Two WWI Soldiers Posthumously Awarded Medal of Honor

Sgt. William Shemin and Pvt. Henry Johnson demonstrated gallantry.

June 02, 2015, 1:28 PM

— -- President Obama posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to two World War I soldiers today, nearly 100 years after they risked their lives to save their comrades on the battlefields of France.

"It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve and there are surely others whose heroism is still unacknowledged and uncelebrated," Obama said in Tuesday's White House ceremony.

Obama said that the soldiers, one Jewish and one African-American, were not recognized during their lifetimes with the nation's highest military honor because of discrimination. Today’s ceremony at the White House is part of an ongoing effort to recognize previously overlooked, deserving recipients.

Sgt. William Shemin and Pvt. Henry Johnson, both from the Army, were honored for the "conspicuous gallantry" they demonstrated during the conflict.

Shemin is credited with braving enemy fire several times over to pull wounded soldiers to safety during a battle in August 1918. He was wounded in the process.

"He ran out into the hell of no man's land and dragged a wounded comrade to safety, and then he did it again, and again," Obama said. "Three times he raced through heavy machine gun fire. Three times he carried his fellow soldiers to safety."

Addressing Shemin's daughters, both in the 80's and present to receive the award on their father's behalf, the president said it took the country "too long" to properly recognize his contributions to the United States.

"Sgt. Shemin served at a time when the contributions of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked," Obama said. "But 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. Shemin."

Johnson fought back against German forces, sustaining severe wounds in the process, and preventing a fellow soldier from becoming a prisoner of war -- wielding knife at one point to fend off an enemy fighter.

"Henry was one of the first Americans to receive France's highest award for valor but his own nation didn't award him anything," Obama said. "Not even the Purple Heart, though he had been wounded 21 times, 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 30's he passed away. America can't change what happened to Henry Johnson, we can't change what happened to too many soldiers like him who went uncelebrated, because our nation judged them by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. But we can do our best to make it right."

Noting that President Clinton awarded Johnson the Purple Heart in 1996, Obama said he was honored to award him the Medal of Honor "97 years after his extraordinary acts of courage and selflessness."

Shemin died in 1973, so his daughters, Elsie Shemin-Roth and Ina Bass, accepted the medal for their father.

Johnson's award was accepted by Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson, the top enlisted soldier of the New York Army National Guard.

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