By J.D. Leipold
Army News Service
WASHINGTON, June 4, 2015 – A pair of World War I soldiers were inducted into the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon yesterday.
Army Pvt. Henry Johnson, an African-American, and Army Sgt. William Shemin, a Jewish-American, were each posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama at a June 2 White House ceremony, following the upgrade of their Distinguished Service Crosses to Medals of Honor.
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work hosted the Pentagon event.
“This ceremony is a reminder that we redress the prejudices of the past and appropriately honor our nation’s heroes,” Work said.
“It is a feature of our republic and the American people themselves that we have the ability to correct our course, and that the nation’s long arc of history does not bend toward injustice … it bends toward justice,” the deputy secretary said. “In the case of Pvt. Johnson, it was racism … in the case of Sgt. Shemin, it was anti-Semitism … it is important that we acknowledge the injustices and mistakes of the past and rightfully honor those who have given so much on behalf of their country.”
Work added, “And, particularly as a military institution that represents literally every single member of this nation, every citizen, regardless of race, regardless of belief, regardless of preference, it is imperative that we do all we can to fix the wrongs from the past.”
Nearly a century ago, Johnson enlisted with the 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, an all-black National Guard unit that became known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” which later became the 369th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Infantry Division. Johnson’s unit was sent to the Western Front in 1918 and attached to a French command.
Johnson, with another soldier, came under attack while standing sentry duty. Surrounded by about 12 German soldiers, he and his comrade fought the enemy with grenades and rifle fire until their ammunition was spent. Seeing the other sentry being dragged off into captivity, and disregarding a slew of wounds, the 5-foot-4-inch Johnson used his rifle as a club before it finally splintered. Then he pulled a bolo knife, stabbing and hacking the enemy until American and French troops arrived on the scene to aid in repelling the German forces. Johnson was awarded France’s highest medal, the Croix de Guerre with the Gold Palm for exceptional valor.
Johnson stayed with his regiment until it returned home at war’s end. Suffering from 21 combat wounds, Johnson was unable to work as a train porter, his profession before the war. His wife and children abandoned him and he died destitute in 1929 at age 32. Johnson had suffered grievous wounds, yet he never received disability pay upon his discharge.
It wasn’t until 1996 that Johnson received a Purple Heart. In 2002, after further reviews of documented first-hand accounts of what he had done in battle, the Army awarded Johnson the Distinguished Service Cross.
Undersecretary of the Army Brad R. Carson told the story of Shemin, who distinguished himself by his fearlessness and extraordinary heroism while serving as a rifleman with the 47th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division, near Bazoches, France.
“From his trench, it was recounted that he could see Americans injured, dying and littering the battlefield,” Carson said. “What happened next is best recounted by his superior officer that day … he wrote that with utter disregard to his own safety, Shemin sprang from his platoon trench, dashed out across the open into full sight of the Germans, who maintained a furious burst of machine gun and rifle fire.”
During Aug. 7-9, 1918, Shemin on three occasions left cover and crossed an open space of 150 yards to rescue the wounded. After officers and senior noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Shemin took command of the platoon until he himself took a round through his helmet which hospitalized him for three months.
“Let us call it duty, honor, patriotism, love -- whatever we call it, let us be grateful that our country seems to be so blessed with an abundance of this scarce breed of person -- Sgt. Shemin and Pvt. Johnson being two of which we honor today,” Carson said.
“The fates of Pvt. Johnson and Sgt. Shemin after the war would not be the same,” he continued. “Sgt. Shemin would go off to Syracuse; he would play football, study forestry and live a long life until the 1970s anchored by eternal varieties of faith and family -- a family of more than 60 who join us today.”
Before presenting Medal of Honor flags to Army Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard on behalf of Pvt. Johnson and to Elsie Shemin-Roth, daughter of Sgt. Shemin, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel B. Allyn spoke.
“Today, we honor the legacy of these great soldiers by dedicating ourselves to building soldiers in their likeness, as professionals and leaders of character, protecting our great nation and all that it stands for … the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Allyn said.