Military Recognition Long Over Due for Shemin and Johnson

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 7, 2015

             Almost a century ago when they fought in the bloody battlefields on Europe’s Western Front, and over four years after the passing of Frank Buckles, America’s last doughboy in 2011, America’s Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama presented the nation’s highest military honor to two long-deceased World War I veterans.  .

At White House ceremony, held on June 2, President Barack Obama recognized the acts of valor of Army Private Henry Johnson, an African-American, and Sgt. William Shemin, who was Jewish.  “It’s never too late to say thank you,” the President told the attendees, including 66 surviving Shemin family members.

“It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve,” the President said, at the formal ceremony to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to the two World War I infantry soldiers for their gallantry and “personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.”

Johnson and Shemin fought in France and risked their lives to save others, Obama said, stressing that America “is the country we are today” because they “rose to meet their responsibilities and then went beyond.”

The President said, “The least we can do is to say: We know who you are. We know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.”

Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

Johnson, an Albany, New York, resident enlisted in the Army and was assigned to one of the few units that accepted African-Americans, Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment – an all-black National Guard unit known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” that later became the 369th Infantry Regiment.  Ultimately, the regiment was deployed in 1918, and Johnson’s unit brigaded with a French army colonial unit ending up at the western edge of the Argonne Forest in France’s Champagne region.

In the pitch black, pre-dawn hours, in “No Man’s Land,” Johnson, who had worked before the war as a chauffeur, soda mixer, laborer in a coal yard and redcap porter at Albany’s Union Station, was credited with helping fight off at least 12 soldiers of a German raiding party despite being wounded and protecting Sentry Needham Roberts, from capture, May 15, 1918.

.            According to Obama, “Johnson fired until his rifle was empty; he and Roberts threw grenades and both of them were hit, with Roberts losing consciousness, As the enemy tried to carry away Roberts, Johnson fought back. After his gun jammed, he used it and a Bolo knife to take down the enemy and protect Roberts from capture.”  Johnson’s bravery ultimately would bring a cache of weapons and supplies to the allies and keep the Germans from gaining valuable intelligence information.

While Johnson was one of the first Americans to receive France’s highest award for valor [the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm] for his bravery in battle] “his own nation didn’t award him anything – not even the Purple Heart, though he had been wounded 21 times,” Obama said.

At the ceremony, Obama also awarded the Medal of Honor to Shemin, a rifleman to Company G, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces, in France.

Shemin, a former semi-pro baseball player and ranger who worked as a forester in Bayonne, New Jersey, repeatedly exposed himself in combat to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue wounded troops during the Aisne-Marne offensive in France, between Aug. 7 and Aug. 9, 1918.

“After platoon leaders had become casualties, Shemin took command and displayed initiative under fire, until he was wounded by shrapnel and a machine gun bullet that was lodged behind his left ear,” said Obama.

Following three months of hospitalization for his injuries, he was transferred to light duty and served in the Army occupation in Germany and Belgium.  Shemin received the Purple Heart. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for battlefield valor, Dec. 29, 1919.

An Act of Congress

It took over five years to get Shemin’s Distinguished Service Cross upgraded to a Medial of Honor,  says Col. Erwin A. Burtnick, (Ret.), who chairs the Awards for Valor Committee, of the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish War Veterans of the United States (JWV). Elsie Shemin-Roth, had approached JWV with her father’s records, asking the organization for a review.

Burtnick says, Shemin-Ross, a Missouri resident, grew up hearing stories from her father and those who served with him about how anti-Semitism played a role in preventing his recommendation for receiving the Medal of Honor.  From the documents submitted and a review of other Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor citations from World War I, the retired colonel felt strongly that if the Jewish soldier had been recommended for the Medal of Honor he would most likely had received it.  .

With a federal law required to allow Jewish World War I veterans to receive the Medal of Honor (current law mandates that it must be awarded within five years of when the heroic act being recognized took place), Burtnick asked Shemin-Roth, to help get the ball rolling by contacting Rep. Blaine Luekemeyer (R-MO). whose office ultimately drafted the initial legislation, the William Shemin World War I Veterans Act.

Burtnick provided advice in drafting the proposed legislation. Initially introduced in 2010 it was not enacted.  However, the legislation along with a companion measure in the Senate introduced by Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) passed and became part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012.  However, due to a technical requirement additional legislation was placed in the NDAA of  2015, which allowed the President to award the Medal of Honor to Shemin without regard to the five-year limitation.

.           Meanwhile, Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) spearheaded Congressional efforts to get Johnson his Medal of Honor. He knew that the nation’s highest military award had long been denied due to racism, but he knew that the African-American deserved recognition for his “bravery and heroism” during World War I.

The New York Senator submitted a nearly-1,300 page request to the military in support of Johnson’s receiving the Medal of Honor and launched an online petition to build public support. The Senator also made a personal call with U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh, met with Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright – who oversees decisions regarding Medals of Honor – and wrote a letter to Secretary Hagel, all in an effort to secure the Medal of Honor for Private Johnson.

Senator Schumer, the author of the legislation with the assistance of RR and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), successfully pushed for an amendment to be also included in the NDAA of 2015 (NDAA), which also waived the timing restrictions on the Medal of Honor and enabled the President to consider the Medal of Honor request.  With Obama’s pen stroke, Johnson got his Medal of Honor, too.

