Shalom Life | July 09, 2015

Jewish, Black World War I Soldiers Finally Receive Medals of Honor

Jewish-American Sgt. William Shemin and African-American Pvt. Henry Johnson receive posthumous recognition after possibly being denied due to discrimination

By: Daniel Koren

Published: June 3rd, 2015 in News » World

Photo: Shemin's daughters Elsie and Ina receive the award on behalf of their father

Credit: EPA


On Tuesday, American President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to two World War I soldiers who bravely served the United States nearly 100 years ago, posthumously recognizing the courage they displayed when they rescued several of their American kinsmen on the battlefields in France.

While many soldiers were awarded for demonstrating such heroics, the aforementioned Jewish-American Sgt. William Shemin, and African-American Pvt. Henry Johnson did not, however, receive Medals of Honor, neither during the war or in the years following.

And, before the awards were bestowed today, many argued, on both soldiers' behalf, that it was on account of discrimination.

"It's never too late to say thank you," Obama said to Shemin's two daughters, Elsie and Ina, who accepted the award on his behalf, and New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, who accepted on behalf of Johnson. "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."

"They both risked their own lives to save the lives of others," he concluded.

New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson accepts medal on Johnson's behalf (Photo: Reuters)

New York National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson accepts medal on Johnson's behalf (Photo: Reuters)

As the Associated Press reports, Shemin consistently "dodged gunfire" in order to rescue the members of his platoon, while Johnson rescued a wounded soldier from his all-black regiment.

Advocates for both soldiers have been vocal about awarding them the Medal, particularly Shemin's daughter Elsie Shemin-Roth, who learned of a law that examined the cases of Jewish soldiers who may have been denied recognition during both World War I and World War II.

"This was anti-Semitism, no question about it," Shemin-Roth, now in her 80's, said in an interview last year. "Now a wrong has been made right and all is forgiven."

Touching on this during his address today, Obama concluded that, "The least we can do is to say we know who you are, we know what you did for us, we are forever grateful."

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