Tag Archives: France

This Month in NCO History: Aug. 17, 1944 — Taking the knoll near La Londe, France

When the 3rd Infantry Division reached the shores of France on Aug. 15, 1944, the Rock of the Marne had already seen several examples of gallantry from its Soldiers that were worthy of the nation’s highest honor. It took only two days to witness another.

Staff Sgt. Stanley Bender stood tall as a barrage of German gunfire barreled toward him before helping his unit gain a crucial position near La Londe, France. Bender was part of E Company, 7th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division. The unit made landfall in southern France after spending the previous 21 months engaged in battles throughout North Africa and Sicily as part of the 3rd ID’s Operation Torch. The men of the 3rd ID would eventually be awarded 15 Medals of Honor for their actions in Italy. Bender would join their ranks when he leapt into action after one of the company’s tanks was disabled.

The division was beginning its push north through France to close the gap on German forces who were scurrying east in a hasty retreat from Allied forces, which had landed two months earlier at Normandy. Bender’s unit encountered heavy German resistance near the town of La Londe. When a volley of machine-gun fire halted an American tank, the company was pinned down. Bender scrambled to the top of the disabled tank and scanned the horizon to find the source of gunfire. He stood bravely in full view of the enemy while a steady stream of bullets careened off the turret below him for more than two minutes, according to his Medal of Honor citation. He eventually saw muzzle flashes flaring from a knoll 200 yards away. From there, Bender leapt off the tank and into history.

According to the citation, Bender ordered two squads to cover him as he took a group of Soldiers through an irrigation ditch toward the enemy gunfire. For the first 50 yards of their advance, they were sprayed with intense fire, resulting in four Soldiers being wounded. Bender ended up alone ahead of the squad and stood his ground while the Germans hurled grenades into the ditch. Once the squad reached his position, Bender set out for the German stronghold. He wound his way to the rear of the enemy emplacement, then started marching toward it — alone. With no cover fire laid down for him, Bender traversed 40 yards as the occasional German and friendly fire whizzed past him. He reached the first machine gun and eliminated it with a short burst.

That caught the attention of another two-man machine-gun crew, which turned the weapon around and trained it on him. But Bender was unfazed. He walked calmly through the hail of fire and nullified the threat before signaling his men to rush the remaining rifle pits. Bender headed back to his squad’s position, killing another German rifleman along the way, and together they charged the remaining eight German soldiers in the machinegun nest. The attack galvanized the rest of the assault company, with Soldiers spring from their positions shouting. The company eventually overpowered an enemy roadblock, knocked out two anti-tank guns, killed 37 Germans and captured 26 others.

The attack also resulted in the capture of three bridges over the Maravenne River and command of key terrain in southern France. Bender’s actions were in keeping with the “conspicuous gallantry and the intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty,” worthy of the nation’s highest honor. He was awarded the Medal of Honor on Feb. 1, 1945.

After his service, Bender had two bridges named in his honor on the West Virginia Turnpike, one in 1954 and the other in 1987. In addition to his Medal of Honor, Bender, who joined the Army in December 1939, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, as well as the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and seven battle stars. He died June 22, 1994, at age 84 in Oak Hill, W.Va. He was buried in High Lawn Memorial Park in Oak Hill.

Compiled by Pablo Villa

This Month in NCO History: July 29, 1944 — Taking command at Grimesnil, France

Sgt. Hulon B. Whittington didn’t flinch when 2,500 German troops overran the roadblock he was manning near the village of Grimesnil, France.

Whittington was 23 years old and serving with the 41st Armored Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Armored Division seven weeks after D-Day. The clock had trudged past midnight on July 29, 1944, when a 100-vehicle Panzer unit reached the outskirts of town. The unit was part of the last vestiges of a hasty German retreat from Coutances to the northwest that American forces had secured the previous day. The Germans were headed south on orders to block any further American advance to Avranches. They had suffered huge losses on the Cotentin Peninsula because of the Operation Cobra. The Allied offensive was punctuated by a four-hour air barrage that destroyed more than 350 tanks and other vehicles that were halted during a stalled retreat near Roncey.

