Published in Woonsocket Call on June 7, 2015
Almost a century ago when they fought in the bloody battlefields on Europe’s Western Front, and over four years after the passing of Frank Buckles, America’s last doughboy in 2011, America’s Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama presented the nation’s highest military honor to two long-deceased World War I veterans. .
At White House ceremony, held on June 2, President Barack Obama recognized the acts of valor of Army Private Henry Johnson, an African-American, and Sgt. William Shemin, who was Jewish. “It’s never too late to say thank you,” the President told the attendees, including 66 surviving Shemin family members.
“It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve,” the President said, at the formal ceremony to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to the two World War I infantry soldiers for their gallantry and “personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.”
Johnson and Shemin fought in France and risked their lives to save others, Obama said, stressing that America “is the country we are today” because they “rose to meet their responsibilities and then went beyond.”
The President said, “The least we can do is to say: We know who you are. We know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.”
Above and Beyond the Call of Duty
Johnson, an Albany, New York, resident enlisted in the Army and was assigned to one of the few units that accepted African-Americans, Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment – an all-black National Guard unit known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” that later became the 369th Infantry Regiment. Ultimately, the regiment was deployed in 1918, and Johnson’s unit brigaded with a French army colonial unit ending up at the western edge of the Argonne Forest in France’s Champagne region.
In the pitch black, pre-dawn hours, in “No Man’s Land,” Johnson, who had worked before the war as a chauffeur, soda mixer, laborer in a coal yard and redcap porter at Albany’s Union Station, was credited with helping fight off at least 12 soldiers of a German raiding party despite being wounded and protecting Sentry Needham Roberts, from capture, May 15, 1918.
. According to Obama, “Johnson fired until his rifle was empty; he and Roberts threw grenades and both of them were hit, with Roberts losing consciousness, As the enemy tried to carry away Roberts, Johnson fought back. After his gun jammed, he used it and a Bolo knife to take down the enemy and protect Roberts from capture.” Johnson’s bravery ultimately would bring a cache of weapons and supplies to the allies and keep the Germans from gaining valuable intelligence information.
While Johnson was one of the first Americans to receive France’s highest award for valor [the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm] for his bravery in battle] “his own nation didn’t award him anything – not even the Purple Heart, though he had been wounded 21 times,” Obama said.
At the ceremony, Obama also awarded the Medal of Honor to Shemin, a rifleman to Company G, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces, in France.
Shemin, a former semi-pro baseball player and ranger who worked as a forester in Bayonne, New Jersey, repeatedly exposed himself in combat to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue wounded troops during the Aisne-Marne offensive in France, between Aug. 7 and Aug. 9, 1918.
“After platoon leaders had become casualties, Shemin took command and displayed initiative under fire, until he was wounded by shrapnel and a machine gun bullet that was lodged behind his left ear,” said Obama.
Following three months of hospitalization for his injuries, he was transferred to light duty and served in the Army occupation in Germany and Belgium. Shemin received the Purple Heart. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for battlefield valor, Dec. 29, 1919.
An Act of Congress
It took over five years to get Shemin’s Distinguished Service Cross upgraded to a Medial of Honor, says Col. Erwin A. Burtnick, (Ret.), who chairs the Awards for Valor Committee, of the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish War Veterans of the United States (JWV). Elsie Shemin-Roth, had approached JWV with her father’s records, asking the organization for a review.
Burtnick says, Shemin-Ross, a Missouri resident, grew up hearing stories from her father and those who served with him about how anti-Semitism played a role in preventing his recommendation for receiving the Medal of Honor. From the documents submitted and a review of other Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor citations from World War I, the retired colonel felt strongly that if the Jewish soldier had been recommended for the Medal of Honor he would most likely had received it. .
With a federal law required to allow Jewish World War I veterans to receive the Medal of Honor (current law mandates that it must be awarded within five years of when the heroic act being recognized took place), Burtnick asked Shemin-Roth, to help get the ball rolling by contacting Rep. Blaine Luekemeyer (R-MO). whose office ultimately drafted the initial legislation, the William Shemin World War I Veterans Act.
Burtnick provided advice in drafting the proposed legislation. Initially introduced in 2010 it was not enacted. However, the legislation along with a companion measure in the Senate introduced by Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) passed and became part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012. However, due to a technical requirement additional legislation was placed in the NDAA of 2015, which allowed the President to award the Medal of Honor to Shemin without regard to the five-year limitation.
. Meanwhile, Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) spearheaded Congressional efforts to get Johnson his Medal of Honor. He knew that the nation’s highest military award had long been denied due to racism, but he knew that the African-American deserved recognition for his “bravery and heroism” during World War I.
The New York Senator submitted a nearly-1,300 page request to the military in support of Johnson’s receiving the Medal of Honor and launched an online petition to build public support. The Senator also made a personal call with U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh, met with Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright – who oversees decisions regarding Medals of Honor – and wrote a letter to Secretary Hagel, all in an effort to secure the Medal of Honor for Private Johnson.
Senator Schumer, the author of the legislation with the assistance of RR and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), successfully pushed for an amendment to be also included in the NDAA of 2015 (NDAA), which also waived the timing restrictions on the Medal of Honor and enabled the President to consider the Medal of Honor request. With Obama’s pen stroke, Johnson got his Medal of Honor, too.
At the ceremony, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, New York National Guard senior enlisted advisor, accepted the medal on Johnson’s behalf. Soldiers from the 369th were among the attendees. There are no family members left to accept the prestigious military award.
“It’s a blessing; it’s an honor; it’s a good thing that Henry Johnson is finally being recognized as a hero,” Wilson said.
Burtnick, came to the White House to see Shemin receive his Medal of Honor and attended a Pentagon enshrinement for the World War I soldier in the Hall of Heroes. “I was elated that our efforts came to fruition, It took over five years to complete,” he says, acknowledging that he had fulfilled a pledge to Shemin-Ross when he first contacted her, to meet someday at the White House. “I was happy to see her and she was happy to see me,” he says.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.