Obama Hands out Medal of Honor to WW1 Vets Families

By on June 3, 2015
medal of honor

Obama Hands out Medal of Honor to WW1 Vets Families

medal of honor

Army Sgt. William Shemin and Private Henry Johnson demonstrated uncanny resolve and bravery during World War I, but were overlooked for the medal of honor, the nation’s highest military honor for nearly a century.

Many believe this to be because Shemin was Jewish and Johnson was African American.

President Obama corrected those decades of apparent discrimination Tuesday, posthumously awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor to Shemin and Johnson.

“We are a nation, a people who remember our heroes,” Obama said in a White House ceremony. “We never forget their sacrifice, and we believe it’s never too late to say thank you.”

The medals were made possible by a provision in a defense bill passed last December, which waived the statue of limitations for Shemin and Johnson to receive the medal. Ordinarily, top military honors must be awarded within five years of the act that justified the award.

But Congress pushed the Pentagon to reopen the cases of Jewish and African-American soldiers who were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross but were wrongly passed over for the highest honor.

In Johnson’s case, he was awarded the highest military honor that France can bestow but was denied even a Purple Heart for decades despite being wounded an astounding 21 times. Johnson, who moved from the Jim Crow south to Albany as a youth, was part of a unit known as the “Harlem Hellcats.” Still facing immense racism and discrimination, Johnson was unable to serve in a combat role with the U.S. Army, the unit was attached to French forces.

Johnson and another soldier were standing guard one night in May, 1918 when they were caught by surprise by a German battalion. His citation says he mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties, pushing back the Germans, even through hand-to-hand combat, and prevented his wounded comrade from becoming a prisoner of war.

Johnson was honored with parades and was even featured on an Army recruiting poster. But as recently as 2005, the Pentagon said it could not award the Medal of Honor because it needed a contemporaneous account of his heroism.

John Howe, a Vietnam veteran and amateur military historian from Albany, and a staffer in Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office carried on the cause, unearthing citations from Gen John Pershing.

“One of the greatest things about America is that we recognize our wrongs and we right them,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said after the Medal of Honor ceremony.

Shemin was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in France over three days in August, 1918. His citation says he left the safety of his entrenched position and repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue wounded soldiers.

Shemin’s medal was accepted by his daughters, Elsie Shemin-Roth, 86, and Ina Bass, 83. New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson accepted Johnson’s.