That meant the German troops who ran into Whittington and his fellow Soldiers in the early morning hours were tired, desperate and defiant. They fought as such, parlaying their frustration into a near rout of the American defenders. But Whittington was undaunted, and by the end of the attack his actions would be worthy of the nation’s highest honor.

With his platoon leader and platoon sergeant missing in action, Whittington took charge, according to his Medal of Honor citation. The attack in full swing, Whittington reorganized his unit’s defensive perimeter. He then crawled between gun positions to check on his fellow Soldiers while under heavy German fire. Suddenly, a German Mark V tank, famously known as a Panther, at the head of the convoy made a beeline toward Whittington’s line. He jumped onto an American tank that had been immobilized and shouted through the turret to direct fire for the crew inside. The crew fired point blank at the Panther, destroying it. The resulting wreckage left the rest of the German column at a standstill.

Whittington then led a bayonet charge against the stalled Germans. The Americans followed him, using hand grenades, bazookas and tank fire to destroy more of the enemy vehicles as they went. Eventually, artillery units joined the fight and the destruction of the German convoy was completed.

But Whittington wasn’t done. After learning that his unit’s medical corpsman was struck by enemy fire, Whittington administered first aid to the wounded. His impact during and after the battle was a stellar display of “the dynamic leadership, the inspiring example, and the dauntless courage,” worthy of the Medal of Honor. Whittington was decorated with the medal April 23, 1945.

Whittington was born July 9, 1921, in Bogalusa, La. He enlisted in the Army in August 1940 in Bastrop, La. Whittington became a commissioned officer in 1949 and reached the rank of major in 1960. He died Jan. 17, 1969, in Toledo, Ohio. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

President Obama rightfully gives the valor of 2 NCOs its due 97 years later

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

Sgt. Henry Johnson and Sgt. William Shemin joined the Army at a time when not all Soldiers were treated equally.

Johnson, an African-American, and Shemin, a Jewish-American, were part of an Army that relegated ethnic and religious minorities to smaller roles within the force during World War I. That didn’t stop either man from stepping up in a big way when the lives of fellow Soldiers were at risk. Their individual acts of valor on separate battlefields saved the lives of their comrades. Their heroism occurred despite suffering serious wounds amid arduous conditions.

For nearly a century, their actions went unrecognized by their country.

On Tuesday, after decades of obscurity and years of pushing by family members and veterans’ organizations, President Barack Obama awarded both men the nation’s highest honor.

“We are a nation — a people — who remember our heroes,” Obama said during a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House. “We never forget their sacrifice, and we believe it’s never too late to say, ‘Thank you.’”

Harlem Hellfighter repels a raid

Johnson received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions May 15, 1918, to fight off a German raid party using his Bowie knife. He was on night sentry duty with Pvt. Needham Roberts in an area northwest of Sainte-Menehould, France, between the Tourbe and Aisne rivers. According to the White House, the pair came under a surprise attack by a dozen German soldiers.

While under intense fire and despite his own wounds, Johnson kept an injured Roberts from being taken prisoner. He came forward from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and gravely wounded, Johnson continued fighting until the enemy retreated.

Johnson was in France as part of C Company of the 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, which he joined in June 1917. The all-black National Guard unit would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment — the famed Harlem Hellfighters — part of the 93rd Division, which was ordered to the front lines to fight with the French in 1918. After being awarded France’s highest award for valor, the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, in 1919, Johnson died in 1929 without fanfare. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. But until now, he had been overlooked for the Medal of Honor.

“America can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson,” Obama said. “But we can do our best to make it right. I’m proud to award him the Medal of Honor.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, the command sergeant major of the New York Army National Guard accepted the award on Johnson’s behalf.

“In the modern time that we live in, if you are deserving of something you are rewarded expeditiously,” Wilson said in an interview before Tuesday’s ceremony. “I’m glad there are families and organizations that have pushed and pushed and pushed to make this happen. It’s pretty much all about Albany, it’s all about New York, it’s all about the National Guard. It’s all about Henry Johnson.”

