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Medal of Honor Ceremony for Sergeant Shemin and Private Johnson

Good morning, everyone.  What a great crowd today.  Thank you all for being here.

On behalf of Secretary Carter, who is halfway around the world, literally in India, I'd like to thank all of you for being here today and to extend Secretary Carter's personal thanks for all of you coming out.

I'd also like to thank a couple people before starting.  Congressman Chris Gibson from 19th district of New York, thank you for coming sir.  And Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer from the third district of Missouri.  Both of them are here today, and I'll say a little bit more about them later on.  But thank you both for coming here today.

I'd also like to thank Senator Chuck Schumer.  He was at the ceremony yesterday.  He had an important part to play in recognizing Private Johnson.  Couldn't be here today, but members of his staff are. 

I'd like to especially welcome the many, many descendants of Sergeant William Shemin, who have gathered here to help us honor the bravery and heroic actions of their ancestor.

I'm told there's as many as 66 of the family members here today.  If you'd just raise your hand.  Welcome all.  A member of the family, Sergeant Shemin's eldest daughter, Elsie, Elsie Shemin-Roth, who is here today in the front row.  And she personally was the one to engage the most in trying to have her father recognized for this great honor.  So Elsie, thank you for everything you've done. 

Now, today's other Medal of Honor recipient, Private Henry Johnson, unfortunately has no next of kin who could join us here today.  But we are especially honored to have the state command sergeant major of the New York National Guard, Lewis Wilson, who will be here today and is going to accept the medal on behalf of Private Johnson.  Sergeant Major, thank you very much for coming.  

And this ceremony today is a reminder that it's never too late to correct the record, to redress the prejudice of the past, and to appropriately honor our Nation's heroes.  It is a feature of our republic and the American people themselves that we have the ability to correct our course, and that the Nation's long arc of history does not bend towards injustice, it bends towards justice. 

And particularly as a military institution that represents literally every single member of this Nation, every citizen regardless of race, regardless of belief, regardless of preference, it is imperative that we do all we can to fix the wrongs from the past.  In the case of Sergeant Shemin, it was anti-Semitism.  In the case of Private Johnson, it was racism.  It is important that we acknowledge the injustices and mistakes of the past and rightfully honor those who have given so much on behalf of the country.

Now Senator Schumer, as I said who couldn't be here today, said yesterday "the great thing about America is that we undo our injustices more than any other country." 

But just before we came down here in my office, as I was talking to Elsie and her beautiful sister, Ina.  What she said was especially poignant, and it was "Discrimination hurts, a wrong has been made right, and all is forgiven."

I thought that was especially appropriate.  I wanted to share it all with you today.

Now, because the spirits of both these great Americans who fought on distant battlefields more than a century ago in World War I, they live on in each and every one of us who serves our nation, as does the spirit of all our nation's veterans.  They bring a noble purpose to our lives, and one that we should never forget.

Well Sergeant Shemin and Private Johnson were part of the mighty force of Doughboys that we sent to France in 1917 to help war-weary allies who had been in war at that time for three long years, and they were initially fed into the line in small numbers to stem the tide of the German offenses in the spring and summer of 1918. 

The French and British were worn out, largely dispirited after four hellish years in 1918 of trench warfare.  It's kind of hard to imagine the lives of the individual men on the front lines were having to go through.

The Germans knew the weakened state of the allied army so they decided to throw one last great offensive to try to win the war.  And they wanted to do that before the American numbers turned the tide.  Now, the ferocity of the American troops that they initially met in combat had an immediate impact on both sides.  They simultaneously lifted the spirits of the British and the French and depressed those of the Germans.

The Germans characterized their new American enemies as brave and stubborn.  Boy, that's about as spot on a description of the American fighting men and women you can find.  As one German Army corps reported, "these American personnel must be called excellent.  Their spirit is high."  It went on to say "our fire did not check the advance of their infantry.  The nerves of these Americans are still unshaken."  High praise indeed from an enemy that had endured long years of warfare.

This fighting spirit of the Americans was demonstrated across the western front, in places like Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, and the Argonne forest, names that would enter the long line of American battle honors and especially those of the United States Army and the United States Marine Corps.

And it was that same fighting spirit that was displayed so strikingly by both Sergeant Shemin and Private Johnson.  Now, Sergeant William Shemin was a first generation American.  He was born of Russian immigrant parents in Bayonne, New Jersey.  He lied about his age to get into the fight, and he joined the Army shortly after the United States declared war on Germany.  He was with the American expeditionary force in France in 1918 when this big German offensive crashed across the front.  And he was engaged in bloody fighting with the attacking Germans. 

