As a teenager, William Henry Johnson worked as a chauffeur, a soda mixer, and a laborer in a coal yard before enlisting in the US Army on the eve of World War I.
On Tuesday, President Obama posthumously awarded the African-American soldier the nation’s highest decoration for valor, along with fellow World War I veteran Sgt. William Shemin, the child of Russian immigrants fleeing the pogroms, who lied about his age to enlist in the US Army.
The two men were roughly the same age, dropped on the battlefields of France at roughly the same time.
And both embodied the indomitable human capacity for good, even in the midst of the terror of battle, Maj. Gen. Paul Hurley, Army chief of chaplains, said Tuesday.
Though their heroism took place nearly a century ago, “We believe that it’s never too late to say thank you,” Mr. Obama told the families gathered at the White House ceremony Tuesday.
Private Johnson was assigned to the “Harlem Hellfighters,” the 369th Infantry Regiment, which was the first all-black regiment and one of the few black combat units during a war that funneled most African-American troops into units doing arduous labor.
Rather than have the Hellfighters battle alongside their fellow Americans, Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, assigned the regiment to attach with the French Army.
It was while on night sentry duty in May 1918 that Johnson and a fellow soldier were attacked by a dozen German soldiers in a raiding party.
When his fellow soldier was wounded under “intense enemy fire” and was being carried away by the enemy, Johnson, who was himself “seriously wounded,” engaged in hand-to-hand combat with three other German soldiers after his weapon jammed.
“Displaying great courage, Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated,” the Pentagon documents note. “The effect of their fierce fighting resulted in increased vigilance and confidence [in] the 369th Infantry Regiment.”
Indeed, General Pershing praised the two sentries, who, he said, “continued fighting after receiving wounds and despite the use of grenades by a superior force.”
President Theodore Roosevelt cited Johnson as one of the five bravest Americans in World War I.
While he was awarded France’s highest medal for valor, the Croix de Guerre avec Palme – which the French government bestowed on 171 US troops in the Harlem Hellfighters – the Medal of Honor has eluded these African-American troops.
Johnson became one of the most famous American soldiers after the war, with his picture on recruiting posters, but he died young in 1929, drinking heavily and unable to work “due to the severity of his 21 combat injuries,” the Pentagon documents note. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Tuesday’s White House ceremony for Johnson was the result of a campaign spearheaded by a fellow New Yorker, Sen. Charles Schumer (D), that took “years of exhaustive research,” according to the senator’s office.
“The nation for which he was willing to give his life shamefully failed to recognize his heroics, just because he was a black man,” he added in a statement.
“This century-old injustice finally made right will be a profound gesture that will rectify a sad chapter in American history,” Senator Schumer said. “It will be one of my proudest accomplishments as a Senator.”
Another lawmaker, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R) of Missouri, has championed the cause of Sergeant Shemin, a rifleman from Bayonne who “with the most utter disregard for his own safety, sprang from his position in his platoon trench [and] dashed out across the open in full sight of the Germans.”
This was from the report of one of Shemin’s supervisors, who added that during this time, the Germans “maintained a furious burst of machine gun and rifle fire.”
The battle stretched for days, and during that time leadership broke down. Shemin stepped up and took command, reorganizing depleted squads.
Though hit in the head with a bullet from a machine gun, Shemin survived and returned to the United States, where he enrolled as a college student at Syracuse University in New York and went on to start a landscaping business and have three children.
His posthumous Medal of Honor was championed not only by Representative Luetkemeyer, but a number of Jewish organizations as well.
“He found haven in America,” said Obama, quoting one of Shemin’s daughters during the White House ceremony. “That’s what America meant to him – and that’s why he would do anything for his country.”