tv White House Medal of Honor Ceremony CSPAN August 28, 2015 6:49pm-7:16pm EDT
that the terror of war so often plagues the human family and yet it is during wartime that the greatness of human spirit is so often demonstrated in 1942, our nation was reeling from a preemptive strike by japan upon the pacific fleet. japan no doubt feared what the united states might use that fleet for. it was a shocking blow. the 80 men who volunteered for a virtual suicide mission did not strike a similar blow upon japan. little damage was done to the military force of that nation. the success of their mission, rather, was in the tremendous message of hope that we americans could respond to the dangers of powerful enemies despite impossible odds.
today only two raiders remain, lieutenant colonel dick cole and staff sergeant david thatcher. may thethatcher. may the breath of god uphold their noble and heroic story. may it carry to other generations and even to other nations a message to inspire citizens everywhere to believe and act upon the truth that there is no greater aspiration than to be willing to lay down one's life to save others. may those who made the ultimate sacrifice that day and thereafter rest in peace along with those companions who have joined them in eternity in the years since. bless all women and men in military service, their families and all those who put themselves in harm's way for the safety of
all, may you guide this time, this gathering as we remain mindful of the costs paid for our liberty. we gather here in gratitude for the men we recognize today, for their courage, their faithfulness and their selfless service. may the lives of sergeants henry johnson and william shemin remind us the soldier's heart, the soldier's spirit and the soldier's soul are everything. keep us mindful always of these men, of their acts of valor, their witness to the indominable human kasty for good even in the face of the most inhuman conditions of the battlefield. may these soldiers, their acts of heroism continue to form the fabric of our nation's
unyielding devotion to protect the dignity of all humanity, of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. let us take to heart these words once spoken after battle that it is for us, the living, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought have so nobly advanced. god of redemption and grace, i ask these things in your name, amen. >> good morning everybody. please be seated. welcome to the white house. nearly 100 years ago a 16-year-old kid from the midwest named frank buckles headed to europe's western front. an ambulance driver he carried the wounded to safety. he lived to see our troops ship
off to another war in europe, and one in korea, vietnam, iraq, afghanistan. and frank buckles became a quietly powerful advocate for our veterans and remained that way until he passed away four years ago, america's last surviving veteran of world war i. on the day frank was laid to rest in arlington national cemetery, vice president biden and i went to pay our respects. and we weren't alone. americans from across the country came out to express their gratitude as well. they were of different ages, different races, some military, some not. most had never met frank, but all of them braved a cold winter's day to offer a final tribute to a man with whom they shared a powerful conviction.
that no one who serves our country should ever be forgotten. we are a nation, a people who remember our heroes. we take seriously our responsibilities to only send them when war is necessary. we strive to care for them and their families when they come home. but we never forget their sacrifice. and we believe that it's never too late to say thank you. that's why we're here this morning. today america honors two of her sons who served in world war i, nearly a century ago. these two soldiers were roughly the same age, dropped into the battlefields of france at roughly the same time. they both risked their own lives to save the lives of others. they both left us decades ago
before we could give them the full recognition that they deserved. but it's never too late to say thank you. today we present america's highest military declaration, the medal of honor, to private henry johnson and sergeant william shemin. i want to begin by welcoming and thanking everyone who made this day possible, family, friends, admirers. some of you have worked four years to honor these heroes, to give them the honor they should have received a long time ago. we are grateful that you never gave up. we're appreciative of your efforts. as a young man henry johnson joined millions of other african-americans on the great migration from the rural south to the industrial north. people in search of a better
life. he landed in albany where he mixed sodas at a pharmacy, worked in a coal yard and as a porter at a train station. and when the united states entered world war i, henry enlisted. he joined one of only a few units that he could, the all black 369th infantry regimen, the harlem hell fighters. and soon he was headed overseas. at the time our military was segregated, most black soldiers served in labor battalions, not combat units. but general pers hing sent the 369th to fight with the french army which accepted them as their own. quickly the hell fighters lived up to their name. in the early hours of may 15th, 1915, henry johnson became a legend. his battalion was in northern france tucked into a trench.
some slept, but he couldn't. henry and another soldier needham roberts, stood century along no-man's land. in the predawn it was pitch black and silent and then a click, the sound of wire cutters. a german raiding party, at least a dozen soldiers, maybe more, fired a hail of bullets. henry fired back until his rifle was empty. then he and needham threw grenades. both of them were hit. neidham lost consciousness. two enemy soldiers began to carry him away while another provided cover firing at henry, but henry refused to let him take his brother in arms. he shoved another magazine into his rifle. it jammed. he turned the gun around and swung it at one of the enemy knocking him down. then he grabbed the only weapon he had left, his knife, and went
to rescue neidham. 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. and finally reinforcements arrived, the last enemy soldier fled. as the sun rose, the scale of what happened became clear. in just a few minutes of fighting two americans have defeated an entire raiding party and henry johnson saved his fellow soldier from being taken prisoner. henry became one of our most famous soldiers of the war. his picture was printed on recruitment posters and ads for victory war stamps. former president teddy roosevelt wrote he was one of the bravest men in the war. in 1919 henry rode triumphantly in a victory parade.