A kid grows up fast

William Shemin was too young to enlist in the Army in 1917. So, much like he would do throughout his military career, he found a way.

“He puffed his chest and lied about his age,” Obama said.

Shemin was serving as a rifleman with G Company, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, during the Aisne-Marne Offensive in the summer of 1918. According to the White House, from Aug. 7 to 9, he left the cover of his platoon’s trench and crossed open space, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machinegun and rifle fire to rescue the wounded.

After officers and senior noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Shemin took command of the platoon until he was wounded by shrapnel and a machinegun bullet, which pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear. He was hospitalized for three months and then was placed on light duty as part of the Army occupation in Germany and Belgium.

For his injuries, he received the Purple Heart and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on Dec. 29, 1919.

“William stepped up and took command. He led rescues of the wounded,” Obama said. “William was cool, calm, intelligent and utterly fearless. A young kid who lied about his age grew up fast in war.”

Shemin was honorably discharged in August 1919. He died in 1973.

His eldest daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth of Webster Grove, Mo., began an effort in the early 2000s to give her father a chance at being awarded the Medal of Honor. Her endeavor was spurred by news that a group of Jewish-American World War II veterans were getting their Army Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross and Air Force Cross citations reviewed for upgrades due to anti-Semitism. Shemin performed actions that were worthy of the Medal of Honor, according to a Distinguished Service Cross recommendation in the family’s possession.

Shemin-Roth’s efforts included contacting the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America and a congressman for help. Eventually, they saw the passage of the William Shemin Jewish World War I Veterans Act in 2011, which allowed Shemin’s case to be resubmitted for review.

Four years later, Shemin-Roth, along with her sister, Ina, joined Obama on stage to receive their father’s Medal of Honor.

‘We have work to do’

Obama concluded the ceremony by saying his administration is working to ensure that minority war heroes who have been previously overlooked are properly honored.

“It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve,” he said. “So, we have work to do as a nation to make sure that all of our heroes’ stories are told.”

His last remarks were directed at the scores of Soldiers who have gone overlooked.

“We know who you are, we know what you did for us and we are forever grateful.”

2 NCOs to be awarded Medal of Honor for actions during World War I

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson will retire next year after 39 years of service to the New York Army National Guard. His career has produced such notable moments as being part of rescue operations in response to various natural disasters, being part of aid missions after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York City, deploying to Iraq for a year in 2004 and, just last year, being named the command sergeant major of the New York National Guard.

But, he says, his accomplishments throughout those nearly four decades pale in comparison to what Sgt. Henry Johnson did one day in 1918.

“I think about myself and my career — I’ve had a few achievements,” Wilson said. “But just looking at Henry Johnson and all he did in a day — my 39 years doesn’t come close.”

Sgt. Henry Johnson, of the 369th Infantry Regiment, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme on Feb. 12, 1919, for bravery during a battle with German soldiers the previous year. (Photo courtesy of Army News Service)
Sgt. Henry Johnson, of the 369th Infantry Regiment, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme on Feb. 12, 1919, for bravery during a battle with German soldiers the previous year. (Photo courtesy of Army News Service)

What then-Pvt. Johnson did May 15, 1918, during World War I was immediately deemed worthy of France’s highest award for valor — the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. Nearly a century later, his own country will follow suit, posthumously awarding Johnson, who retired as a sergeant, the Medal of Honor during a ceremony Tuesday at the White House. Wilson will accept the award from President Barack Obama on Johnson’s behalf, as he has no surviving family members.

The nation’s highest honor will also be posthumously awarded to Sgt. William Shemin during the same ceremony.

Johnson, who was African-American, will receive the Medal of Honor for his actions to fight off a German raid party using his Bowie knife. He was on night sentry duty with Pvt. Needham Roberts in an area northwest of Sainte-Menehould, France, between the Tourbe and Aisne rivers. According to information from the White House, the pair came under a surprise attack by a dozen German soldiers.

While under intense fire and despite his own wounds, Johnson kept an injured Roberts from being taken prisoner. He came forward from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and gravely wounded, Johnson continued fighting until the enemy retreated.

