Nearly a century after their heroic efforts, two World War I veterans who may have been overlooked for the Medal of Honor because of their respective race and religion received the honor posthumously Tuesday.
Pvt. William Henry Johnson, of the 369th Infantry Regiment’s “Harlem Hellfighters,” and Sgt. William Shemin, of the 4th Infantry Division, received the award from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony.
A Hellfighter from Harlem
Johnson, an African-American man from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who was living in New York before the war, is being cited for his actions near Saint Menehoul, France, on May 15, 1918. After suffering significant wounds during a surprise attack, he was still able to force a German retreat through hand-to-hand combat.
The then 21-year-old Johnson and his 369th Infantry Regiment were assigned to a French army command in 1918 because black soldiers were not allowed to serve in combat positions with white American units.
While on night sentry duty, Johnson and a fellow soldier, Pvt. Needham Roberts, were attacked by at least 12 German soldiers.
According to an account from the book “Torchbearers of Democracy,” the German raiding party “attacked with a volley of grenades, followed by rifle fire.” The initial assault left Roberts “seriously wounded.” He was able to provide Johnson with grenades, but Johnson suffered “several gunshot wounds” while throwing them at the enemy.
Johnson then attempted to fight off German soldiers with his rifle, but only got off “three shots before his gun jammed.”
While still under intense fire, Johnson came forward from his entrenched position to engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, using only his knife and his gun as a club.
His courage prevented Roberts from being taken prisoner and eventually sent surviving German soldiers fleeing.
Later in 1918, France awarded Johnson the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, its highest award for valor. He was one of the first Americans to receive the award.
But nothing came quickly from the country whose uniform he wore.
He was not awarded a Purple Heart from the United States until 1996, and it wasn’t until 2002 that he received a Distinguished Service Cross.
In 2011, Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrats, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, stating, “Sergeant Johnson finally received his long overdue Purple Heart in 1996. In 2003 after a herculean effort by his family, friends, and supporters, Sergeant Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Yet these awards do not properly recognize Sergeant Johnson’s heroism. With the new evidence that has been uncovered, it is now possible for our nation to at last give Sergeant Johnson the recognition he deserves: the Medal of Honor.”
Johnson, who died in 1929, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. As Johnson has no next of kin, Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, of the New York National Guard, will accept the medal on his behalf.
Shemin, a Jewish man from Bayonne, New Jersey, is being cited for his actions in France in August 1918. Shemin repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to rescue wounded troops, the Army said, and later, after his officers became casualties, the sergeant took command of his platoon, displayed initiative under fire and fought bravely until he was wounded by shrapnel and a machine-gun bullet.
Shemin graduated from the New York State Ranger School in 1914 and worked as a forester in Bayonne before enlisting in the Army on October 2, 1917.
Serving as a rifleman during the Aisne-Marne Offensive on August 7-9, 1918, Shemin left his trench, braving heavy machine gun and rifle fire, to rescue the wounded.
After his officers and senior noncommissioned officers were killed in the offensive, Shemin, just 19 years old, took command of the platoon until he was shot in the head and wounded by shrapnel.
He survived the wounds and spent three months in the hospital before serving light duty as part of the Army occupation in Germany and Belgium. He received an honorable discharge in August 1919.
While he did receive the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism, there was never an explanation as to why he was denied the Medal of Honor.
Family, friends and senators have pushed for him to be awarded the nation’s highest recognition for valor.
“Discrimination should never play a role when our country pays tribute to extraordinary acts of courage and selfless sacrifice,” Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said in a statement. “I couldn’t be prouder that we were able to correct these past injustices, and that William Shemin and other Jewish heroes will get the recognition they deserve, and the national gratitude they earned.”
After the war, Shemin earned a degree from the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University. After graduation, he started a greenhouse and landscaping business in the Bronx, where he raised three children.
His eldest daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth of Webster Grove, Missouri, is to receive the Medal of Honor on his behalf.