Remarks delivered by HON Brad Carson at Hall of Heroes induction ceremony for Shemin and Johnson, June 03, 2015
Deputy Secretary Work, General Allyn the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, his lovely wife Debbie, Sergeant Major of the Army Dailey, Ms. Elsie Shemin, Ina Shemin, Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson, Assistant Secretaries of the Army, military service members who are gathered here today, DoD Civilians, Families, friends… good morning.
We gather here today to induct Sergeant William Shemin and Private Henry Johnson into the Hall of Heroes. It is now, as Secretary Work has already mentioned, almost one hundred years -- a full century -- since those acts of valor we recognize today.
But if time has passed, it has not dimmed, not yet, not by a long shot, the bright glow of these men's bravery. And age has not yet plummed the full depths of our nation's gratitude towards them. And if today's ceremony is a little belated, it takes nothing away from the inspiration we draw from our two recipients who's names will now join that sacred roll -- a fraternity forged in fire -- alongside the other names we also honor today, if only in silence.
There are graves that are alive. The President of the Belgian League of Remembrance pronounced this memorable phrase in 1919 at a cemetery in which were buried many of that country's heroes from what was then known as the Great War. Such carnage over the previous years defined the notion now known not to be true. The second such conflict could ever occur again. There are graves that are alive.
I have often thought of those words and what they mean since I first encountered them some years ago in reading a history of WWI. And now, today, on this stage, recognize the valor of Sergeant Shemin and Private Johnson, I think I know. They mean that there are some men, some women, whose legacies live on long after their deaths, who we continue to admire, who we remain enthrall to, even as they live only in our memories. The ineffable essence of their personality, the remembrance of their acts, the inspiration of their examples, all of these transcend the individual's all too mortal presence.
Private Henry Johnson, a member of the Army's all black "Harlem Hellfighters," Sergeant William Shemin, a Jewish son of Russian immigrants -- these men have graves that are alive.
Army Private Henry Johnson stood, as Secretary Work mentioned, a mere 5 feet 4 inches tall, but don't let that fool you. He was nicknamed "Black Death" and was heralded by no less an authority than Teddy Roosevelt as one of the five bravest men in WWI. And quite justifiably so. These words have already been spoken and will be again. But on occasions like today, repetition is no vice, but indeed a necessary virtue. Private Johnson and his fellow Soldiers were serving as sentries in that dark night in Frances Argonne Forest in 1918, when, as Secretary Work outlined, they realized they were surrounded by more than a dozen Germans and in danger of being killed or taken captive. The German raiders opened fire on the two men, wounding Private Johnson three times, and his colleague twice. Despite his injuries, Private Johnson fought on with an aggression that on all accounts, shocked even the battle-hardened Germans. And he fought on even after he weapon couldn't fire. As Secretary Work mentioned, he hit one German with the buttstock of his weapon and stuck a bowie knife into another. He stabbed to death at least one more attacker, allowing the weary Americans to toss hand grenades that finally prompted the rest of the Germans to flee. This brief, brutal encounter has been known in history and in legend simply as the Battle of Private Henry Johnson.
William Shemin has been described by his oldest grandson, Eddie Roth, as broad-chested, broken nosed, thick armed, man. I love that description for it shows in his photo from the time reveals that he was a Soldier almost from central casting. His commanding officer if the 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, described him cool, calm, intelligent, and utterly fearless. He was a boxer; football player; skilled at baseball and lacrosse. He lied about his age -- of course he did -- and got into the Army when he shouldn't have and we promptly sent him off to the killing fields of France. There on that scorching afternoon, his platoon was involved in a bloody firefight, in that very bloody war. From his trench, it is recounted, that he could see the Americans injured, dying littering the battlefield. He climbed the escarpment of his safety, and what happened next is best recounted by the contemporaneous words of Shemins superior officer that day. Captain Rupert Purdon who wrote that with utter disregard of his own safety, Shemin sprang from the safety of his platoon trench, dashed out across the open in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine gun and rifle fire. Sergeant Shemin was wounded himself by shrapnel, but he would lead the platoon out of harm's way for the next three days, until a German bullet pierces his helmet and lodged behind his left ear, an injury which hospitalized him for three months.