On one day, as you will hear in the citation, on three separate occasions, Sergeant Shemin left the safety of his trench and raced across 150 yards of bullet-swept ground.  He was a football player.  So, as the President said yesterday, about a football field and a half. 

He did it not once, not twice, but three times to rescue wounded fellow soldiers.  One of his officers wrote, "Shemin distinguished himself by exhibiting the most efficient qualities of leadership, cool, calm, intelligence, and personally, he was utterly fierce."  Though wounded during the fighting, Sergeant Shemin recovered and went on to get a degree from Syracuse University, where he played football, and he lived in the Bronx, New York, where he started a business and raised three children.

As I told you, Elsie is here today.  When she was 12 years old, a friend of Sergeant Shemin told her that the only reason why her father did not receive the Medal of Honor was because he was Jewish.  And she made a vow that day to try to make things right.  And about 13 years ago, she really started to make a lot of progress.  And today and yesterday are the results of her labors.

Private Henry Johnson was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  He later moved to New York.  He joined the Army in 1917, once again, as a teenager.  He was assigned to an all-black National Guard unit that would later become known as the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” 

In a bitterly fought battle in May of 1918, Johnson and one of his fellow soldiers were cut off and surrounded by a large German raiding party.  And what followed is something out of a movie. 

Wounded by a shower of grenades thrown by the attacking Germans, Johnson's comrade was being dragged off by the Germans into captivity.  Disregarding his own injuries, Private Johnson, all five foot four of him, leapt up, smashed one of the Germans on the head with his rifle butt, drew a bolo knife -- plunged it into the skull of a German, and into the stomach of another.  A Hellfighter indeed. 

He threw grenades at the rest of the enemy until they withdrew.  Johnson was wounded, but stayed with his regiment until it returned home at war's end.  And by the time he had left, he had 21 wounds or injuries suffered in combat.  Sadly, he never recovered and he died about 10 years later at a veterans' hospital in Illinois. 

Once again, his bravery was overlooked.  He wasn't even awarded a Purple Heart at the time because his unit was serving under French command rather than U.S. Army command.  10 years ago, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts, but it did not stop there. 

Several people, especially someone who's passed away, his name was Mr. Howell, he was a Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam.  He tried to convince everyone that the award, although high and although deserving, really wasn't good enough.  It needed to be a Medal of Honor.  And since that time, people like Representative Gibson and Senator Schumer have worked to get this done and correct it.

World War II Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy was once asked why he single-handedly attacked an entire German company, and his response was simple: “They were killing my friends.”  It is that same devotion to one's fellow troops that we see in both of the accounts of Sergeant Shemin and Private Johnson, and it is the most defining characteristic of American warfighters be they in the Army, the Marine Corps, the Navy, the Air Force, or the Coast Guard.  They fight to bring each other home.

The example of heroism and bravery of these two soldiers is a legacy of countless veterans who have stepped forward to serve, who went after our nation's enemy with a ferocity burning in their hearts.  And over the past 14 years of war, the descendants of Sergeant Shemin and Private Johnson and all those who fought at Shiloh, at Argonne, in Normandy, the Chosin Reservoir, Khe San, and Somalia have shown our enemies again and again the same fierce American fighting spirit. 

The stories of Sergeant Shemin and Private Johnson illustrate something else, and that is that our all-volunteer force is stronger because of its diversity.  And because it represents all Americans, all cultures, all colors, all religions, and that's what makes the United States military the finest the world has ever known, because it is our people.  They are our secret weapon.  They are the heart and soul of a force that is best when it reflects the diversity of the Nation.

So I'm very, very proud to be here today representing Secretary Carter to help induct these two great Americans into the Hall of Heroes and to thank all of our nation's heroes for their service and their sacrifice: particularly those who gave their last full measure so that we all might have a better life.

Now normally, whenever I host an event like this, I ask everyone in uniform or who has served in uniform, as you all know, if you have the Medal of Honor, regardless of rank and regardless of position, any holder of the Medal of Honor is saluted by everyone else in our organization.

Sergeant Shemin and Private Johnson never had that honor.  So I'd like everyone to stand and face them, and let's render one last salute.  Hand salute.  Ready Two. 

Thank you so much.  I appreciate you all coming.  And to the Shemin family, and to those representing Private Johnson, God bless you, and God bless America.  Thank you.