Medal of Honor Ceremony:  Sgt. William Shemin and Pvt. Henry Johnson

Medal of Honor Ceremony: Sgt. William Shemin and Pvt. Henry Johnson


[MUSIC PLAYING] Ladies and gentlemen, the
President of the United States. [“HAIL TO THE CHIEF” PLAYING] We read in the
sacred Psalms, “Even were I to walk in a
ravine as dark as death, I should fear no danger,
for You are at my side. Your staff and your crook
are there to soothe me.” Let us pray. All powerful,
ever-living, Lord of all, may you guide this
time– this gathering– as we remain mindful of the
costs paid for our liberty. We gather here in
gratitude for the men we recognize today for their
courage, their faithfulness, and their selfless service. May the lives of Sergeants
Henry Johnson and William Shemin remind us the soldier’s
heart, the soldier’s spirit, and the soldier’s
soul are everything. Keep us mindful always of these
men– of their acts of valor, their witness to the indomitable
human capacity for good, even in the face of the most in human
conditions of the battlefield. May these soldiers–
their acts of heroism– continue to form the fabric
of our nation’s unyielding devotion to protect the dignity
of all humanity of life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness. Let us take to heart these
words once spoken after battle, “that it is for us, the
living, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work,
which they who fought have so nobly advanced.” God of redemption and grace, I
ask these things in Your name. Amen. Good morning, everybody. Please be seated. Good morning. Welcome to the White House. Nearly 100 years ago,
a 16-year-old kid from the Midwest named
Frank Buckles headed to Europe’s Western front. An ambulance driver, he
carried the wounded to safety. He lived to see our troops ship
off to another war in Europe, and one in Korea, Vietnam,
Iraq, Afghanistan. And Frank Buckles became a
quietly powerful advocate for our Veterans,
and remained that way until he passed away four years
ago– America’s last surviving Veteran of World War I. On the day Frank was laid to
rest in Arlington National Cemetery, Vice President Biden
and I went to pay our respects, and we weren’t alone. Americans from
across the country came out to express
their gratitude as well. And they were of different
ages and different races, some military, some not. Most had never met
Frank, but all of them braved a cold winter’s day to
offer a final tribute to a man with whom they shared a powerful
conviction– that no one who serves our country
should ever be forgotten. We are a nation– a people–
who remember our heroes. We take seriously
our responsibilities to only send them
when war is necessary. We strive to care for
them and their families when they come home. And we never forget
their sacrifice. And we believe that it’s never
too late to say thank you. That’s why we’re
here this morning. Today, America honors two of her
sons who served in World War I nearly a century ago. These two soldiers were
roughly the same age, dropped into the
battlefields of France at roughly the same time. They both risked their own lives
to save the lives of others. 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. Today we present America’s
highest military decoration– the Medal of Honor– to
Private Henry Johnson and Sergeant William Shemin. I want to begin by
welcoming and thanking everyone who made this day
possible– family, friends, admirers. Some of you have
worked four years to honor these heroes to give
them the honor that they should have received a long time ago. We are grateful that
you never gave up, and we are appreciative
of your efforts. As a young man,
Henry Johnson joined millions of other
African Americans on the great migration
from the rural south to the industrial north
[INAUDIBLE] people in search of a better life. He landed in Albany,
where he mixed sodas at a pharmacy, worked in a
coal yard, and as a porter at a train station. And when the United States
entered World War I, Henry enlisted. He joined one of
only a few units that he could– be all black
369th Infantry Regiment– the Harlem Hellfighters– and
soon he was headed overseas. At the time, our
military was segregated. Most black soldiers
served in labor battalions– not combat units. But General Pershing
sent the 369th to fight with the French
Army, which accepted them as their own. Quickly, the Hellfighters
lived up to their name. And in the early
hours of May 15, 1918, Henry Johnson became a legend. His battalion was in northern
France, tucked into a trench. Some slept, but he couldn’t. Henry and another
soldier, Needham Roberts, stood sentry along
no man’s land. In the predawn, it was
pitch black and silent, and then a click– the
sound of wire cutters. A German raiding party– at
least a dozen soldiers, maybe more– fired a hail of bullets. Henry fired back into
his rifle was empty. Then he and Needham
threw grenades. Both of them were hit. Needham lost consciousness. Two enemy soldiers
began to carry him away while another provided
