Obama awards posthumous Medals of Honor to World War One soldiers

Tue Jun 2, 2015 4:02pm EDT
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By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday awarded posthumous Medals of Honor to two soldiers from World War One, one an African American and the other a Jew, who arguably were denied the honor earlier because of discrimination.

The medals, the United States' highest military honor for valor, went to Sergeant William Shemin of Bayonne, New Jersey, and Private Henry Johnson, of Albany, New York, 97 years after they saved comrades on French battlefields.

"They both risked their own lives to save the lives of others," Obama said in the White House ceremony. "It's never too late to say 'thank you.'"

Johnson, a member of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the "Harlem Hellfighters," and Private Needham Roberts fought off an attack by a raiding party of at least a dozen Germans while on night sentry duty on May 15, 1918.

Wounded and under heavy fire, Johnson forced the Germans to retreat and kept Roberts, who was badly wounded, from being taken prisoner, Obama said.

The Army's website for Johnson said he advanced armed only with a knife.

Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard accepted the medal on Johnson’s behalf.

Shemin, a Jewish soldier who served with the 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, repeatedly exposed himself to heavy fire to rescue wounded soldiers from Aug. 7 to Aug. 9, 1918. When officers and other non-commissioned officers became casualties, Shemin took command of his platoon until he was wounded on Aug. 9.   Continued...

U.S. Army Sgts.Henry Johnson (L) and William Shemin (R) are pictured in these undated photographs released on June 2, 2015. REUTERS/U.S. Army/Handout via Reuters