NYC soldier to walk in the footsteps of two Medal of Honor heroes

President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Elsie and Ina Shemin in June 2015.

NYC soldier to walk in the footsteps of two Medal of Honor heroes

New York National Guard soldier to travel to France for World War I battlefield tour with Sgt. Shemin Legacy Society

New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Jonell Gittens of the 369th Sustainment Brigade, the Army’s famous “Harlem Hellfighters,” will travel to France this week to walk in the battlefield footsteps of his unit’s World War I Medal of Honor recipient, Sgt. Henry Johnson.

Sgt. William Shemin

Johnson was part of the New York National Guard’s 15th Infantry, an all-black regiment before its mobilization for service in World War I and re-designation as the Army’s 369th Infantry, a lineage that continues today with Gittens and the Sustainment Brigade, still headquartered in Harlem.

Gittens’ will visit Sechault, France, and the historic battlefield site of where Henry Johnson earned his distinction and the Medal of Honor. The group arrives in France Wednesday, Aug. 1.

The historic visit is made possible by a sponsorship from the Sergeant William Shemin Medal of Honor Legacy Society.

“I am looking forward to learning more about the men of the 15th Infantry, who sacrificed their lives to set the path for myself and other Soldiers currently serving in the 369th Sustainment Brigade,” Gittens said. “I am excited to walk the path of two Medal of Honor recipients, who are honored for their valor and sacrifice during World War I.”

New York Army National Guard Sgt. Henry Johnson, circa 1919. Johnson was part of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the Hellfighters from Harlem, who fought under French command in WWI as an all-black combat unit. Johnson received the French Croix de Guerre for his actions in defending his outpost and his comrade Needham Roberts on the night of May 15, 1918. Photo courtesy the NYS Military Museum.

Both Sgts. Shemin and Johnson received the Medals of Honor 97 years after their battlefield actions of 1918. President Barack Obama presented the two medals to the family of Sgt. Shemin and the members of the New York National Guard in a White House ceremony in June 2015.

The two histories of these Soldiers were linked from that day on, said Elsie Shemin-Roth, daughter of Sgt. William Shemin, who was instrumental in lobbying for the medal review for her father. The Shemin family and Elsie, from St. Louis, Missouri, adopted Henry Johnson’s legacy of in all of their family events and programs.

To commemorate the centennial of World War I, the Shemin family and Medal of Honor Legacy Society organized the upcoming historical visit to the battlefields in France where both Soldiers fought in 1918.

The tour, “In the Footsteps of Two Medal of Honor Heroes,” will take the group to France August 1-6, visiting battlefields and sites where both Soldiers played key roles in America’s fight in World War I.

Sgt. William Shemin, born in New York City, raised in Bayonne, N.J. and later a lifelong resident of the Bronx, served as a rifleman in the 4th Division, known as the Ivy Division, in the American Expeditionary Force.

Between Aug. 7 and 9, 1918, Shemin left the cover of his platoon’s trench and crossed open space under fire, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue three wounded Soldiers.

After his platoon’s officers and senior non-commissioned officers became casualties, Shemin then took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire, until he was wounded himself, Aug. 9.

The group will tour Shemin’s service with the 47th Infantry Regiment during the Second Battle of the Marne in the summer of 1918, visiting Shemin’s battlefield at Bois du Chatelet August 3 and walk in Shemin’s footsteps as his unit advanced, first alongside the 42nd Rainbow Division, another New York National Guard historic unit from World War I, and then with the 4th Division at Sergy, St. Thibaut and crossing the Vesle River.

The trip will then walk the grounds of Shemin’s Medal of Honor actions from Aug. 7 through 9, 1918, at Bazoches.

The commemoration effort continues Aug. 4 with a visit to the battlefield for the 47th Infantry Regiment, part of the 4th Division in the Argonne and visit the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of a fellow regimental soldier.

Shemin is the only World War I recipient of the Medal of Honor from the 4th Division.

Following an overnight in Reims, the group focus will be on the service of the 369th Infantry, visiting a restored trench line Massignes de Main, the Battle of Henry Johnson Medal of Honor site, the 369th Infantry Monument in Sechault and a visit to the Oise-Aisne American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery to lay a wreath at the grave of a fellow member of the 369th Infantry.

Sgt. Henry Johnson served with the former 15th New York National Guard Infantry Regiment, re-designated as the 369th Infantry for federal service. The all-black regiment was attached to French Forces for the duration of the war, serving more than 190 days in combat, the most of any American regiment. French leaders and combat formations had no issues with race in their combat formations and welcomed the all-black regiment where it served with distinction.

The Sergeant William Shemin Medal of Honor Legacy Society, as a charitable not-for-profit, sponsored the trip for Gittens as a tribute to the service of Henry Johnson and to further cement the ties of the two World War I Soldiers, Shemin-Roth said.

The Shemin family group will include 14 family members, including Elsie Shemin’s sister, Ina Shemin Bass, now 86, from Somers.

Gittens, from Laurelton in Queens, was nominated for the trip to represent the centennial of service of the 369th Infantry as part of the New York Army National Guard and the United States Army. Born in Guyana, Gittens has nine years of service with the Army National Guard’s 369th Sustainment Brigade and returned from overseas deployment in June 2017.

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