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Medal of Honor awarded to black, Jewish WWI veterans

Two World War One veterans - an African American from the South, and a son of Russian-Jewish immigrants - were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor, on Tuesday. The president presented the medals posthumously to Army private Henry Johnson and Army sergeant William Shemin.

"We are a nation - a people - who remember our heroes," Obama said of the men as he awarded them.

The two shared some similarities - they were close in age and dropped into the battlefields of France at roughly the same time. 'They both risked their own lives to save the lives of others. They both left us decades ago, before we could give them the full recognition that they deserved. But it's never too late to say thank you," Obama said.

In the East room of the White House, the president acknowledged times were different 97 years ago, but America now has a chance to right the wrongs and honor those who served in the past.

"And we'll keep at it, no matter how long it takes. We are forever grateful," Obama said.

The men served during a time of segregation in the U.S. military. Blacks served in labor battalions rather than combat units.

Private Johnson served with an all-black unit, the "Harlem Hellfighters," which earned its nickname on the night of May 15, 1918. While on overnight patrol in France, Johnson and another soldier were ambushed by German soldiers. After exhausting his rifle clip, Johnson swung the gun at enemy attackers and used a knife to take down German soldiers. "In just a few minutes of fighting, two Americans defeated an entire raiding party and Henry Johnson saved his fellow soldier from being taken prisoner," Obama said.

Johnson was wounded 21 times in the attack. He received France's highest award for valor, but no recognition from the U.S. until President Bill Clinton awarded him a Purple Heart in 1996. "His injuries left him crippled," President Obama said. "He couldn't find work. His marriage fell apart. And in his early 30s, he passed away."

Mr. Obama continued, "America can't change what happened to Henry Johnson. We can't change what happened to too many soldiers like him who went uncelebrated because our nation judged them by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. But we can do our best to make it right."

Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard accepted the medal on Private Johnson's behalf.

Sergeant William Shemin lied about his age to join the Army during WWI. His unit, hunkered in a trench in France, came under machine gun fire. "Soldier after soldier ventured out and soldier after soldier was mowed down," the president said.

Sgt. Shemin, witnessing casualty after casualty, dodged the crossfire and dragged one of his wounded comrades to safety. Then did it time and time again. "Three times he raced through heavy machine gun fire. Three times he carried his fellow soldiers to safety," the president said. Shemin took command of his unit after officers were killed in the days-long battle.

Medal of Honor recipient's daughter recalls father's time in the Army

Shemin's daughters, Elsie, 86, and Ina, 83, accepted the Medal of Honor on his behalf.

"As much as America meant to your father, he means even more to America. It takes our nation too long sometimes to say so, because Sergeant Shemin served at a time when the contribution and heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform were often overlooked. But William Shemin saved American lives," the president said.

Shemin's daughter Elsie spoke to CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin about the moment she realized her father did not receive the Medal of Honor due to his religion.

"That was very devastating to me knowing what his citation was, now I was able to read it and fully understand what this action was and yet there was discrimination," she said.

But for her father, she added, "It was never about medals. It was about fighting for our country. And that was the end of it."

CBS News Producers Arden Farhi and Mary Walsh contributed to this report.

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