Americans. Us soldiers sailors airmen and Marines. Who fought during a word as far back or two in May have been denied. He added that he and the ability to receive that honor because of their faith. The same with other minorities African Americans Hispanics congress has passed legislation that you use. The careers. The several episodes that may have been overlooked by the discrimination in the past and that this event hours it takes it even further. Back to world war and we the president speaking talent plus. Headed to Europe's western front. An ambulance driver he carried the wounded to safety. He lived to see. Our troops ship off to another ward Europe. And one in Korea. Vietnam. Rock. Afghanistan. Frank buckles became. It quietly powerful advocate for our veterans. And remain that way until he passed away four years ago. America's last surviving. Veteran of world war want. On the day frank was laid to rest at Arlington national cemetery Vice President Biden I want to pay our respects. And we weren't alone. Americans from across the country came out to express their gratitude. As well. There were different ages and races. Some military. Some not. Most of never met frank. But all of them braves are cold winter's day to offer final tribute to a man with whom they shared a powerful conviction. That no one who serve us our country should never be forgotten. We are a nation. A people. Will remember our heroes. We take seriously our responsibility. To only send them. When wars necessary. We strive to care for them and their families when they come home. We never forget their sacrifice. And we believe that it's never too late. To say thank you. That's why we're here this morning. Today America honor is two of her sons who served. In world war want. Nearly a century ago. These two soldiers were roughly the same age. Dropped into the battlefields of France and roughly the same time. They both risked their own lives to save lives others. They both left us decades ago before we could give them the full recognition that they deserve. But it's never too late to say thank you. Today we present America's highest military decoration. The medal Bob. To private Henry Johnson. And Sargent. William Sherman. Our begin by welcoming and thanking everyone who made this day possible. Family. Friends. Admirers. Some of you have worked for years to honor these heroes. To give the Miata they threw to receive a long time ago. We are grateful that you never gave up. We're appreciative. Of Europe's. As young man. Henry Johnson joined millions of other African Americans. On the great migration from rural south to the industrial north. The people in search of a better life. He landed an Albany where he mixed sodas and pharmacy. Worked in the coal yard and a supporter at a train station. When the United States entered World War I Henry and less to. He joined one of only. A few university Krug. The all black. 369. Infantry regiment the Harlem hell fires. Soon he was headed overseas. At the time our military was segregated. Most like soldiers serve in labor battalions not combat units. But general pershing center. At 36 knife to fight with the French army which accepted them as girl. Quickly the health fighters lived up to their name and and early hours of may fifteenth 1918. Henry Johnson became. Election. His battalion was in northern France tucked into a trench. Some slot but he couldn't Henry another soldier Needham Roberts stood sentry along no man's land. In the pre the wrong it was pitch black. And silent and then a click the sound of wire cutters. A German raiding party at least a dozen soldiers may be more. Fired a hail of votes. Henry fired back and tolls rifle was meant to. Then he in Needham threw grenades. Both of them were hit. Needham lost consciousness. True enemy soldiers began to carry him away while another provided cover firing at Henry. But Henry refuse to let them take his brother in arms. He shoved another magazine into his rifle. It jam. He turned the gun around and swung at one of the enemy knocking him down. That he grabbed the only weapon he had left his bowl night and went to rescue native. Henry took down one enemy soldier than the other. The soldier he knocked down with his rifle recovered and Henry was wounded again. But armed where justice knife Henry took him down to. And finally reinforcements arrived the last enemy soldier fled. As the sun rose the scale of what happened it became clear. In just a few minutes of fighting to Americans defeated an entire rate part. And Henry Johnson say crystal soldier from being taken prisoner. Henry became one of our most famous soldiers. Of the war. This picture was. Printed on recruitment posters. And ads for victory war stance. Former president Teddy Roosevelt wrote that he was one of the bravest man in the war. In 1919 Henry rode triumphantly. In a victory parade. Crowds line Fifth Avenue for miles cheering this American soul. Henry was one of the first American street Francis. I ask award for valor. But his own nation. Been awarded many. Money in the purple heart. Though he had been wounded 41 times. Nothing personal bravery Noory it saves a fellow soldier at great risk to himself. His injury is left of crippled. He couldn't find work. As marriage fell apart and in his early thirties he passed away. America can't change what happened to Henry Johnson. We can't change what happened too many soldiers like him who went on celebrated because our nation judge them by the color of their skin. And not the content of their Kirk. What we can do our best to make it right. In 1996 President Clinton were Henry Johnson a purple heart. And today 97 years after his extraordinary acts of courage and selflessness. I'm proud to award him the medal while. We are honored to be joined today by some very special guests. Veterans. Henry is regiment. 