Black and Jewish WWI heroes finally getting Medal of Honor

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Obama Awards Medal of Honor to Discriminated WWI Soldiers


WASHINGTON (AP) — Two World War I Army heroes — one black, one Jewish — are finally getting the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France.

Sgt. William Shemin repeatedly dodged gunfire to pull wounded comrades to safety during three days of bloody battle. And Pvt. Henry Johnson rescued a wounded comrade from his all-black regiment while single-handedly fighting off a surprise German attack.

President Barack Obama plans to posthumously bestow the nation's highest military honor on both men for their actions in 1918 during a White House ceremony Tuesday. The award comes after tireless efforts by advocates for the two men led Congress to pass an exemption from Medal of Honor rules specifying that heroic actions have to have taken place within five years to be considered.

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Black and Jewish WWI heroes finally getting Medal of Honor
This undated photo provided by the U.S. Army shows Army Pvt. Henry Johnson. Pvt. Johnson was one of two World War I Army heroes on Tuesday June 2, 2015, who finally received the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. (U.S. Army via AP)
In this June 2, 2015 photo, Tara Johnson, poses in the East Room of the White House in Washington before the Medal of Honor ceremony for the late Army Pvt. Henry Johnson. Two days before President Barack Obama announced a posthumous Medal of Honor for black World War I soldier Henry Johnson, a family got staggering news about the legacy of heroism that had inspired them for generations. A U.S. Army general visited Tara Johnson last month with word Johnson was not her grandfather, World War II Tuskegee airman Herman Johnson was not the hero’s son. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Barack Obama posthumously bestows the Medal Of Honor for Army Pvt. Henry Johnson to New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Two World War I Army heroes, one black, one Jewish, are finally getting the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Tara Johnson, poses for a photo with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015, before the Medal of Honor ceremony for the late Army Pvt. Henry Johnson. Pvt. Johnson was one of two World War I Army heroes — one black, one Jewish —that finally received the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. Tara Johnson learned only two days before the recent announcement of new honorees that the military determined she is not the granddaughter of WWI hero Henry Johnson. That after decades of campaigning to get him honored. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Barack Obama presents New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, left, with the Medal of Honor on behalf of the late Army Pvt. Henry Johnson during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Johnson was one of two World War I Army heroes - one black, one Jewish - €”that finally received the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: U.S. President Barack Obama presents a Medal of Honor to Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard, who is accepting on behalf of the late Army Private Henry Johnson, for actions while serving in France during World War I, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama also awarded a Medal of Honor to the late Army Sergeant William Shemin for his actions, also during World War I. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama posthumously bestows the Medal Of Honor for Army Sgt. William Shemin to his daughters Ina Bass, left, and Elsie Shemin-Roth, of suburban St. Louis, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Two World War I Army heroes, one black, one Jewish, are finally getting the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
US President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Elsie Shemin-Roth (C) and Ina Bass (L), accepting on behalf of their late father, Army Sergeant William Shemin, for actions while serving in France during World War I, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, June 2, 2015. Obama also awarded a Medal of Honor to the late Army Private Henry Johnson for his actions, also during World War I. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama presents Ina Bass, left, and Elsie Shemin-Roth of Webster Groves, Mo., center, with the the Medal of Honor on behalf of their father, Army Sgt. William Shemin during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Shemin was one of two World War I Army heroes — one black, one Jewish —that finally received the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Barack Obama arrives in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015, for a ceremony to posthumously bestows the Medal Of Honor on Army Sgt. William Shemin and Army Pvt. Henry Johnson. Two World War I Army heroes, one black, one Jewish, are finally getting the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
William Shemin was 19-years-old when his heroics during World War I earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest combat award. His daughter has pushed for him to receive the highest award saying his actions deserved theMedal of Honor, but he was a victim of discrimination against Jewish service members. A new law will allow his case to be reviewed. (Shemin Family Photo/MCT via Getty Images)
In this Jan. 5, 2012 file photo, Elsie Shemin-Roth holds a World War I photo of her father, William Shemin, at her home in Labadie, Mo. Nearly a century after Sgt. Shemin pulled wounded comrades to safety on a World War I battlefield, his heroism has finally earned him the nation's highest service medal. On Thursday, May 14, 2015, the White House announced that President Barack Obama will award the Medal of Honor in tribute to Roth. He died in 1973. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
In this July 10, 2014, file photo, a statue of Henry Johnson is displayed in the Arbor Hill neighborhood in Albany, N.Y. Two World War I Army heroes, Sgt. William Shemin and Johnson are finally getting the Medal of Honor they may have been denied because of discrimination, nearly 100 years after bravely rescuing comrades on the battlefields of France. President Barack Obama plans to posthumously bestow the nation’s highest military honor on both men for their actions in 1918 during a White House ceremony Tuesday, June 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)
A statue of Henry Johnson is displayed in the Arbor Hill neighborhood on Thursday, July 10, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will consider whether the black World War I hero from Albany should be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor nearly 100 years after he single-handedly fought off a German attack, killing several of the enemy and saving a comrade despite suffering serious wounds. Johnson was a solider in an all-black outfit, the 369th Infantry Regiment, a New York National Guard unit based in Manhattan and known as the Harlem Hellfighters. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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Shemin's daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth of suburban St. Louis, worked for years to gather documents in support of the bid for her father and plans to accept the award from Obama on his behalf. In the early 2000s, she learned of a law that reviewed cases of Jews who may have been denied medals they earned in World War II and fought for passage of a law to provide similar review for Jewish World War I veterans.

"This was anti-Semitism, no question about it," Shemin-Roth, who is in her 80s, said in an interview in December when Congress passed the exemption for her father, who died in 1973. "Now a wrong has been made right and all is forgiven."

Johnson supporters pushed for the Medal of Honor for decades — with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer taking up the case and initially rebuffed for lack of documentation. His staff picked up the case again years later when a trove of military records became available online, including a communique from Gen. John Pershing describing his brave acts after coming under attack by at least 12 German soldiers while on night sentry duty on May 15, 1918.

"While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Johnson mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties," the White House said in a statement. "When his fellow soldier was badly wounded, Private Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces. Private Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Displaying great courage, Private Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated."

Johnson, a Virginia native who worked as a train station porter in Albany, enlisted in the 369th, a New York National Guard unit based in Manhattan. The "Harlem Hellfighters," as the unit became known, served under French command because U.S. armed forces were segregated at the time.

Hobbled by his wartime injuries, Johnson died a destitute alcoholic at age 32 at a veterans hospital in Illinois in 1929. New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson planned to accept the medal on Johnson's behalf.

Shemin was 19 when his platoon was involved in a bloody fight. "Sergeant Shemin left the cover of his platoon's trench and crossed open space, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue the wounded," the White House announcement said.

The young sergeant took shrapnel but survived. He led the platoon out of harm's way for the next three days, until a German bullet pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear. Shemin was hospitalized for three months and was left partly deaf. Shrapnel wounds eventually left him barely able to walk, although he earned a degree from Syracuse University and started a nursery business in the Bronx.

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Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler

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