Jewish, Black WWI Heroes at Last to Get Medal of Honor

Sgt. William Shemin, second from left and Pvt. Henry Johnson  during World War I. (William Shemin Collection)
Sgt. William Shemin, second from left and Pvt. Henry Johnson during World War I. (William Shemin Collection)
Sgt. William Shemin, during World War I. (Private Needham Roberts)
Sgt. William Shemin, during World War I. (Private Needham Roberts)

Nearly 100 years after their heroics on the battlefields of France, two World War I veterans from New York, one Jewish and the other black, will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor next month by President Obama.

Army Sgt. William Shemin, who was Jewish, raced across the battlefield three times to pull wounded comrades to safety. Army Pvt. Henry Johnson rescued a comrade in his all-black regiment while fighting off a German attack.

Medals were approved by Congress after long campaigns to bestow recognition on men who may have been unjustly denied the honor due to discrimination.

The Medal of Honor is awarded to members of the Armed Forces who distinguish themselves with conspicuous gallantry.

The White House announced Thursday that Obama will host an award ceremony on June 2. Shemin died in 1973, so his daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth, in her mid-80s and from suburban St. Louis, will accept the medal.

“Both of these brave souls put the needs of our country before their own, and their example of valor and integrity lives on today,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a statement. “I am proud to see them awarded this long overdue and well-deserved honor.”

Shemin was 19 in August 1918. His battalion was fighting in France. Americans were scattered over the battlefield.

“With the most utter disregard for his own safety, [Shemin] sprang from his position in his platoon trench, dashed out across the open in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine gun and rifle fire,” according to one of Shemin’s superiors, Capt. Rupert Purdon, who later wrote in support of a Medal of Honor.

The young sergeant took shrapnel while leading the platoon out of harm’s way for the next three days. A German bullet pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear, landing Shemin in the hospital for three months and leaving him partially deaf. Shrapnel wounds eventually left him barely able to walk.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military honor, but there was never an explanation of why he was denied the Medal of Honor. He later earned a degree from Syracuse and started a greenhouse and nursery business in the Bronx.

In the early 2000s, Shemin-Roth learned of a law that reviewed cases of Jews who may have been denied medals they earned in World War II. She also learned there was no similar mechanism for World War I veterans, and set about to change that, prompting passage of a measure allowing review of records of Jewish World War I veterans who may have been discriminated against.

Johnson, of New York City, was part of an all-black National Guard unit ordered into battle. On May 15, 1918, Johnson and a fellow soldier were attacked by at least 12 German soldiers, according to the White House. Despite serious wounds, the two men fought back until the Germans retreated, while Johnson kept his badly wounded colleague from becoming a prisoner of war.

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