SHAKO: Obama Presents Overdue WWI Medals of Honor
Two deceased U.S. Army veterans of World War I — one Jewish, the other black — neither of whom received the full credit they deserved for their wartime heroism, have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military decoration for valor.
In a White House ceremony Tuesday (May 2) President Barack Obama presented the medals to Sergeant William Shemin and Sergeant Henry Johnson. Shemin, who was Jewish, was awarded the second-highest heroism medal, the Distinguished Service Cross in 1919 — even though his superior recommended him for the higher award. Johnson, who was black, received no U.S. medals although France awarded him one its highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre with Palm. In both cases racial and religious prejudice were believed to be the cause of the injustice.
“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,” Obama told the medal ceremony audience. “I want to begin by welcoming and thanking everyone who made this day possible — family, friends, admirers. Some of you have worked for years to honor these heroes, to give them the honor they should have received a long time ago,” Obama said, adding: “We are grateful that you never gave up.”
Shemin received his Medal of Honor for braving intense German machine gun and rifle fire three times to rescue wounded soldiers on August 7, 1918 near Bazoches, France. After his officers and senior non-coms were killed or wounded, Shemin took command of his platoon “and displayed great initiative under fire, until he was wounded, August 9, 1918,” according to the military. Shemin was a member of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. Read the Medal of Honor citation here.
Johnson, then a private with Company C, of the 369th Infantry Regiment — an all-black National Guard unit known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” — was cited for his heroism on the night of May 15, 1918 on the Western Front in France. While on sentry duty with another soldier of the 369th, Johnson fended off a night raid by as many as a dozen German soldiers. Johnson and the other soldier fired on the Germans until they ran out of ammunition. They then used hand grenades and rifle butts to fight the Germans. When they other soldier was knocked unconscious, the Germans tried to carry him off as a prisoner, but Johnson battled back using his rifle as a club and then slashing at the Germans with his bolo knife. He may have killed four Germans single-handed in the dark while rescuing his comrade. Read the Medal of Honor of honor citation here.
Despite 21 wounds, Johnson did not receive the Purple Heart medal or any other citation from his country, even though ex-President Theodore Roosevelt described him as “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war.” He received the Purple Heart posthumously in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. Like Shemin, Johnson’s DSC was upgraded this year to the Medal of Honor.
Johnson’s regiment, the 369th, was one of the few black regiments sent to France, although they were transferred to fight with French troops, rather than American units who were hostile to the idea of blacks in combat.
As part of the French Army’s 161st Division, they took part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. On September 29, ater a brutal struggle during which heavy casualties were sustained, Sechault was taken and the 369th soldiers dug in to consolidate their advance position. That action is depicted in the photo above and earned the Croix de Guerre for the entire regiment. But the Meuse-Argonne claimed nearly one-third of the 369th as battle casualties.
Entry filed under: Army, Army National Guard, National Security and Defense, News Developments, SHAKO, Washington. Tags: 369th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division in World War I, Medal of Honor, President Obama, Private Henry Johnson, Sergeant William Shemin, SHAKO, Topics, World War I.