369. Thank you to each. Of you for your service. And I would ask. Command sergeant major Lewis Wolfson of the New York National Guard to come forward and accept this medal on private Johnson's bat. The president of the United States of America. Authorized by act of congress march 3 1863. Has awarded in the name of congress the medal of honor to private Henry Johnson united states army. Credit Henry Johnson just in addition tell by extraordinary acts of heroism at the risk his life above and beyond the call of duty. While serving as a member of company C 369. Infantry regiment 93 infantry division. American expeditionary forces on May fifteenth 1918. During combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the western front in France. In the early morning hours president Johnson and another soldier Brian sentry duty at a forward outpost. When he received a surprise attack from a German raiding party consisting of at least twelve soldiers. While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant when it's private Johnson Johnson to bring retaliation. Resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier was badly wounded in being carried away by the enemy Frederick Johnson exposed himself to great danger by advancing from his decision. To engage to two enemy captors in hand to hand combat. Wielding only unite and gravely wounded himself private Johnson continued fighting and defeating the two captors and rescuing a wounded soldier. Displaying great courage he continued to hold back the larger enemy force until the defeated enemy retreated. Leaving behind a large cache of weapons and equipment and providing valuable intelligence. Without credit Johnson's quick actions and continue fighting even in the face of almost certain death. The enemy might have succeeded in capturing prisoners we have passed without Matt and Anthony valuable intelligence. Private Johnson's extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty for keeping with the highest traditions but the military service. Reflect great credit upon himself. Company's C 369. Infantry regiment. 93 infantry division. And the united states army. Growing up in. Bail in new jurors. William Sherman loved sports. Football. Wrestling. Boxing. Swimming. If it require physical and mental toughness. Made your heart pump your muscles make. He was all in. This teenager even played semi pro baseball. So when America entered the war and posters ask their fears tough enough there was no question about it you gonna serve. Two young blessed. No problem he popped his chest and lied about his right. That's William Sherman joined the 475. Infantry regiment fourth division and shipped out for France. On August 7 1918. On the western front. The allies were hunkered down in want French the Germans and a mother separated by about a 150 yards of open space. Just a football field and a half. But that open space was bloodbath. Soldier after soldier ventured out the soldier after soldier was mowed down. To those still in the trenches were left with a terrible torts. Though I tried to rescue your fellow soldier. Or watch him die. Knowing that part of you will dialogue with. William Sherman couldn't stand to watch. He ran out into the hell. Of no man's land and drag a wounded comrade to safety. And many did it again. And again. Three times he raced through heavy machine gunfire. Three times he carried his fellow soldiers to say it. The battle stretched on for days. Eventually the platoons leadership broke down. Too many officers have become casualties. So Williams stepped up and took command. He reorganized the depleted squads. For every time there was a law in combat he led rescues of the woman. As lieutenant later describe that William was cool calm intelligently and personally utterly fearless. A young kid who lied about his age grow faster in war. They received accolades for his valor including the distinguished service cross. When he came home boy weren't. The school. Forestry and began a nursery business in the Bronx. It was hard work slots filled physical labor just like he liked it. He married a red head. Blue eyed woman named birth Schiffer and they have three children who gave him fourteen grandchildren. He bought a house upstate where the grandkids spent their summer swimming and riding horses. He taught them how to salute. He talked Bemba cracked way to raise the flag every morning and lower and fold it every night. Taught them how to be Americans. Williams stay in touch was fellow veterans are and when World War II game William went and talked to the army about signing up again. By then his war injuries have given him terrible him but he treated that went just like he treated his age all those years ago. Pay no attention or that he said. You know I build roads. He knew camouflage. Maybe there was placed firm in this war to. To birthers great relief the army said that the best thing warrants to infrastructure was to keep running his business and take care of spam. His daughter Elsie. Who's here today. We are what seems like platoon insurer jumped. Was a have a theory about what drove her father to serve. He was the son of Russian emigrants. And he was devoted to his Jewish faith. His family lived through the pogroms she's us. They sought towns destroyed. And children killed. And then they came to America. And here they found a haven. A home success. And my father and his sister both went to college. All that in one generation. That's what America meant to him. And that's why he do anything for this country. We're all sick as much as the American meant your father. He means even more rumor. Fix our nation. Too long sometimes to say so. Because Sargent Shem and served as time Mormeck contributions and heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform. Were too often overlooked. Warrior shaman saved American lives. He represented our nation where Lana. And so does my privilege on behalf the American people. To make this right and finally a war the metal bar. Sargent William shot. I want invite his daughter's LC and I don't. 86 and 83 and gorges. Turk service medal on their father's behalf. The president at the United States of America. Authorized by act of congress march 3 1863. Has awarded in the name of congress the medal of honor sergeant William Jennings united states army. Sargent William Shannon distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of heroism at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. While serving as a right woman with G company second battalion 47 infantry regiment fourth division American expeditionary forces. In connection with combat operations against an armed enemy on the belly river your massage France and August 7 to August 9 1918. Sargent Shannon three different occasions left covered across an open space 150 yards. Repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue rented. After officers and senior noncommissioned officers had become casualties. Surgeon general to command of the team. It displayed great initiative under fire until we ended on August night. Sergeant Chapman's extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty. Are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself. With G company second battalion. 