President Barack Obama posthumously awarded two World War I army heroes, Sgt. William Shemin, a Jewish soldier, and Pvt. Henry Johnson, an African-American soldier, Medals of Honor June 2. The medal is the nation’s highest military declaration for bravery in combat.
Though both men fought for the French against the Germans in the early 1900s, and risked their lives to save fellow soldiers on the battlefield, neither had received any recognition from the military, due to discrimination, the White House stated.
“It’s never too late to say thank you,” Obama said. “They both risked their lives to save the lives of others.”
Shemin reportedly pulled wounded comrades to safety over three days of battle, while Johnson saved another soldier during a surprise attack from the Germans at the time of the war.
Retired Rochester Police Officer, and New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson accepted the medal on Johnson’s behalf, and Shemin’s two daughters, Elsie and Ina, received the award on behalf of their father.
Wilson is only the second black man to hold the top rank of the New York National Guard, which is the same division in which Johnson served.
Advocates for both men lobbied Congress repeatedly throughout the years, asking Senators to overlook Medal of Honor rules, which said heroic actions had to have taken place within the last five years in order for recipients to receive the honor.
“It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve,” Obama stated. “And there are surely others whose heroism is still unacknowledged, and uncelebrated.”
According to reports, Johnson passed away at the age of 32, in 1929, after suffering from alcoholism, and never fully recovering from injuries which hobbled him during the war.
In addition, the war had left Shemin partially deaf, but he eventually graduated from college, and started a nursery business in the Bronx, according to officials, where he died in 1973.
Johnson, originally from Virginia, is buried in Arlington Cemetery.