Obama awards Medals of Honor to two World War I soldiers

Jun 2, 2015 4:05 PM by NBC News

Sgt. Henry Johnson, who was African American, and Sgt. William Shemin, who was Jewish, were American soldiers who fought for their nation during the height of World War I - a time when their country did not always honor the service of ethnic and religious minorities.

Both men saved the lives of comrades on the field of battle against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Both men were seriously wounded in battle.

And, for nearly 100 years, both men had been overlooked for the Medal of Honor.

The White House addressed the oversight on Tuesday when President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to both men."It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve," the president said, adding that the administration is working to ensure that minority war heroes who have been previously overlooked are properly honored.

"It's never too late to say thank you," the president said.

For New York lawmakers, including former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the quest to ensure Johnson's efforts were recognized was a nearly twenty year saga requiring exhaustive research, getting legislation approved by Congress to waive the statute of limitations, and advocacy by historians."This century-old injustice finally made right will be a profound gesture that will rectify a sad chapter in American history. And our nation will finally say 'Thank-you' to Sergeant Johnson, and the countless other African Americans who put their lives on the line for a nation that failed to treat them with full equality before the law," Schumer said in a statement.

Johnson was once called "Black Death," a soldier from the all-black "Harlem Hellfighters" unit who fought off two dozen Germans with a gun and then a knife during World War I.

But when the war ended and the lauds from President Theodore Roosevelt and the French, who awarded him their nation's highest award for valor, the "Croix de Guerre avec Palme," faded into the recesses of American history, Johnson couldn't even get a pension. It was an era of racial segregation and Johnson, who spoke out against racism in the Army in a 1919 speech, died at age 32 after having spent his post service career as a porter for the rail service.

Johnson's award will be accepted by Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard.

Shemin, a Jewish sergeant who lied about his age in order to serve, eventually led a platoon in battle where for three days he raced across the battlefield and repeatedly dodged gunfire as he pulled injured comrades to safety.Shemin's daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth of suburban St. Louis, worked for years to gather documents in support of the bid for her father and accepted the award from Obama on his behalf. In the early 2000s, she learned of a law that reviewed cases of Jews who may have been denied medals they earned in World War II and fought for passage of a law to provide similar review for Jewish World War I veterans, according to the Associated Press.

"This was anti-Semitism, no question about it," Shemin-Roth, who is in her 80s, said in an interview in December when Congress passed the exemption for her father, who died in 1973. "Now a wrong has been made right and all is forgiven."


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