By David Vergun, Army News ServiceSeptember 25, 2018
WASHINGTON -- Sgt. Henry Johnson, 26, had been a railway red cap porter in Albany, New York, in the early 20th century, and most likely had never heard of the Argonne Forest.
But that's where he found himself May 15, 1918, during World War I in northern France.
In the early hours of that fateful day, the Germans attacked.
In the ensuing battle, Johnson, a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the "Harlem Hellfighters," came under intense enemy fire. Despite being wounded a number of times, Johnson mounted a brave retaliation, resulting in several enemy casualties.
Johnson fought in hand-to-hand combat wielding only a knife, rescuing a wounded comrade who had been captured and causing the large enemy force to fall back.
In 1929, Johnson, an African-American, died without having received much recognition, save for the Croix du Guerre, awarded to him by the French. It is their equivalent of the Medal of Honor.
In 2015, Johnson's valor was recognized with the awarding of the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony that included another posthumous Medal of Honor for Sgt. William Shemin.
Shemin's award was for bravery Aug. 7-9, 1918, in the area of Bazoches in northern France, not far from where Johnson fought. His citation states he repeatedly exposed himself to heavy enemy fire to rescue the wounded.
He survived and lived until 1973.
Elsie Shemin-Roth, Shemin's daughter, said "my father went out across a field 150 yards three times under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, with gas bombs being dropped, to save three of his men."
With officers dead or wounded, he took charge of his platoon and led them to safety, evacuating the wounded, then continued fighting until he was wounded, she said, adding that a head wound left him mostly deaf for the rest of his life.
After five weeks in the hospital, he rejoined his unit against orders to fight in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the final push by Allied forces that ended with the Nov. 11 armistice.
Members of the Shemin family were at the ceremony. However, since Johnson didn't have any known living next of kin, New York Army National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson received the Medal of Honor on Johnson's behalf from President Barack Obama.
The story doesn't end there, however. In August 2018, the Shemin family decided to visit the battlefields of France where he fought.
Shemin-Roth said it was unthinkable to visit the sites without anyone representing Johnson. So she contacted the Harlem Hellfighters, which had been renamed the 369th Sustainment Brigade.
Lt. Col. Shawn Shutts, the 369th deputy commander, said he'd "find a candidate that would best reflect both the courageous character of Sgt. Johnson and the high standards of the modern 369th Sustainment Brigade," she said. "After months of very stringent interviews a Soldier was selected."
That Soldier was Staff Sgt. Jonell Andre Gittens, who was born in Guyana and arrived in the U.S. at the age 20.
Shemin-Roth said Gittens was the perfect pick and added that the entire Shemin family informally adopted him.
"Andre is now truly a member of both the Johnson and Shemin family," she said, adding that Gittens likes to be called Andre.
For his part, Gittens said it was an incredible honor to have been selected and the trip to France from Aug. 2 to 6 was "an amazing and unforgettable experience," particularly "walking in the footsteps of both Sgt. Johnson and Sgt. Shemin."
Gittens said he learned not only about the battles, but about the horrific living conditions the men endured in the muddy trenches.
An amateur historian, Gittens said he thinks part of the reason he was selected was because his unit knows that he's always had a fascination for history, particularly of the New York National Guard and especially of the 369th.
"Sgt. Shemin's narrative and Sgt Johnson's narrative will now be told side by side and neither will ever be forgotten," Shemin-Roth said. She added that both received the Medal of Honor 97 years late after a review of valor awards for Jewish and African-American Soldiers.
Johnson is buried in Arlington National Cemetery; Shemin in the Baron Hirsch Cemetery in Staten Island.
Shemin-Roth said her family purchased a granite stone and two dwarf Japanese maples to honor both Medal of Honor recipients at Baron Hirsch Cemetery. "Their stories should be forever told and remembered side by side."