cover, firing at Henry. But Henry refused to let them
take his brother in arms. He shoved another
magazine into his rifle. It jammed. He turned the gun around and
swung it at one of the enemy, knocking him down. Then he grabbed the only weapon
he had left– is bolo knife– and went to rescue Needham. Henry took down one enemy
soldier, then the other. The soldier he knocked
down with his rifle recovered, and Henry
was wounded again. But armed with just his knife,
Henry took him down too. And finally,
reinforcements arrived, and the last enemy soldier fled. As the sun rose, the scale of
what happened became clear. In just a few
minutes of fighting, two Americans defeated
an entire raiding party, and Henry Johnson saved
his fellow soldier from being taken prisoner. 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. And crowds lined Fifth
Avenue for miles, cheering this American soldier. 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 soldier
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. Now America can’t change what
happened to Henry Johnson. 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. But we can do our
best to make it right. In 1996, Present Clinton awarded
Henry Johnson a Purple Heart. And today, 97 years after
his extraordinary acts of courage and selflessness,
I’m proud to award him the Metal of Honor. We are honored to
be joined today by some very special
guests– Veterans of Henry’s regiment, the 369th. Thank you to each of
you for your service. And I would ask Command Sergeant
Major Lewis Wilson of the New York National Guard to come
forward and accept this metal on Private Johnson’s behalf. The President of the
United States of America, authorized by Act of
Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded, in the name of
Congress, the Medal of Honor to Private Henry Johnson,
United States Army. Private Henry Johnson
distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of
heroism at the risk of life, above and beyond
the call of duty, while serving as a member
of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Infantry
Division, American Expeditionary Forces,
on May 15, 1918, during combat operations against
the enemy on the front lines of the Western front in France. In the early morning
hours, Private Johnson and another soldier
were on sentry duty at a forward outpost when they
received a surprise attack from a German raiding
party consisting of at least 12 soldiers. While under intense enemy
fire, and despite receiving significant wounds,
Private Johnson mounted a brave
retaliation, resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier was
badly wounded and being carried away by the enemy,
Private Johnson exposed himself to great danger
by advancing from his position to engage the two enemy
captors in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and
gravely wounded himself, Private Johnson continued
fighting, defeating the two captors, and rescuing
the wounded soldier. Displaying great
courage, we continued to hold back the
larger enemy force until the defeated
enemy retreated, leaving behind a large cache
of weapons and equipment, and providing
valuable intelligence. Without Private Johnson’s quick
actions and continued fighting even in the face of
almost certain death, the enemy might have succeeded
in capturing prisoners and the output without
event and abandoning valuable intelligence. Private Johnson’s
extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and
beyond the call of duty are in keeping with
the highest traditions of the military service
will reflect great credit upon himself, Company C,
369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Infantry Division, and
the United States Army. Growing up in
Bayonne, New Jersey, William Shemin loved sports–
football, wrestling, boxing, swimming. If it required physical
and mental toughness, if it made your heart pump
and your muscles ache, he was all in it. As a teenager, he even
played semi-pro baseball. So when America entered
the war and posters asked if he was tough enough, there
was no question about it. He was going to serve. Too young to enlist? No problem. He puffed his chest
and lied about his age. And that’s how William Shemin
joined the 47th Infantry Regiment, Fourth Division,
and shipped out for France. On August 7, 1918,
on the Western front, the allies were hunkered down
in one trench, the Germans in another, separated by about
150 yards of open space– just a football
field and a half. But that open space
was a bloodbath. Soldier after soldier ventured
out, and soldier after soldier was mowed down. So those still in
the trenches were left with a terrible
choice– die trying to rescue your fellow
soldier, or watch them die, knowing that part of you
will die along with them. William Shemin couldn’t
stand to watch. He ran out into the
Hell of no man’s land, and dragged a wounded
comrade to safety. And then he did it
again, and again. Three times he raced through
