WASHINGTON — Two World War I Army heroes — one black, one Jewish — are finally getting the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France.
Sgt. William Shemin repeatedly dodged gunfire to pull wounded comrades to safety during three days of bloody battle. And Pvt. Henry Johnson rescued a wounded comrade from his all-black regiment while single-handedly fighting off a surprise German attack.
President Obama plans to posthumously bestow the nation's highest military honor on both men for their actions in 1918 during a White House ceremony Tuesday. The award comes after efforts by advocates for the two men led Congress to pass an exemption from Medal of Honor rules specifying that heroic actions have to have taken place within five years to be considered.
Shemin's daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth of suburban St. Louis, worked for years to gather documents in support of the bid for her father and plans to accept the award from Obama on his behalf. In the early 2000s, she learned of a law that reviewed cases of Jews who may have been denied medals they earned in World War II and fought for passage of a law to provide similar review for Jewish World War I veterans.
"This was anti-Semitism, no question about it," Shemin-Roth, who is in her 80s, said in an interview in December when Congress passed the exemption for her father, who died in 1973. "Now a wrong has been made right and all is forgiven."
Johnson supporters pushed for the Medal of Honor for decades — with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer taking up the case, which was initially rebuffed for lack of documentation. His staff picked up the case again years later when a trove of military records became available online, including a communique from Gen. John Pershing describing Johnson's brave acts after coming under attack by at least 12 German soldiers while on night sentry duty on May 15, 1918.
"While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Johnson mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties," the White House said in a statement. "When his fellow soldier was badly wounded, Private Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces. Private Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Displaying great courage, Private Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated."
Johnson, a Virginia native who worked as a train station porter in Albany, enlisted in the 369th, a New York National Guard unit based in Manhattan. The "Harlem Hellfighters," as the unit became known, served under French command because U.S. armed forces were segregated at the time.
Hobbled by his wartime injuries, Johnson died a destitute alcoholic at age 32 at a veterans hospital in Illinois in 1929. New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson planned to accept the medal on Johnson's behalf.
Shemin was 19 when his platoon was involved in a bloody fight. "Sergeant Shemin left the cover of his platoon's trench and crossed open space, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue the wounded," the White House announcement said.
The young sergeant took shrapnel but survived. He led the platoon out of harm's way for the next three days, until a German bullet pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear. Shemin was hospitalized for three months and was left partly deaf. Shrapnel wounds eventually left him barely able to walk, although he earned a degree from Syracuse University and started a nursery business in the Bronx.