crowds lined for miles cheering this american soldier. henry was one of the first americans so receive france's highest award for valor. but his own nation didn't award him anything. not even the purple heart though he'd been wounded 21 times. nothing for his bravery though he had saved a fellow soldier at great risk to himself. his injuries left him crippled. he couldn't find work. his marriage fell apart. and in his early 30s he passed away. now, 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. in 1996 president clinton awarded henry johnson a purple
heart. and today 97 years after his extraordinary acts of courage and selflessness i'm proud to award him the medal of honor. we are honored to be joined today by some very special guests, veterans of henry's regiment the 369th. thank you to each of you for your service. and i would ask command sergeant major lewis wilson of the new york national guard to come forward and accept this medal on private johnson's behalf. [ applause ] >> the president of the united states of america authorized by act of congress march 3rd, 1863,
has awarded in the name of congress the medal of honor to private henry johnson united states army. private henry johnson distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of heroism at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a member of company c 369th infantry regimen 93rd on may 15th, 1918 during combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the western front in france. in the early morning hours private johnson and another soldier were on sentry duty when they received a surprise attack from a german raiding party consisting of at least 12 enemy soldiers. private johnson mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties. when his fellow soldier was badly wounded and being carried away by the enemy, private
johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage the two enemy captors in hand-to-hand combat. wielding only a knife and gravely wounded himself, private johnson continued fighting defeating the two captors and rescuing the wounded soldier. displaying great courage he continued to hold back the larger enemy force until the defeated enemy retreated leaving behind a large cache of weapons and equipment and providing valuable intelligence. without private johnson's quick actions and continued fighting even in the face of almost certain death, the enemy might have succeeded in capturing prisoners and the outpost without abandoning valuable intelligence. private johnson's extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and a great credit upon himself company c 369thin fan ri regimen 93rd infantry division in the united states army.
swimming. if it required physical and mental toughness, if it made your heart pump and muscles ache, he was all in. as a teenager he even played semi-pro baseball. so when america entered the war and posters asked if he was tough enough, there was no question about it he was going to serve. too young to enlist? no problem. he puffed his chest and lied about his age. that's how william shemin joined the 47th infantry regimen fourth division and shipped out for france. on august 7th, 1918, on the western front, the allies were hunkered down in one trench, the germans in another. separated by about 150 yards of open space, just a football field and a half. but that open space was a blood bath. soldier after soldier ventured out and soldier after soldier
was mowed down. so those still in the trenches were left with a terrible choice, die trying to rescue your fellow soldier or watch him die knowing that part of you will die along with him. 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 gunfire. three times he carried his fellow soldiers to safety. the battle stretched on for days. eventually the platoon's leadership broke down. too many officers had become casualties. so william stepped up and took command. he reorganized the depleted squads. every time there was a lull in combat he led rescues of the
wounded. as lieutenant later described it, william was cool, calm, intelligent and personally utterly fearless. a young kid who lied about his age grew up fast in war. and he received accolades for his valor including the distinguished service cross. when he came home william went to school for forestry and went to work in the bronx. it was hard work, lots of physical labor, just like he liked it. he married a redhead blue-eyed woman named bertha schiffer. he bought a house upstate where the grand kids spent their summers swimming and riding horses. he taught them how to salute. he taught them the correct way to raise the flag every morning and lower and fold it every night. taught them how to be americans. william stayed in touch with his fellow veterans too. and when world war ii came,
william went and talked to the army about signing up again. by then his war injuries had given him a terrible limp, but he treated that limp just like he treated his age all those years ago, pay no attention to that he said. he knew how to build roads. he knew camouflage. maybe there was a place for him in this war too. to bertha's great relief the army said the best thing he could do for his country would be to keep running his business and take care of his family. his daughter elsie who is here today with what seems like a platoon of shemins has a theory about what drove her father to serve. he was the son of russian immigrants. and he was devoted to his jewish faith. his family lived through the pod grams, she says. they saw towns destroyed and children killed. and then they came to america. and here they found a haven, a
home, success and my father and his sister both went to college. all that in one generation. that's what america meant to him. and that's why he'd do anything for this country. well, elsie as much as america meant to your father he means even more to america. takes our nation too long sometimes to say so because sergeant shemin served at a time when the contributions and heroism of jewish americans in uniform were too often overlooked. but william shemin saved american lives. he represented our nation with honor. and so it is my privilege on behalf of the american people to make this right and finally award the medal of honor to sergeant william shemin. i want to invite his daughters, elsie and ina, 86 and 83 and
gorgeous, to accept this medal on their father's behalf. [ applause ] >> the president of the united states of america authorized by act of congress march 3rd, 1863, has awarded in the name of congress the medal of honor to sergeant william shemin united states army. sergeant william shemin distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of heroism at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a rifle man with g company second battalion 47th
infantry regimen fourth division american expedition nair forces in connection with combat operations against an armed enemy in france from august 7th to august 9th, 1918. sergeant shemin upon three different occasions left cover and ran into open space of 150 yards repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine gun and fire to rescue wounded. officers and senior commissioned officers become casualties, sergeant shemin took command of the platoon and displayed extraordinary heroism. above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself with g company second battalion, 47th infantry regimen, fourth division, american forces and the united states army.