Valor, Recognized. At Long Last.

It is always right and proper to acknowledge and thank soldiers for their valiant service to our country.

Even if it takes nearly 100 years.

Two heroes of World War I, Private Henry Johnson and Sergeant William Shemin–one African American, one Jewish–displayed remarkable feats of courage in action fighting on French battlefields while battling the Germans.

Their bravery was unmistakable. But the full measure of their valor largely went unrecognized. Until today.

Today President Obama posthumously awarded them the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House, in a show of gratitude that is long overdue.

Courtesy White House


Sergeant Henry Johnson. Courtesy U.S. Army

Private Henry Johnson served as part of the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Johnson battled 12 German soldiers while gravely wounded on the Western Front. He returned home to the United States with great fanfare, and even former President Theodore Roosevelt praised Johnson’s bravery…

Henry became one of our most famous soldiers of the war.  His picture was printed on recruitment posters and ads for Victory War Stamps.  Former President Teddy Roosevelt wrote that he was one of the bravest men in the war.  In 1919, Henry rode triumphantly in a victory parade.  Crowds lined Fifth Avenue for miles, cheering this American soldier.   –President Obama

…but our segregated military, and our segregated society did little else:

Henry was one of the first Americans to receive France’s highest award for valor.  But his own nation didn’t award him anything –- not even the Purple Heart, though he had been wounded 21 times.  Nothing for his bravery, though he had saved a fellow solder at great risk to himself.  His injuries left him crippled. He couldn’t find work.  His marriage fell apart.  And in his early 30s, he passed away. –President Obama

Sergeant William Shemin was not about to let a little thing like his age block serving his country. And he would show that age was but a number in the wake of a bloody battle, also on the Western Front:

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.  –President Obama

President Obama with Ina Bass and Elsie Shemin-Roth. Courtesy Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Sergeant Shemin deserved to receive the Medal of Honor for his heroism decades ago. But our segregated society was sometimes an anti-Semitic one, too.

Today, Shemin’s daughters, Ina Bass and Elsie Shemin-Roth, accepted the medal on their father’s behalf. You could see–and feel–the pride on their faces, as one sister held tightly to the President’s arm, and hand. It was a moving moment, and hard not to weep with pride.

Actually, it is still hard not to do so. Indeed, all is forgiven.

It is worth your while to watch the entire ceremony.


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