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Righting a wrong nearly 100 years later, two soldiers receive Medal of Honor posthumously

President Barack Obama posthumously bestowed the Medal of Honor on two World War I veterans whose heroic acts nearly 100 years ago went unrecognized in an age of discrimination. Sgt. William Shemin and Pvt. Henry Johnson were recognized with the nation's highest military decoration for saving their comrades on French front lines. William Brangham has the story.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Nearly a full century after they fought in World War I, a pair of veterans were honored posthumously by the president today. He gave them the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, saying their heroism had never been fully recognized because of discrimination.

    One recipient was African-American. The other was Jewish.

    William Brangham has the story.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    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.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    For one of the men honored by President Obama today, recognition for his acts of valor were a long time coming. In 1917, Henry Johnson joined the all-black 369th Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

    At the time, most black soldiers just performed menial labor, not combat operations. But the Hellfighters were deployed to France and fought under French command. Private Johnson was stationed in France on the western front. On sentry duty one night, he and another private, named Needham Roberts, came under fire from at least a dozen German soldiers.

    After a long fight, both men were wounded, Roberts was unconscious, and the Germans advanced.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    Then he grabbed the only weapon he had left — his Bolo knife — and went to rescue Needham. Henry took down one enemy soldier, then the other. And finally, reinforcements arrived and the last enemy soldier fled.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    For his extraordinary acts, Johnson was given France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre.

    Johnson and the Hellfighters were welcomed home by adoring crowds in Harlem and across New York. His image was even used on recruitment posters. And in a private letter, General John Pershing, the top American commander during the war, recognized Johnson.

    But neither Johnson’s bravery nor the 21 wounds he sustained that night were noted in his military records back home.

    Yohuru Williams, a history professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, said that was no simple oversight.

  • YOHURU WILLIAMS, Fairfield University:

    When the French began to recognize and celebrate acts of valor, like we see with the Henry Johnson case, Pershing’s reaction wasn’t to celebrate these troops, but actually try to introduce Jim Crow segregation into the French government and into the army, into the war itself.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    But after decades of advocacy by fellow veterans and others, Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart by President Clinton in 1996, and the Medal of Honor today by President Obama.

    Another World War I veteran received the nation’s highest military honor today, Sergeant William Shemin. While Shemin did receive the military’s second highest award in 1919, the president said his accomplishments never got the full honor they deserved, in part because he was Jewish. Shemin’s daughters were on hand to accept his award today.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    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 him die, knowing that part of you will die along with him.

    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 gunfire. Three times, he carried his fellow soldiers to safety.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    At a press conference earlier this week, Elsie Shemin-Roth said her father was one of many overlooked heroes.

  • ELSIE SHEMIN-ROTH, Daughter of William Shemin:

    This supreme honor is the name of William Shemin, but it would please him if it were also dedicated to the fallen, the survivors and their families who didn’t have the proper paperwork or representation depicting their valor.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Professor Williams says recognizing soldiers like Shemin and Johnson today reminds us that the failure to acknowledge the contributions of minority soldiers is an ugly, but undeniable theme of American history.

  • YOHURU WILLIAMS:

    Ultimately, what happens is, you go from this moment where Johnson is celebrated by his own community, and yet has to deal with the reality that the United States government, those that hold power, those in power are not doing anything to meet not only his needs, but the needs of other soldiers who fought bravely for their country.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Because of his wounds, Henry Johnson could not work after returning from the war. And because those wounds went undocumented, he was ineligible for military benefits. He died in 1929, penniless and ravaged by alcoholism. The president said today’s ceremony was a small way to right the wrongs done to Johnson and his fellow service members.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham in Washington.

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