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Here Are The Amazing, Heroic And Tragic Stories Of Two WWI Heroes Finally Awarded Medals Of Honor

Two vets who served on the battlefields of France in World War I were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House Tuesday.

Henry Johnson was part of the all-black “Harlem Hellfighters” regiment. He almost singlehandedly fended off at least a dozen Germans in the trenches, armed with only a knife, and saved his fellow soldier from capture. William Shemin was a son of Russian immigrants and devoted Jew, who braved heavy machine gun fire in “No Man’s Land” to rescue three of his fellow soldiers who were wounded.

“They both risked their own lives to save the lives of others,” President Obama said at the ceremony. “They both left us decades ago, before we could give them the full recognition that they deserved. But it’s never too late to say thank you.”

Private Henry Johnson

Johnson left his hometown in North Carolina as a teenager and moved to New York, where he worked as a soda mixer, coal yard laborer and railway porter before enlisting in the Army in 1917, a few months after the U.S. declared war on Germany.

The military was segregated at the time, and Johnson was assigned to an all-black New York National Guard unit that later became the 369th Infantry Regiment known as “The Harlem Hellfighters.” His unit was sent to Northern France to fight with the French Army in 1918, and Johnson became one of the first Americans to receive France’s highest award for valor.

In the pre-dawn hours of May 15, Johnson and fellow soldier Needham Roberts were standing in the trenches along No Man’s Land when a German raiding party of at least a dozen soldiers attacked. The Germans fired, and Johnson emptied his rifle returning fire. Then he and Roberts threw grenades, but they were both hit and Needham lost consciousness.

Two Germans grabbed Roberts under cover and began carrying him away. Johnson reloaded his rifle, but it jammed, so he turned it around and knocked down one of the Germans, then grabbed his Bolo knife and went after Roberts.

He took out both Germans carrying Roberts, but was wounded again by the third soldier he had hit with the rifle, and then took him out too. He continued holding the rest of the Germans off until reinforcements arrived and they fled, leaving behind weapons and equipment and providing valuable intelligence.

Johnson was celebrated in the U.S. for his service. He rode in a 1919 victory parade, and was pictured on recruitment posters and Victory War Stamps ads. President Teddy Roosevelt called him one of the bravest men of the war.

But although he was wounded 21 times in the war, he didn’t receive any award from America until after his death. He was left crippled and unable to find work, and his marriage fell apart. Johnson died in his early 30s.

In 1996 Clinton awarded him a Purple Heart, and Tuesday President Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor. “We can’t change what happened to too many soldiers like him, who went uncelebrated because our nation judged them by the color of their skin and not the content of their character,” Obama said Tuesday. “But we can do our best to make it right.”

Sergeant William Shemin  

The son of Russian immigrants, Shemin grew up playing sports in Bayonne, New Jersey, and played semi-pro baseball as a teenager. When America declared war on Germany, he lied about his age and enlisted in the 47th Regiment, 4th Division, which was sent to France.

On August 7, 1918, Shemin left his trench and crossed 150 yards of No Man’s Land three times to rescue a wounded fellow soldier and carry him to safety while under heavy machine gun fire. That particular battle went on for days, and so many of Shemin’s platoon officers died that he stepped up and assumed command.

He reorganized the dwindling squads and led rescue missions for the wounded until he himself was wounded. A lieutenant later described him as “cool, calm, intelligent and personally utterly fearless.”

Shemin received awards for his bravery, including the Distinguished Service Cross.

After the war, he went to school for forestry, got married and began a landscaping business in the Bronx. He had three children and eventually 14 grandchildren, and later bought a house upstate.

When World War II rolled around, Shemin tried to enlist again, certain he could be useful, although his war injuries had left him with a terrible limp. But the Army told him the best thing he could do for his country is keep running his business and take care of his family.

“‘His family lived through the pogroms,'” Obama said Tuesday, speaking on behalf of Shemin’s daughter Elsie. “‘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 his country.'”

“Well, Elsie, as much as America meant to your father, he means even more to America,” Obama continued. “It takes our nation too long sometimes to say so — because Sergeant Shemin served at a time when the contributions and heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked. But William Shemin saved American lives. He represented our nation with honor.”

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