On Tuesday, President Obama helped atone for a century of discrimination against minorities in the armed forces by posthumously awarding the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award, to Private Henry Johnson of the 369th Infantry Regiment and Sergeant William Shemin, 47th Infantry Regiment, two of our nation’s bravest veterans of the First World War. Their incredible acts of valor on the battlefield in Europe were never recognized because of racial and religious discrimination- Private Johnson was black, and and Sergeant Shemin was Jewish.
Private Henry Johnson was a member of an all-black National Guard unit that was reconfigured as infantry and sent to France in May 1918. They were assigned to a French colonial unit, because the Army refused to let African-American soldiers fight alongside whites. His unit became known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” for their astonishing bravery and fury in the line of fire.
On May 15th, Johnson was on sentry duty with Needham Roberts when they were surprised by a group of twelve German raiders, who attempted to take them prisoner. After exhausting the clip in his rifle, he took up his bolo knife and held off the enemies all by himself, in the face of almost certain death, saving his wounded buddy and sustaining twenty-one injuries in the process.
He quickly became a hero in the ranks, with his face printed on recruitment posters and his story used to sell war bonds. He was awarded the Croix D’Guerre by the French government, but the racial discrimination that ran deep through the Army refused to show him any formal recognition. It took until 1996 for him to receive the Purple Heart for the wounds he sustained, which crippled him and left him unemployed after the war. On this day, he finally receives the recognition that he deserves for his heroism, ninety-seven years after that fateful night in France.
Sergeant William Shemin was the son of Jewish immigrants who had fled the horrific Russian pogroms of the late 1800s, finding safety and a new life in New Jersey. He enlisted in 1917 and found himself in the Aisne-Marne Offensive, where he took command of his platoon after all his superiors had been killed. He repeatedly left the cover of his trench to run out into the no-man’s land, exposing himself to German machine gun nests in order to save his wounded men. He eventually took a bullet that pierced through his helmet and lodged behind his ear, taking him out of the front lines. He survived, and went on to father three children, but never received the recognition for his extraordinary bravery until today, due once again to anti-Semitism in the Army ranks.
It is a mark of how far our nation has come to see these old wrongs made right. It serves as a reminder of how times change; that our nation and our institutions were so blinded by prejudice that we refused to recognize these acts of incredible heroism in the face of the most brutal and hellish war the world has ever seen. Our victory in the First World War set us on the path to greatness and our rise to a world superpower, and it is through the courage and sheer force of will of men like Johnson and Shemin that we made it happen. We thank them for their service and celebrate their deeds.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.