As this recounting tells, Sergeant Shemin and Private Johnson - very different men -- shared something precious. As the chaplain so beautifully rendered, outwardly different but inwardly devoted. Something we celebrate today. Something we label heroism. Although such a single word, noble as it is, seems inadequate to capture the rare qualities of such remarkable men. And their bravery prompts the mind to ask -- what does lead men to risk their lives as these two did? Is it love of country? Is it love of their fellow Soldiers? Is it something as simple as training? Yes, yes, and yes. But there is, it seems to me, so much more. So much more that can be recognized as necessary although it is impossible to describe it in full. It is perhaps best to say that it is part of the beautiful mystery of human life. The men and women act at great risk to themselves in pursuit of something beyond theirselves. Maybe we can, in the end, be satisfied, only with knowing there exists in some people, something so inviolable, something so important, that they would sacrifice their own lives, to protect it. To ensure its continued vitality.
Let us call it Duty, Honor, Patriotism, Love, whatever we call it, let us be grateful that our country seems to be so blessed with an abundance of this scarce breed of person. Sergeant Shemin and Private Johnson being two of which we honor today.
Since the six survivors of the Mitchell Raid were awarded the first Medals of Honor in 1863, citizens from presidents to privates have received the medal. The stories of the medals' recipients, their names inscribed each and every one in the Hall of Heroes, come from every imaginable background, and from every station in life that this great land maintains. Like Private Johnson and Sergeant Shemin, they represent the diversity of America that is the source of our great unity as a people. And each name on that wall has a story to tell. Stories like that of Vernon Baker, an African American, who trained in Army camps in WWII in the stifling racism on the south and rose above that to earn the nation's highest honor, leading his men out-numbered and out-gunned on the rugged hills of Italy. Or the story of Sadao Munemori , a Japanese American, awarded the medal posthumously after diving onto a grenade to save the lives of his fellow Soldiers in the same series of actions as Vernon Baker. Sadao's parents received notice of his death while they were living in the same internment camp from which he volunteered for duty in the United States Army. Or that of Lieutenant Commander Ernest Evans, a Cherokee Indian, who commanded the USS Johnston in Leyte Gulf. In a furious battle, the Johnston stayed behind to guard the fleet's retreat but was soon left dead in the water. Evans refused to abandon his post, however, until every round on the ship had been fired, even the starburst and sandbag rounds. It is said that when the Japanese passed the American survivors floating in the water after the Johnston had sunk, they threw them food and water and saluted them, shouting "samurai samurai." As for Evans himself, he was last seen astride the deck of the doomed boat, two fingers ripped off by the Japanese blast, shirtless, his own uniform burned off his body, but very much alive. His body would never be found.
Some of the men, and the women, too, in the Hall of Heroes, hail from the smallest of towns, others from the largest of cities. Some had families who had recently arrived to this great land. Others had families here since the Plymouth Rock. But all of these people -- all of them -- like those we honor today, had, to use the immortal words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., hearts that were touched by fire.
The fates of Sergeant Shemin and Private Johnson after the war would not be the same. Sergeant Shemin would go to college, Syracuse, he'd play football, study forestry, start a business, live a long life, until the 1970s, filled with hard work, to be sure, but one anchored by the eternal verities of faith and family- a family of which more than sixty join us today, led by Sergeant Shemin's indomitable daughters, Elsie and Ina. Thank you for being here today, as you and your family inspires us, too. Your steadfastness over the years, your love that transcends place and time, are examples to us all.
Private Johnson was honored with a parade when he returned to New York, and the French, with whom he fought, bestowed up on him the Croix de Guerre, with palm device. But the injuries, nearly two dozen, as Secretary Work mentioned, that he sustained were never properly documented, so he did not receive so much as a Purple Heart or the medical benefits that he had earned. He would die penniless in 1929, a very young man still, his war only a decade behind him. The lives of these men took different paths, well, why they did that, there is no way to tell. Only to say that this, too, is one of the mysteries of human life.
But one thing is certain, to say the least, the graves of Private Johnson and Sergeant Shemin are still alive. Still vibrant, and teaching us, through their heroic deeds, what Soldiers mean when they recite their creed, for much of what Soldiers profess, selfless service, honor, loyalty, duty, Sergeant Shemin and Private Johnson made manifest enduring some of the most trying circumstances, that fate could see fit to contrive. Fighting for a country that they loved; loved, sometimes, more than, sadly, it loved them back.
The work of the Army continues, to power our Soldiers abroad, to care for with dignity those Soldiers who are wounded, to honor our obligation to Soldiers whose service is now honorably completed. To remember those Soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice. May God bless those we recognize today, and their families, and may God bless all of those who choose a life of service to this country and who left, in the poet's words, the vivid air signed with their honor.