Two U.S. Army soldiers will finally be awarded the nation’s highest military award, nearly a century after they displayed incredible bravery during World War I.
Sgt. Henry Johnson, a black soldier assigned to the “Harlem Hellfighters” of the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment, and Sgt. William Shemin, a Jewish soldier with the 47th Infantry Regiment, will receive the Medal of Honor (posthumously) on Tuesday. Ninety-seven years after they were denied the award due to discrimination, the pair of soldiers will finally be recognized in a ceremony at The White House.
While serving as a sentry in the Argonne Forest with another soldier on May 15, 1918, then-Pvt. Johnson came under heavy enemy fire after a raiding party of 12 German soldiers came upon his position. Despite receiving significant injuries, Johnson held off the Germans using grenades, a rifle, a knife, and even his bare hands.
“The Germans came from all sides,” Johnson told an interviewer after the war, according to The Daily Beast. “Roberts kept handing me the grenades and I kept throwing them, and the Dutchmen kept squealing but jes’ the same, they kept comin’ on. When the grenades were all gone I started in with my rifle.”
Johnson exposed himself to enemy fire and held back the German forces until they retreated, according to the U.S. Army.
On Aug. 7, 1918 in an area southeast of Bazoches, France, Sgt. Sgt. Shemin left the safety of his platoon’s trench and repeatedly crossed an open area to rescue wounded soldiers, despite the threat of heavy machine gun and rifle fire. Then after his officers and senior non-commissioned officers were wounded or killed, Shemin took command of the platoon and “displayed great initiative under fire” until he was wounded himself on Aug. 9, according to the U.S. Army.
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Why did it take almost a century for Shemin to be recognized with the highest U.S. military award for valor in combat? Perhaps because of widespread discrimination in the military during that period of history; Shemin was Jewish.
“Anti-Semitism was a way of life in the Army in World War I,” said Mrs. Roth, who has been waging the campaign on behalf of her father’s honor since 2002. “They’re making a wrong right, 97 years later. The discrimination hurts, but all has been made right.”
Their recognition comes as a result of a 2002 move by Congress to review combat actions of Jewish and Hispanic veterans and ensure “those deserving the Medal Of Honor were not denied because of prejudice,” the White House explained to CNN. The act was later amended to review all possible cases of discrimination.
In March, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to 24 soldiers who had been denied the award due to prejudice, NBC reported.