World War I vet­er­ans hon­ored at long last

Two sol­diers, one black and one Jewish, are awarded the Medal of Honor.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Colin Diers­ing colin.diers­ing@la­times.com

WASH­ING­TON — Army Pvt. Henry John­son re­turned from World War I with in­juries from a sur­prise Ger­man attack that he re­buffed, but re­ceived nei­ther for­mal Amer­i­can recog­ni­tion nor a dis­abil­ity pen­sion.

In­stead, when he later gave a speech that ad­dressed racism in the armed forces, he was in­ves­ti­gated by mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence.

John­son, a mem­ber of the all-black 369th In­fantry Reg­i­ment, was passed over for U.S. gov­ern­ment hon­ors for nearly eight decades. Fi­nally, in 1996, af­ter a long cam­paign by schol­ars and ac­tivists, he re­ceived a post­hu­mous Pur­ple Heart.

On Tues­day, Pres­i­dent Obama gave him the mil­i­tary’s high­est award, the Medal of Honor. The pres­i­dent blamed the lengthy de­lay on John­son’s race.

Obama also awarded the Medal of Honor to Army Sgt. Wil­liam Shemin for his World War I ser­vice, and al­luded to Shemin’s Jewish iden­tity when men­tion­ing the ex­tended wait.

“It has taken a long time for Henry John­son and Wil­liam Shemin to re­ceive the recog­ni­tion that they de­serve. … We have work to do as a na­tion to make sure all our he­roes’ sto­ries are told,” Obama said.

The pres­i­dent out­lined the long-dead sol­diers’ hero­ism:

John­son was stand­ing sen­try in the mid­dle of a spring night in France in 1918 when Ger­mans at­tacked him and a fel­low sol­dier. With his com­pan­ion wounded and his own gun jammed, John­son con­tin­ued to fight with a bolo knife, hold­ing the line and stop­ping the Ger­mans from cap­tur­ing ei­ther of them.

The French gov­ern­ment gave him a medal. The U.S. did not, but lauded him in mil­i­tary re­cruit­ing posters. For­mer Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt praised John­son too, but his fame was short­lived. His bat­tle­field wounds en­dured, and he could not find work af­ter the war, Obama said. John­son died at 32.

“There was a re­fusal to rec­og­nize blacks in the way they should be,” said his­to­rian and New York Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor Jef­frey Sam­mons, who re­searched John­son for a book he co-wrote. Sam­mons un­cov­ered mil­i­tary memos de­tail­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into John­son’s 1919 speech dis­cussing racism.

John­son’s award “speaks to an ef­fort on the part of schol­ars, his­to­ri­ans, as well as ac­tivists more broadly to bring the his­tory of African Amer­i­cans in World War I to the public,” said Chad Wil­liams, a pro­fes­sor at Bran- deis Uni­ver­sity and an ex­pert on African Amer­i­can mil­i­tary his­tory.

Sgt. Maj. Louis Wil­son of the New York Na­tional Guard ac­cepted the award on his be­half. Some au­di­ence mem­bers wore hats with the words “Har­lem Hell­fight­ers,” a nick­name for John­son’s reg­i­ment.

He is only the sec­ond African Amer­i­can to re­ceive the Medal of Honor for World War I ser­vice.

“Amer­ica can’t change what hap­pened to Henry John­son,” Obama said. “We can’t change what hap­pened to too many sol­diers like him who went un­cel­e­brated be­cause Amer­ica judged them by the color of their skin and not the con­tent of their char­ac­ter. But we can do our best to make it right.”

Shemin, the sec­ond sol­dier hon­ored, grew up in Bay­onne, N.J. In 1918, he re­peat­edly ex­posed him­self to en­emy fire to res­cue in­jured sol­diers, Obama said. Shemin later took con­trol of his pla­toon af­ter the com­mand­ing of­fi­cers were killed.

“Sgt. Shemin served at a time when the con­tri­bu­tions of Jewish Amer­i­cans in uni­form were too of­ten over­looked, but Wil­liam Shemin saved Amer­i­can lives,” Obama said.

Shemin died in 1973. Two of his daugh­ters ac­cepted the award.

Pho­tog raphs by Carolyn Kaster As­so­ci­ated Press

PRES­I­DENT OBAMA presents the Medal of Honor for Army Sgt. Wil­liam Shemin, who served in World War I and died in 1973, to his daugh­ters Ina Bass and Elsie Shemin-Roth at a White House cer­e­mony.

NEW YORK Na­tional Guard Sgt. Maj. Louis Wil­son ac­cepts the honor on be­half of Pvt. Henry John­son.

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