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Obama Awards Posthumous Medals Of Honor To Two World War I Veterans

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Obama also stopped today to recognize two men. One was African-American, one Jewish. Both risked their lives to save their comrades during World War I but were never properly recognized. Today, those soldiers - Henry Johnson and William Shemin - were posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Henry Johnson signed up to be a soldier with a New York unit from Harlem, but as an African-American in 1918, said President Obama, the Army had little interest in his skills.

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BARACK OBAMA: At the time, our military was segregated. Most black soldiers served in labor battalions, not combat units. But General Pershing sent the 369th to fight with the French army, which accepted them as their own.

BOWMAN: So Johnson and the other black soldiers wore French helmets, carried French weapons, served in the front lines with French troops. And in the predawn hours of May 15, 1918, Johnson was on sentry duty at an outpost on the outskirts of France's Argonne Forest, some 50 yards from Allied trenches. Suddenly, at least a dozen Germans rushed them, firing on Johnson and his fellow sentry, Needham Roberts. Roberts passed out from his wounds. The Germans tried to capture him. Johnson was wounded himself, but fought back alone.

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OBAMA: Henry took down one enemy soldier then the other. The soldier he knocked down with his rifle recovered, and Henry was wounded again. But armed with just his knife, Henry took him down, too.

BOWMAN: Henry Johnson received the highest French medal for bravery - the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. From the Americans, he received nothing, not even disability payments though he was wounded 21 times and was unable to return to his job as a railroad porter. With no job, estranged from his wife and children, Johnson sunk into alcoholism and died at age 32.

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OBAMA: America can't change what happened to Henry Johnson. 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.

BOWMAN: The president also awarded a medal of honor to Sergeant William Shemin, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia who lied about his age to enlist. And the president said Shemin also faced prejudice because of his religion.

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OBAMA: Because Sergeant Shemin served at a time when the contributions and heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked.

BOWMAN: But what Shemin did not overlook were the wounded Americans outside his trench in the Western Front in August of 1918.

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OBAMA: 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-gun fire. Three times he carried his fellow soldiers to safety.

BOWMAN: Shemin did receive the Distinguished Service Cross at the time for his bravery, an award just below the Medal of Honor. But his daughter, Elsie, said during a recent press conference that he should've received the top honor.

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ELSIE SHEMIN-ROTH: Though my father always told me his war experience was never about medals, I knew in my heart he was deserving of the highest military award for valor - the Medal of Honor.

BOWMAN: Elsie and her sister, Ina, were in the audience at the White House today when the president looked down at them.

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OBAMA: Oh, Elsie, as much as America meant to your father, he means even more to America.

BOWMAN: The two sisters then stood next to the president as their father's medal citation was read aloud.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sergeant William Shemin distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of heroism at the risk of his life.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.