At the ceremony, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, New York National Guard senior enlisted advisor, accepted the medal on Johnson’s behalf. Soldiers from the 369th were among the attendees.  There are no family members left to accept the prestigious military award.

“It’s a blessing; it’s an honor; it’s a good thing that Henry Johnson is finally being recognized as a hero,” Wilson said.

Burtnick, came to the White House to see Shemin receive his Medal of Honor and attended a Pentagon enshrinement for the World War I soldier in the Hall of Heroes.  “I was elated that our efforts came to fruition, It took over five years to complete,” he says, acknowledging that he had fulfilled a pledge to Shemin-Ross when he first contacted her, to meet someday at the White House.  “I was happy to see her and she was happy to see me,” he says.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

 

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The Greatest Generation’s Last Hurrah

Published in Pawtucket Times, November 15, 2014

The G.I. Generation, born between 1901 to 1924, (coined the “The Greatest Generation” by nationally acclaimed journalist Tom Brokaw), grew up in the Great Depression, and went on to fight World War II, considered to be the largest and deadliest global military conflict in the world’s history. The world-wide war directly involved more than 100 million people from over 30 countries.

With the enactment of a formal declarations of war in Dec. 1941, the ranks of the United States military, by draft and voluntary enlistment, ultimately swelled to
16 million soldiers. Ultimately, those serving in World War II came from every state, ethnic group and race, from poor and well-to-do families.

World War II veterans put their youth on hold to defend the country. Their ages ranged from ages 17 (with parental permission) to 37 years. When discharged a grateful country’s G.I. Bill Education benefits would send them to college, propelling them into professional careers, giving them a good income to raise a family and to economically spur the economy. .

Brokaw, a well-know American television journalist and author best known as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, who now serves as a Special Correspondent for NBC News and works on documentaries for other news outlets, claims that this was “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He asserted that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was just the “right thing to do.”

The Last Man Standing

In their middle years, America’s “The Greatest Generation” would see the passing of the last Civil War veteran. On August 2, 1956, the 20th century veterans would learn about the death of Albert Henry Woolson, 106, the last surviving member of the Grand Army of the Republic, who fight in the nation’s bloody American Civil War. In 1864, Woolson had enlisted as a drummer boy in Company C 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment.

Woolson is considered to be the last surviving Civil War veteran on either side whose status is undisputed. At least three men who died after him claimed to be Confederate veterans but their veteran status has been questioned. .

According to the August 3, 1956 issue of the St. Petersburg Times, upon Woolson’s death, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated: “The American people have lost the last personal link with the Union Army. His passing brings sorrow to the hearts of all of us who cherished the memory of the brave men on both sides of the War Between the States.”

In 2011, a World War I veteran was nationally recognition, like Civil War Veteran Woolson, for being the last American doughboy. Frank Buckles, 101, had the distinction of being the last survivor of 4.73 million Americans who fought in the “War to End All Wars.” The 16-year old enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and served with a detachment from Fort Riley, driving ambulances and motorcycles near the front lines in France. Buckles left military service with the rank of corporal.

In his final years, Buckles served as Honorary Chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation. As chairman, he called for a World War I memorial similar to other war memorials inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway. He would campaign for the District of Columbia War Memorial to be renamed the National World War I Memorial.

Upon Buckles passing, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, issued a release, stating, We have lost a living link to an important era in our nation’s history,” whose distant generation was the first to witness the awful toll of modern, mechanized warfare. “But we have also lost a man of quiet dignity who dedicated his final years to ensuring the sacrifices of his fellow doughboys are appropriately commemorated,” adds Shinseki.

The Twilight Years of WWII Veterans

On November 11, there were fewer aging World War II veterans attending ceremonies held throughout the nation honoring them. With their medium age pegged at 92 years, many of these individuals are quickly becoming frail, their numbers dwindling as the years go by.

Over the next two decades, America’s World War II soldiers are dying quickly. We will again see another generation of soldiers passing, like Woolson or Buckles.

At the end of World War II, there were 16 million who served our nation in that horrific war. Thirty years ago, when President Ronald Reagan traveled to the battle site of Pointe du Hoc, located at a 100 ft cliff overlooking the English Channel on the coast of Normandy in northern France, there were only 10.7 million U.S. veterans left. The President came to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Normandy invasion, recognizing the American Ranger team that took heavy casualties in capturing the German-occupied cliff.

According to the U.S. Veteran’s Administration, in 2014, our frail World War II veterans are dying at a quick rate of just 555 a day. This means there are only 1.34 million veterans remaining. By 2036, The National World War II Museum predicts there will be no living veterans of this global war that took place from 1939 to 1945, to recount their own personal battle experiences. When this happens their stories, like Woolson and Buckles, will only be told in history books or by television documentaries or by historians and academics.

Last Tuesday, Veterans Day ceremonies and activities were held in 15 Rhode Island communities to honor those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Today, there are only 3,951 World War II veterans alive in the Ocean State. The elderly veteran’s numbers dwindle at these celebrations and even at their reunions because of their frailty and health issues.

We are posed to see a generation of veterans vanish right before our eyes. I say, cherish them while you can. Urge those around you who fought in World War II to tell stories and oral histories, for the sake of future generations. They have much to say, we have much to learn.

The National World War II Museum in Louisiana. To learn more about the Greatest Generation and the global war they fought in, go to http://www.nationalww2museum.org.

My commentary is dedicated to Second Lt. Frank M. Weiss, my father, who died in 2003 at 89 years old.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.