Johnson was in France as part of C Company of the 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, which he joined in June 1917. The all-black National Guard unit would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment — the famed Harlem Hellfighters — part of the 93rd Division, which was ordered to the front lines to fight with the French in 1918. After being awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1919, Johnson died in 1929 without further fanfare. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. But until now, he had been overlooked for the Medal of Honor.

“It’s a good thing. The injustice that was done back then, it’s been overturned,” Wilson said. “Things have changed. We see now that the valor that he displayed, he should’ve been honored. We’re glad he is honored now. There shouldn’t be a difference who you are. We enlist and, no matter who you are, we fight side by side. You learn to take care of each other. That’s what he did, he took care of his battle buddy.”

Wilson said during his early days living and working in the Albany, N.Y., area, it was difficult not to see reminders of Johnson. Drivers make their way along Henry Johnson Boulevard. Children are dropped off at Henry Johnson Charter School. A granite tribute to Johnson sits on the southeast corner of Washington Park near downtown Albany.

“When I first came to post as the command sergeant major of the state of New York, I had heard about Henry Johnson,” Wilson said. “I had to research him. I did a lot of reading and realized he really was a hero.”

While Wilson thought Johnson was deserving of much higher accolades, he never believed he would be a part of the pomp that came with it. He was aware that efforts by various organizations on Johnson’s behalf to award him the Medal of Honor were ongoing, but when he received a phone call three weeks ago from Maj. Gen. Patrick Murphy, New York’s adjutant general, Wilson said he was shocked. Murphy explained that as the command sergeant major of the New York National Guard, it made sense for Wilson to accept the honor on behalf of the long-deceased Guard Soldier.

“I was blindsided. I wasn’t expecting that,” Wilson said. “I think it’s a big honor. I’m proud, I’m happy, I’m glad that I’m the one who will represent him and will accept this honor from the president.”

Though the medal is significant, Wilson said it is being awarded to a Soldier who did what all Soldiers should be doing.

New York Army National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson will represent Sgt. Henry Johnson, a World War I Soldier, scheduled to receive a posthumous Medal of Honor on Tuesday during a White House ceremony. (Photo by Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo / Army News Service)
New York Army National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson will represent Sgt. Henry Johnson, a World War I Soldier, scheduled to receive a posthumous Medal of Honor on Tuesday during a White House ceremony. (Photo by Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo / Army News Service)

“He had a belief,” Wilson said of Johnson. “He wanted to prove himself. He overcame many things to become a Soldier and he overcame that night (of the attack). He was awarded the French’s highest award and to come back here and get nothing? But he proved himself and there is a reward, whether it’s a medal or whether it’s a sense of belonging. I see that in Henry Johnson with the smile that he gave in pictures that we have. I can imagine if he was here today he’d say, ‘What’s the big fuss about? I went over there and did my duty.’ And that’s the way it should be.”

Wilson adds that despite the time that has transpired since Johnson’s heroism and the many social and technological changes, that today’s NCOs can still learn from his actions.

“Live the Army values,” Wilson said. “Do your job, know your job and take care of others. No matter what you do, it’s all about duty and serving. Never give up.

“At the time, he was a private. When you enlist in the service, you’re a private. But you quickly learn. You learn the positions two, three steps ahead of what you are and you grow up quick. That’s the Army. It’s being able to think on your feet and not give up. He never gave up.”

Shemin takes charge

Shemin was born Oct. 14, 1896, in Bayonne, N.J. He graduated from the New York State Ranger School in 1914, and went on to work as a forester in Bayonne.

Shemin enlisted in the Army on Oct. 2, 1917. Upon completion of basic training at Camp Greene, N.C., he was assigned as a rifleman to G Company, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, which headed to France after merely 17 days of field training.

Sgt. William Shemin, right, poses with a fellow Soldier in this undated photo. Shemin will be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Army News Service)
Sgt. William Shemin, right, poses with a fellow Soldier in this undated photo. Shemin will be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Army News Service)

While serving as a rifleman during the Aisne-Marne Offensive from Aug. 7 to 9, 1918, he left the cover of his platoon’s trench and crossed open space, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machinegun and rifle fire to rescue the wounded.

