The heroism of some U.S. World War I veterans has gone unrecognized because of discrimination.
Two of them — Army Sergeant William Shemin, who was Jewish, and Army Private Henry Johnson, who was black — were formally recognized, posthumously, with the Medal of Honor during a ceremony on Tuesday.
"It is never too late to say thank you," President Barack Obama said.
Johnson entered the army in June 1917 and was assigned to an all-black National Guard unit that would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment. During combat in northern France, Johnson and his union were surprised during a nighttime raid by German forces. Despite a wound, he led a retaliation and prevented fellow soldiers from being taken prisoner.
Members of the 369th Regiment were in attendance during Tuesday's ceremony.
Johnson's bravery has been widely respected. His picture was printed on recruitment posters and ads for the military; he was honored in victory parades. He was also one of the first Americans to receive the highest French honor, the Croix de Guerre, but was never honored by his own country. He died just a decade after WWI, after becoming estranged from his family; he suffering 21 crippling injuries in the war, leaving him unable to work. He died penniless.
"American can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson. We can’t change what happened to too many soldiers like him," Obama said on Tuesday. "But we can do our best to make it right."
Johnson's award was presented to a members of the 369th regiment, as members of the crowd rose to their feet with applause.
William Shemin, who also enlisted in the U.S. army in 1917, served in France, Germany and Belgium in subsequent years. Shemin was the son of two Jewish Russian immigrants.
"Shemin served at a time when the contributions and heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked," Obama said.
During combat against German forces in France in the summer of 1918, Shemin left the cover of his platoon's trench and crossed through open space under enemy fire to rescue his wounded comrades. Shemin then took command of his platoon after senior officers were killed and "displayed great initiative under fire" until he was wounded, according to the army's account.
Shemin had received the Purple Heart for the injuries he sustained during combat, but was not recognized with the highest military honor until Tuesday. After the war, Shemin returned to New York, got his college degree and raised a family. He died in 1973.
Shemin's award was accepted by two of his daughters, Ina and Elsie, who took to the stage beaming alongside Obama.
"As much as America meant to your father, he means even more to America," Obama told the women, who are both in their 80s.
Obama noted that it had taken a long time for Johnson and Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve, and that he will continue to try to honor American heroes who have been overlooked.
"There are surely others whose heroism is still unacknowledged and uncelebrated," said Obama. "We’ll keep at it. No matter how long it takes, America is the country we are today because of people like Henry and William."