heavy machine gun fire. Three times he carried his
fellow soldiers to safety. 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 low on combat, he led rescues of the wounded. As a lieutenant
later described it, William was cool, calm,
intelligent, and personally, utterly fearless. A young kid who lied about
his age grew up fast in war. And he received
accolades for his valor, including the Distinguished
Service Cross. When he came home, William
went to school for forestry, and began a nursery
business in the Bronx. It was hard work–
lots of physical labor, just like he liked it. He married a redheaded,
blue-eyed woman named Bertha Schiffer. And they had three children
who gave them 14 grandchildren. He bought a house upstate
where the grandkids spend their summers
swimming and riding horses. He taught them how to salute. He taught them the correct way
to raise the flag every morning and lower and fold
it every night. He taught them how
to be Americans. And William stayed in touch
with his fellow Veterans too. And when World War
II came, William went and talked to the Army
about signing up again. By then, his war injuries had
given him a terrible limp, but he treated that limp
just like he treated his age all those years ago. Pay no attention
to that, he said. He knew how to build roads. He knew the camouflage. Maybe there was a place
for him in this war too. To Bertha’s great
relief, the Army said that the best
thing one could do for his country was to
keep running his business and take care of his family. All right. His daughter Elsie,
who’s here today with what seems like a
platoon of Shemin’s has a theory about what drove
her father to serve. He was the son of
Russian immigrants. And he was devoted
to is Jewish faith. His family lived through
the pogroms, she says. 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 this country. Well, Elsie, as much as
America meant your father, he means even more to America. 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. And so it is my privilege, on
behalf of the American people, to make this right and finally
award the Medal of Honor to Sergeant William Shemin. I want to invite his daughters
Elsie and Ida– 86 and 83 and gorgeous– to accept this
metal on their father’s behalf. Please be seated. The President of the
United States of America, authorized by Act of
Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded, in the name of
Congress, the Medal of Honor to Sergeant William
Shemin, United States Army. Sergeant William Shemin
distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of
heroism at the risk of his life above and beyond
the call of duty, while serving as a rifleman with
G Company, Second Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment,
Fourth Division, American Expeditionary
Forces, in connection with Combat Operations against
an armed enemy on the Velo River near [INAUDIBLE]
France, from August 7th to August 9, 1918. Sergeant Shemin, upon three
different occasions, left cover and crossed an open
space of 150 yards, repeatedly exposing himself
to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue wounded. After officers and senior
non-commissioned officers had become casualties,
Sergeant Shemin took command of the platoon
and displayed great initiative under fire until
wounded on August 9th. 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 with G Company,
Second Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, Fourth Division,
American Expeditionary Forces, and the United States Army. Way to go, Else. Well, 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. So we have work
to do as a nation to make sure that all of our
heroes’ stories are told. And we’ll keep at it, no
matter how long it takes. And America’s the country we
are today because of people like Henry and
William– Americans who signed up to serve and rose
to meet their responsibilities, and then went beyond. The least we can do is to
say, we know who you are, we know what you did for
us, we are forever grateful. And God bless the fallen
of all of our wars. May you watch over our
Veterans and their families and all those who serve today. May God bless the United
States of America. With that I’d ask
Chaplin to return to the podium for a benediction. Lord of all, as we
go forward today, we ask you to instill
within us your peace, your courage, your strength. Lead us to all that is good and
brings honor to your creation. Help us to defeat the
evils we face each day. Bless us with the wisdom
to celebrate and recognize our capacity for good
to free the oppressed. Let us serve all with valor
as these men have shown and witnessed to us today. Be upon us now and
remain with us always. Amen. Amen. With that, we conclude
the formal ceremony, but I welcome everybody to
join in a wonderful reception. And let’s give our
Medal of Honor winners one big round of applause. Thank you, everybody. [INAUDIBLE] [INAUDIBLE] Where are you at?

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