President Barack Obama presents Ina Bass, left, and Elsie Shemin-Roth, center, with the the Medal of Honor on behalf of their father, Army Sgt. William Shemin during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington on June 2, 2015.
Susan Walsh—AP
By Maya Rhodan
June 2, 2015

President Obama awarded two long-overlooked World War I veterans the Medal of Honor posthumously on Tuesday.

In a ceremony at the White House, Obama honored Army Sergeant William Shemin and Private Henry Johnson for acts of bravery on the front lines in France during the first world war. Both of the servicemen were honored nearly a century after their acts of bravery after being overlooked largely because of their heritage. Shemin was Jewish and Johnson was African-American.

Shemin was finally honored Tuesday for exposing himself to enemy fire while serving as a rifleman in France in 1918. He left the trenches to rescue wounded soldiers and took command of his platoon as rival forces took out senior officers. On Monday, his daughters Ina Bass and Elsie Shemin-Roth accepted the medal on his behalf.

Johnson, who was a member of the black infantry unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters, was also honored for acts of gallantry in France, having been subjected to a surprise attack by German soldiers one night in May 1918. According to the White House, Johnson was able to retaliate against the invading forces and prevent a fellow soldier from being taken hostage. Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard accepted the Medal of Honor on behalf of Johnson.

President Obama noted the discrimination that kept the two heroes and many others from being honored for decades, vowing to ensure that more previously overlooked soldiers receive the recognition they deserve. Obama said from the East Room Tuesday, “It’s never too late to say thank you.”

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