- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously Tuesday to two World War I soldiers who showed heroism under fire in 1918 but were denied recognition in later years, likely due to discrimination.

The president bestowed the nation’s highest military honor on Army Pvt. Henry Johnson of Albany, New York, who was armed only with a knife as he held off a surprise attack by German soldiers and prevented the capture of a fellow wounded U.S. soldier. He died about a decade after the war ended.

Also receiving the award posthumously is Sgt. William Shemin, a native of Bayonne, New Jersey, who repeatedly dodged gunfire and artillery shells to pull wounded fellow soldiers to safety during a three-day battle. He died in 1973.

For decades, the Army declined to award Johnson with the medal, partly because he and other black soldiers in his “Harlem Hellfighters” regiment were under a French command. At the time, the Army was segregated and black troops could not fight in the same units as white soldiers.

“America can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”

President Clinton had awarded Johnson the Purple Heart in 1996. The Medal of Honor was accepted by Command Sgt. Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard.

Shemin’s daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth of suburban St. Louis, worked for years to document her father’s actions. She said in an interview last year that he was discriminated against because he was Jewish; she attended the event Tuesday.

Mr. Obama said it “takes our nation too long sometimes to say so, because Sergeant Shemin served at a time when the contributions in heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked.

“But William Shemin saved American lives. He represented our nation with honor,” the president said.

The ceremony in the East Room of the White House comes after longtime efforts by advocates for the two men prompted Congress to approve an exemption from rules specifying that heroic actions for the Medal of Honor must have taken place within five years to qualify.

The Medals of Honor are the 44th and 45th that Mr. Obama has awarded.

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