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Two overlooked World War I veterans receive Medal of Honor after 97 years

Pvt. William Henry Johnson was a black soldier with the 369th Infantry Regiment's "Harlem Hellfighters," and Sgt. William Shemin was a Jewish soldier in the 4th Infantry Division.

By
Fred Lambert
President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Honor posthumously to two World War I soldiers, Army Pvt. Henry Johnson and Sgt. William Shemin, in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday. Sgt. Shemin's daughters Ina Bass, left, and Elsie Shemin-Roth accepted the medal. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI
President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Honor posthumously to two World War I soldiers, Army Pvt. Henry Johnson and Sgt. William Shemin, in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday. Sgt. Shemin's daughters Ina Bass, left, and Elsie Shemin-Roth accepted the medal. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, June 2 (UPI) -- Two U.S. soldiers, one black and the other Jewish, posthumously received the Medal of Honor for combat valor in World War I during a ceremony at the White House on Tuesday.

President Barack Obama presented the medals to the daughters of Sgt. William Shemin, a Jewish soldier who served in the 4th Infantry Division, and to New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, who accepted the award on behalf of Pvt. William Henry Johnson, a black soldier who served with the 369th Infantry Regiment's "Harlem Hellfighters."

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Both men are credited with saving comrades under fire while deployed to France in 1918.

After being wounded in an attack by a German raiding party near Saint Menehoul, France, on May 15, 1918, Johnson used rifle fire and hand-to-hand combat to fight off the attack by himself and save a fellow soldier from being captured.

During the Aisne-Marne Offensive on Aug. 7-9, 1918, Shemin braved enemy fire in an open area between friendly and enemy trench lines three times in order to recover wounded comrades. The 19-year-old rifleman eventually took command of his platoon after all of his superiors were wounded or killed, and he was eventually wounded himself.

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Both men received the nation's highest award for combat valor 97 years after their actions. Advocates of the two men urged Congress to extend the five-year time limit after a Medal of Honor nominee performed the actions in question, the BBC reports.

The French army, to which the Harlem Hellfighters were attached and fought alongside, awarded Johnson the Croix de Guerre avec Palme in 1918. Like the Medal of Honor for the United States, it is the highest award France issues for combat valor.

A Winston-Salem, N.C.-native who lived in New York before the war, Johnson died in 1929. Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noting that Johnson did not receive a Purple Heart until 1996 and a Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second-highest award for combat valor, until 2003, and that "these awards do not properly recognize Sgt. Johnson's heroism."

"With the new evidence that has been uncovered," the letter read, "it is now possible for our nation to at last give Sgt. Johnson the recognition he deserves: the Medal of Honor."

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Shemin's relatives were joined by politicians, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in calling for the Jewish New Jersey native to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

"Discrimination should never play a role when our country pays tribute to extraordinary acts of courage and selfless sacrifice," McCaskill said in a statement. "I couldn't be prouder that we were able to correct these past injustices, and that William Shemin and other Jewish heroes will get the recognition they deserve, and the national gratitude they earned."

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