​Righting a wrong: World War I heroes awarded Medal of Honor

WASHINGTON -- President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor Tuesday, posthumously, to two veterans of World War I: William Shemin of New York and Henry Johnson of North Carolina. The overdue award ceremony comes nearly 100 years after the men served, prompting President Obama to say: "We believe it's never too late to say thank you."

Sgt. William Shemin was always a war hero to his daughter Elsie. After all, he'd won the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest medal, for repeatedly braving German machine gun fire in the hell that was No Man's Land.

"He's 19 years old, he goes out on three occasions to bring back his wounded comrades -- three separate occasions," said Elsie.

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Sgt. William Shemin, left, Private Henry Johnson, right,
CBS News

But when she was 12 one of her father's army buddies turned everything upside down when he told her her father never got the medal he deserved because he was a Jew. Her father died in 1973 and World War I faded from public memory -- but not from hers.

"When you are discriminated against it doesn't get better with time," she said.

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Private Henry Johnson
CBS News

You could say the same about another World War I soldier, Private Henry Johnson. For his bravery in combat -- actually hand-to-hand combat -- he received France's highest honor.

"The French didn't have the segregation policies that the American Army had at the time," said retired Major General Nathanial James.

James says the American Army didn't even award Johnson the Purple Heart for his wounds.

"It was one of those bigotry things that I guess for some reason they didn't want blacks to get any kind of recognition," said James.

Without a Purple Heart, the man Teddy Roosevelt called one of the five bravest soldiers to fight in World War I received no assistance in dealing with his wounds.

"As far as I know he died as an alcoholic and penniless," said James.

Johnson was buried in Arlington and decades later awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross. Now the Medal of Honor will be added to that tombstone.

"He would probably smile and say it's about time," said James.

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Elsie Shemin-Roth, middle, accepts the Medal of Honor on behalf of her father Sgt. William Shemin
CBS News

Johnson had no family left to attend Tuesday's ceremony. Sgt. William Shemin had 66 family members there, including both of his daughters.

"I think he would think that he did something wonderful for this country," said his daughter Elsie.