William Shemin (left) and Henry Johnson (Images: Wikipedia/Public Domain)

Black and Jewish WW1 soldiers awarded top US bravery medal after 97 years

Posted on centenarynews.com on 20 June 2015
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President Obama has honoured two US First World War soldiers with America's highest bravery medal, saying the awards are long overdue.

Henry Johnson and William Shemin were posthumously decorated with the Medal of Honor at the White House on June 2nd 2015, almost 100 years after risking their own lives to save those of others. 

"It’s never too late to say thank you," Mr Obama said, reminding his audience of the segregation and prejudice of the past.

Henry Johnson was a black soldier who enlisted with the 369th Infantry Regiment, a unit known as the "Harlem Hellfighters."

William Shemin, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, served as a rifleman after joining the US Army in October 1917.


Relatives and campaigners fought to have both men honoured for their actions in France during the closing months of the Great War.

While on sentry duty in the Argonne in May 1918, Henry Johnson single-handedly fought off a German raiding party to save a fellow soldier from capture, despite suffering multiple wounds.

William Shemin repeatedly entered no-man's land under heavy fire to rescue wounded comrades during fighting on the River Vesle in August 1918. When his platoon commanders became casualties, he took charge until he himself was wounded.

President Obama said: "These two soldiers were roughly the same age, dropped into the battlefields of France at roughly the same time. They both risked their own lives to save the lives of others. They both left us decades ago, before we could give them the full recognition that they deserved. But it’s never too late to say thank you.

"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 colour of their skin and not the content of their character. But we can do our best to make it right.


"Sergeant Shemin served at a time when the contributions and heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked. But William Shemin saved American lives. He represented our nation with honour."

Shemin's daughters, Elsie and Ina, now in their 80s, were at the White House to receive the Medal of Honor on their father's behalf. 

Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson, of the New York National Guard, accepted Henry Johnson's medal, watched by veterans of the 369th Infantry.

America did recognise William Shemin's actions with an award of the Purple Heart for his wounds. It was followed in 1919 by the Distinguished Service Cross, the US Army's second highest decoration for valour.   

France honoured Henry Johnson, awarding him the Croix de Guerre. But despite becoming one of America's most famous First World War soldiers, he received no medals from his own country until a posthumous Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross seven years later.

President Obama commented: "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.  

"So we have work to do, as a nation, to make sure that all of our heroes’ stories are told."

Read President Obama's speech in full here.

Source: White House Press Office

Images of William Shemin & Henry Johnson, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Posted by: Peter Alhadeff, Centenary News