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Two WW I Heroes Finally American Enough To Receive Medals Of Honor They Earned
Two heroes of World War I were finally recognized Tuesday by President Obama at the White House; the president presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to Private Henry Johnson and to Sergeant William Shemin, whose heroism in battle was impressive, but who were, respectively, too black and too Jewish to be awarded the nation's highest military honor while they were still alive. We're looking forward to the inevitable complaint from Bryan Fischer that the medals were feminized or something.
In his remarks at the ceremony, President Obama said:
We are a nation -- a people -- who remember our heroes. We take seriously our responsibility to only send them when war is necessary. We strive to care for them and their families when they come home. We never forget their sacrifice. And we believe that it’s never too late to say thank you.
Watch the video of the ceremony and have yourself a good patriotic sniffle or two. The presentation of the Medal of Honor is always moving; seeing it awarded to two men whose heroism had to wait decades to be officially acknowledged makes it all the more so.
And what heroes they were. Pvt. Henry Johnson was a member of the "Harlem Hellfighters," an all-black U.S. infantry regiment that was sent to fight under French command. On May 15, 1918, Johnson and another soldier, Needham Roberts, had sentry duty in the early morning. From here, we'll crib from the president's description, if you don't mind a little blockquoting:
A German raiding party -- at least a dozen soldiers, maybe more -- fired a hail of bullets. Henry fired back until his rifle was empty. Then he and Needham threw grenades. Both of them were hit. Needham lost consciousness. Two enemy soldiers began to carry him away while another provided cover, firing at Henry. But Henry refused to let them take his brother in arms. He shoved another magazine into his rifle. It jammed. He turned the gun around and swung it at one of the enemy, knocking him down. Then he grabbed the only weapon he had left -- his Bolo knife -- and went to rescue Needham. Henry took down one enemy soldier, then the other. The soldier he’d knocked down with his rifle recovered, and Henry was wounded again. But armed with just his knife, Henry took him down, too.
And finally, reinforcements arrived and the last enemy soldier fled. As the sun rose, the scale of what happened became clear. In just a few minutes of fighting, two Americans had defeated an entire raiding party. And Henry Johnson saved his fellow soldier from being taken prisoner.
Astonishingly --or perhaps not -- despite his 21 wounds, Johnson wasn't even awarded the Purple Heart, although he did receive France's highest medal, the Croix de Guerre. He died after the war, and was only awarded the Purple Heart by President Clinton. President Obama presented Johnson's Medal of Honor to Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard, since Johnson had originally enlisted with the New York National Guard in 1917. For a long time, the official explanation for Johnson's not getting the Medal of Honor was that he was under French command when he undertook his heroic action; it took years of lobbying by supporters, including New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, to get the medal awarded.
And then there's Sgt. William Shemin, who lied about his age so he could join up, and was not bothered by anyone demanding to see his long-form birth certificate. Again, it's an incredible story of courage:
On August 7th, 1918, on the Western Front, the Allies were hunkered down in one trench, the Germans in another, separated by about 150 yards of open space -- just a football field and a half. But that open space was a bloodbath. Soldier after soldier ventured out, and soldier after soldier was mowed down. So those still in the trenches were left with a terrible choice: die trying to rescue your fellow soldier, or watch him die, knowing that part of you will die along with him.
William Shemin couldn’t stand to watch. He ran out into the hell of No Man’s Land and dragged a wounded comrade to safety. Then he did it again, and again. Three times he raced through heavy machine gunfire. Three times he carried his fellow soldiers to safety.
The battle stretched on for days. Eventually, the platoon’s leadership broke down. Too many officers had become casualties. So William stepped up and took command. He reorganized the depleted squads. Every time there was a lull in combat, he led rescues of the wounded. As a lieutenant later described it, William was “cool, calm, intelligent, and personally utterly fearless.” That young kid who lied about his age grew up fast in war. And he received accolades for his valor, including the Distinguished Service Cross.
But not the Medal of Honor, because, hey, Jewish, and until Gregory Peck was in that one movie in 1947, we didn't even realize that anti-Semitism was a thing in America. Shemin's daughter Elsie, who was on hand to accept her father's medal, speculated that he was driven to serve by being the son of Russian immigrants:
“His family lived through the pogroms,” she says. “They saw towns destroyed and children killed. And then they came to America. And here they found a haven -- a home -- success -- and my father and his sister both went to college. All that, in one generation! That’s what America meant to him. And that’s why he’d do anything for this country.”
President Obama presented William Shemin's Medal of Honor to his daughters Ina Bass, 83, and Elsie Shemin-Roth, 86:
In his closing remarks, Obama touched on that moral arc of the universe idea that Martin Luther King is remembered for (when he's not being invoked in the name of ending affirmative action):
[It] has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve. And there are surely others whose heroism is still unacknowledged and uncelebrated. So we have work to do, as a nation, to make sure that all of our heroes’ stories are told. And we’ll keep at it, no matter how long it takes. America is the country we are today because of people like Henry and William -- Americans who signed up to serve, and rose to meet their responsibilities -- and then went beyond. The least we can do is to say: We know who you are. We know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.
Maybe Fox News will give him a pass on being all divisive and stuff, because for godssake, it did take 96 years for these men to be honored. Or maybe they'll suggest that in mentioning the very discrimination that kept these brave men from being recognized for so long, Barack Obama has somehow cheapened the Medal of Honor. Place your bets -- we're thinking it'll be Hannity who'll go nuts over it, maybe even call it affirmative action, but it could just as well be Real War Hero Bill O'Reilly.
But forget those guys. Henry Johnson and William Shemin are what heroism looks like, and you don't need a talking head to tell you that.