47 infantry regiment fourth division. American expeditionary forces and the united states army. Well let us take him. A long time. For Henry Johnson. And Wayne Shem. To receive the recognition may deserve. And there are surely others whose heroism is still on acknowledge. And I'm celebrated. So we have work to serve as a nation. Make sure that all of our hero stories are told. And will keep that no matter how long it texts. America is the country we are today because. Of people like Henry in morning. Americans who signed up to serve. And rose. To meet their responsibilities. And then went. Beyond. Police we can do is to say. We know who you war. We know what you did for us. We are forever grateful. May god bless the fallen of all or worse. Maybe watch over veterans and their families and all those who serve today. God bless the United States of America. Would bet I'd ask Chaplin. Return the voted. For benediction. Lord of all. As we go forward today. We ask you to instill within us your peace your courage your strength. Lead us to all that is good. And brings honor to your creation. Help us to defeat the evils we faced each day. Bless us with the wisdom. To celebrate. And recognize our capacity for good. To free the oppressed. Let us serve all. With valor. As these men have shown and witnessed to us today. The upon us now and remain with us always a man. Would that. We conclude the formal ceremony. But I welcome everybody to join in a wonderful reception. And let's give our medal of honor winners. One big rob reports. Nobody. President Obama presenting the medal of honor to two World War I veterans who may not have. I received the honors that they were due because of discrimination the president saying it has taken this country wait too long. But it is never too late. To say thank you let's go back to lose Martinez at the Pentagon Louis. Pretty moving ceremony we just heard the citations for both of these brave soldiers. We count for us did the acts of bravery by private Johnson. Patty Johnson as an African American. Soldier attached to the Harlem health fighters this was the 369. Regiment part in your National Guard they were on the front lines. In France because they were attached to a French unit. They were not serving under the American flag they were serving under French unit which is one of the reasons why do that unit was on the front lines. 350000. American African American served in France during World War I the majority of them in every year and support rules. He was certain century beauty in on May fifteenth 1918. He and fellow soldier in the middle of the night they were being ambushed by about two dozen German soldiers try to overtake their position. His colleague was wounded on and he did everything he could to prevent him and his fellow soldier from being captured. Or killed and so he fired with his rifle as best he could until that right Jim. Then he used to stock of that rifle two attack one German soldier and then pulled out a bolt night essentially a Bae unit. And use that few killed two other German soldiers. Eventually reinforcements arrive at their position. And they held off. That attack he suffered greatly in that he was wounded 21 times as a result of that incidents. And then eventually eleven years later he died from the injuries it comes on that night. But he did receive the quality care witches differences. Highest medal for valor. I because he was serving with that French unit but he didn't. Can qualify. Apparently is what the most recent for many years war any American medals because. He was serving under different she. OK and let's talk about Sargent William Shannon we saw his family members. Receiving. The award on his behalf. Let's talk livid about you know what he did on the battlefield they're they are accepting the medal of honor from President Obama. We're in his story their Alan Shannon joined up he lied about his age that he can join the fight for World War I. He rose to the rank of sergeant. His unit was there on the front lines in another part of France on the remember this is trench warfare at the time very dangerous at both sides lining up against each other. And in between that dreaded no man's land because if you went if through it. You couldn't be struck down by machine gun fire. Well that's what happened to his unit they were pinned down by three of his senate colleagues where in that no man's land. And he stepped forward and went back and forth the three times and recovered them and brought them back into the trench. That battle continued for several more days during the mean time. His is put to his leadership succumb to injuries so. He as a young sergeant ended up taking command at least forty individuals and and racing and through. This constant fire fight over the next three days until they too. Were. Assesses successfully reinforced. But in what you're talking about here is the the the ability to you could face fire gunfire laces withering gunfire from that time period just kill so many. And he took the initiative to go out there incident no man's land and rescues those three individuals. In your experience how much. Do these. Overdue honors meaning to the family members. You know left behind by the soldiers. In many cases it's the families themselves that lead the charge trying to get I'm deeply yet recognition that their family members deserved. I'm being worked with their local congressman. I'm in the case of Henry Johnson. This was a isn't beyond the friendliness has been an effort that's been going on for so for decades now. You heard the president there talking about how. He was very well known at the time is heroism boys played up and yet the him in the American military did not could not honor him. With the medal of honor there is a time limit for when medal of honor recommendations can take place. And that when that expires in congress has to get involved that's why the family members work. With congress members to get legislation to have the Pentagon. The review the military cases viewed it. The individual acts of bravery that might qualify for the medal of honor. And in this case this is what's happened here and decades of work and trying to get the paperwork involved agency sort out here just what happened with him is that. A cable Graham written by the general of the armies in. In France general Jack Jack pershing personally mentions the the bravery that he exhibited that night and that was kinda like the. Holy Grail for the for the campaign trying to get him that metal. As the president said it is never too late to say thank you ABC's north and as life press at the Pentagon thank you so much we appreciate it. And you can keep up with the story in real time but Allen ABC news app and storing this story for exclusive updates. On the go on Caroline Costello in New York.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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