Uncommon Valor – Real Heroes: Two WW1 Soldiers Receive Medal of Honor
On June 2, 2015, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to two World War I soldiers for their heroic actions above and beyond the call of duty in 1918. Sergeant Henry Johnson, C Company, 369th “Harlem Hellfighters” Infantry Regiment, 93d Infantry Division, received the United States highest valor award for his May 15, 1918, combat actions in the Argonne Forest near Champagne, France, and Sergeant William Shemin, G Company, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, received the medal for his repeated acts of selfless heroism during August 7–9, 1918 near Bazoches, France. Although both soldiers had previously received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), America’s second-highest valor award, for these combat actions, further reviews ordered by the Department of Defense determined that the heroic actions of Johnson, who was African-American, and Shemin, who was Jewish, were eminently worthy of upgrading their DSCs to Medals of Honor.
Sergeant Henry Johnson (1892–1929)
While on night sentry duty on May 15, 1918, then-Private Johnson and fellow African-American soldier Private Needham Roberts, received a surprise attack by a German raiding party consisting of at least 12 enemy soldiers. While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Johnson mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier Roberts was badly wounded and incapacitated, Johnson prevented the enemy from taking him prisoner. Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a Bolo knife and already being seriously wounded multiple times, Johnson fatally stabbed the enemy soldier. Continuing to display great courage, Johnson held back the remaining enemy force until he forced them to retreat. The enemy raid’s failure in its intention to secure American prisoners was entirely due to Johnson’s bravery and resistance. Former president Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war.”
Sergeant William Shemin (1896–1973)
From August 7–9, 1918, while serving as a rifleman, Shemin left the cover of his platoon’s trench and crossed open space, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy German machine gun and rifle fire to rescue his wounded comrades. Captain Robert Purdon, one of Shemin’s officers, described the sergeant’s selfless act: “With the most utter disregard for his own safety, Shemin sprang from his position in the platoon trench, dashed out across the open in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine gun and rifle fire.” Since his officers and senior non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until he was seriously wounded by shrapnel and a machine gun bullet on August 9. Sergeant Shemin’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness, above and beyond the call of duty, are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.
Hall of Heroes Induction
In a ceremony on June 3, 2015, both Johnson and Shemin were inducted into the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, which honors all recipients of the Medal of Honor from all military branches.
Written by Jerry D. Morelock, Ph.D., based on US Army press releases.