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Late World War II veteran from Dix Hills championed for WWI soldier to receive Medal of Honor

In this July 10, 2014, file photo, a

In this July 10, 2014, file photo, a statue of Henry Johnson is displayed in the Arbor Hill neighborhood in Albany, N.Y. Credit: AP/Mike Groll

President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor Tuesday to a dogged black World War I soldier from Albany, thanks in part to the research of a dogged black World War II soldier from Dix Hills.

The nation's highest military award was bestowed on Sgt. Henry Johnson, who was severely wounded fighting off a German attack in May 1918, but was denied even a Purple Heart because of anti-black attitudes that pervaded the military then.

Johnson's forgotten heroism eventually came to the attention of the late Leroy Ramsey, then a Hofstra University history professor, who believed the military accomplishments of African-Americans had been systematically overlooked because of racial bias.

Johnson had no known family, so the award was accepted on his behalf by Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard.

Another World War I Army veteran, longtime Bronx resident Sgt. William Shemin, was also posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Shemin's eldest daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth, who worked for years to gain recognition for her father and other Jewish World War I veterans, accepted the medal. Shemin died in 1973.

"They both risked their own lives to save the lives of others," Obama said of Johnson and Shemin.

Decades after Johnson's death in 1929, he was awarded the Purple Heart by President Bill Clinton. In 2002, Johnson received the Distinguished Service Cross. But the Medal of Honor proved elusive.

Before Ramsey died two years ago, his research into Johnson's battlefield exploits -- and similar efforts out of Albany -- reached the attention of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who began pressing Pentagon officials to recommend the high honor.

A breakthrough came in 2011, when a Schumer staff member found two contemporaneous descriptions of Johnson's actions -- a requirement for the Medal of Honor -- that had become available on the Internet.

One was a 1918 memo to the War Department from Gen. John Pershing, who said Johnson and a fellow soldier fought valiantly "despite use of grenades by superior force, and should be given credit for preventing by their bravery the taking prisoner of our men." Another was the account written by the soldier Johnson saved.

Relatives said the White House ceremony was the accomplishment of a lifetime for Ramsey, who directed New York State's school desegregation efforts for the state Department of Education in the 1970s, founded the African American Museum in Hempstead in 1985, and served on the Nassau County Human Rights Commission.

"He, as a World War II veteran, took it personally that black World War I and World War II veterans were not being given the recognition they deserved," said David Ramsey, Leroy Ramsey's son, who was among those in attendance. "He took it upon himself to do the research and get the story out."

Johnson, a North Carolina native who worked as a Red Cap porter in Albany's Union Station, served with the National Guard unit that would later become the 369th "Harlem Hellfighters" Infantry Regiment.

While on night duty in France, Johnson and another sentry were surprised by a German raiding party of at least 12 soldiers. Although Johnson was shot more than 20 times and ran out of ammunition during the firefight, he prevented the attackers from taking his badly wounded fellow soldier prisoner.

"Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat," according to an Army website. "Wielding only a knife and being seriously wounded, Johnson continued fighting."

But more than 60 years later, none of the 127 Medals of Honor awarded for heroism in World War I had gone to black soldiers. Denied a veteran's pension and prevented by his wounds from finding work, Johnson died penniless and alone.

Tuesday, Obama cited Shemin for bravery that included repeatedly exposing himself to machine-gun fire to pull wounded soldiers to safety during three days of trench warfare in France.

Wounded and left partially deaf by a bullet that lodged behind his left ear, Shemin was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1919. He would later open a nursery in the Bronx.

"It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve, and there are surely others whose heroism is still unacknowledged and uncelebrated," Obama 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."

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