This is a story full of the pathos, of prejudice, and triumph of good against all the odds. It is a story that is rooted in our nation’s past and the ugly spectres of racial and religious biases. But it is also a story about how far we have come in the long effort to fully recognize and to live out the creed expressed so powerfully in the Declaration of Independence that, “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights and among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
This story is about two young men who went to war and conducted themselves with honor and conspicuous valor.
One of these young men was, Sgt. William Shemin, a second generation Jew. His parents had immigrated to the United States from Russia escaping the deadly anti-Jewish pogroms of the late 1800’s. The other was a young black man by the name of Pvt. Henry Johnson. They fought on separate battlefields in France during WWI, almost a century ago now. Because of the anti-semitic and racial prejudices at the time, they were both denied the nation’s highest award for valor because of who they were. Even though they both knew the sting of such prejudices, they chose to serve their country in uniform.
Pvt. Henry Johnson
Pvt. Henry Johnson had entered the Army in 1917 through an All-Black Army National Guard unit. According to the New York Times, Pvt. Henry Johnson’s U.S. Army regiment was known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” U.S. Army segregation rules at the time did not allow whites and blacks to fight alongside one another. Because of this Pvt Henry Johnson’s unit was serving under a French Army colonial unit on the western edge of the Argonne Forest. Pvt. Johnson and a small group from his unit were caught in an ambush by dozens of Germans. Johnson, out of ammunition and armed only with his knife, singlehandedly engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat until reinforcements could get to them. He was wounded several times during this action.
When WWI was over, Henry Johnson came home to a segregated nation, a nation that would not recognize him for his valor, but only for the color of his skin.
He would die a decade later, a victim of his 21 combat related injuries and symptoms of what we would call PTSD today.
Over the last century the Army denied him the Medal of Honor he had earned
using the argument that his unit was serving under a French, rather than an American command. France, on the other hand, awarded Pvt. Johnson its highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre. Efforts had been made for years to get the Johnson his due without much result. Recently, though, two contemporary Army documents describing Johnson’s actions were found, which proved his merits and made it possible to finally award him with the Medal of Honor he had earned almost a hundred years ago. Pvt. Henry Johnson’s Medal of Honor was received by Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard, as there are no surviving members of Pvt. Henry Johnson’s family.
Sgt. William Shemin
According to the same New York Times article, Sgt. William Shemin earned his Medal of Honor during a three-day battle in August of 1918. During the battle, he “repeatedly left the safety of his platoon’s trench to recover wounded soldiers amid a barrage of machine-gun fire and artillery shells.”
According to Army documents, when it became clear that all of his immediate superiors officers and enlisted men had become casualties, Shemin assumed command of his battered unit. One of those officers, Captain Rupert Purdon, said that Sgt. Shemin, “exhibited utter disregard for his safety, [he] sprang from his position in his platoon trench and dashed out across the open in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine-gun and rifle fire.”
In the process of performing these rescues he was wounded by shrapnel and was struck by a bullet that pierced his helmet, lodging behind his left ear.
The New York Times article indicated that Shemin came home after the war and earned a degree at New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University. With that he started his own landscaping business. He married and had three children, two of whom are now in their eighties, who were at the White House ceremony to receive their father’s Medal of Honor from the President.
It is a sad and painful reality that these two courageous men who had served their country in the nation’s uniform, who had fought with such valor and self-sacrifice, would be denied the recognition that they so clearly deserved, simply because one was an African-American and the other a Jew. If there is anything to take from this story –other than the justice of them finally receiving their rightful recognition and awards– it is that these two men showed courage both on the battlefield in one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, as well as on the daily “battlefields” against the unjust attacks of religious and racial prejudices here at home.
Though the nation they served so well denied them their equality and their full citizenship, these two men showed us all an uncommon depth of character.
They chose to rise above the artificial and arbitrary limitations of racism and anti-Semitic bias to serve the nation. And they did so with great courage, dignity and honor. That is the power of this story. Yes, they were denied their awards for artificial, arbitrary, and unjust reasons, but the truth and the good have triumphed.
We all need to reflect on how much we have grown as a nation.
We need to also recognize that we are not done yet. There is still much to learn and to heal, but every positive step like this one gets us a little bit closer to the dreams articulated in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. Is there any other nation with such a high and noble ideal? It is our privilege to live in such a nation. It is up to every one of us to become what Lincoln called at the end of his Gettysburg Address, “a nation of the people, by the people and for the people.” That is who and what we are to be. These two men have shown us what our “better angels” look like. God bless America!
We here at The Veterans Site are proud to offer our praise and our thanks to the memories of Sgt. William Shemin and Pvt. Henry Johnson. You have been recognized for your courage and your dedication to your brothers-in-arms and you have now entered the annals of the elite few who have earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. May the prejudices of the past continue to be addressed and to finally fade into the pages of history once and for all. Thank you, good and faithful soldiers. Job well done.Whizzco