After officers and senior noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Shemin took command of the platoon until he was wounded by shrapnel and a machinegun bullet, which pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear. He was hospitalized for three months and then was placed on light duty as part of the Army occupation in Germany and Belgium.

For his injuries, he received the Purple Heart and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on Dec. 29, 1919.

Shemin was honorably discharged in August 1919, and went on to receive a degree from the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University. After graduation, he started a greenhouse and landscaping business in Bronx, N.Y., where he raised three children. He died in 1973.

His eldest daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth of Webster Grove, Mo., began an effort in the early 2000s to give her father a chance at being awarded the Medal of Honor. Her endeavor was spurred by news that a group of Jewish-American World War II veterans were getting their Army Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross and Air Force Cross citations reviewed for upgrades due to anti-Semitism. Shemin, who is Jewish, performed actions that were worthy of the Medal of Honor, according to a Distinguished Service Cross recommendation in the family’s possession.

Shemin-Roth’s efforts included contacting the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America and a congressman for help. Eventually, they saw the passage of the William Shemin Jewish World War I Veterans Act in 2011, which allowed Shemin’s case to be resubmitted for review. Four years later, Shemin-Roth is to receive the Medal of Honor on her father’s behalf. He is the first member of the storied 4th Infantry Division to receive the nation’s highest honor for actions during World War I.

The Army News Service contributed to this report.

Watch it

• What: Medal of Honor ceremony.

• When, where: 11:15 a.m. EDT Tuesday, White House.

• Of note: The Medal of Honor will be posthumously awarded to Sgt. William Henry Johnson and Sgt. William Shemin for their actions during World War I.

• Live feed: https://www.dvidshub.net/webcast/6491#.VWh740aOmAM

This Month in NCO History: The Meuse-Argonne Offensive — Oct. 12, 1918

Sgt. Samuel Woodfill was once referred to as “the greatest American Soldier of the World War” by the celebrated Gen. John J. Pershing.

Woodfill earned the high praise for actions during an Allied offensive in Cunel, France, which also resulted in him being awarded the Medal of Honor. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was fought from Sept. 26, 1918, until the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. It stretched along the Western Front during World War I and was the largest frontline commitment of Soldiers by the U.S. Army during the war.  Its objective was to push through enemy lines and capture a railroad station in Sedan, France, to cut off a vital German supply route.

On Oct. 12, according to his Medal of Honor citation, Woodfill was leading his company through a dense fog towards the village of Cunel when it came under heavy fire. Then a lieutenant, Woodfill set out ahead of his line with two Soldiers trailing and located a German machine gun nest. Woodfill successfully flanked the nest and eliminated three of its four occupants with his rifle. The fourth occupant charged Woodfill. After a hand-to-hand struggle, Woodfill killed the enemy with his pistol.

The company continued its advance when it came under fire again. Woodfill once again rushed ahead. Despite being hindered by the effects of mustard gas, Woodfill shot several of the enemy while taking three others prisoner. Minutes later, Woodfill rushed a third machine gun pit and killed five men with his rifle before jumping into the pit with his pistol, where he encountered two German soldiers. With his ammunition exhausted, Woodfill grabbed a nearby pickax and killed both.

With the machine guns silenced, Woodfill’s company continued its advance through Cunel under severe fire.

At the end of the war, Woodfill was the most decorated American Solider to have participated. Along with the Medal of Honor, Woodfill was the recipient of the French Croix de Guerre, the Italian Meriot di Guerra, the Montenegrin Cross of Prince Danilo and various other awards. He resigned from the Army upon his return to Fort Thomas in November 1919 but re-enlisted three weeks later. With the Army trimming its force to pre-war levels, Woodfill rejoined the ranks as a sergeant.

Pershing selected Woodfill to join Sgt. Alvin York and Lt. Col. Charles Whittlesey as pallbearers at the burial of the Unknown Soldier at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 11, 1921. He retired as a sergeant in 1922.

Woodfill joined the Army in 1901 and spent time in the Philippines, Alaska, Kentucky and along the U.S.-Mexico border before ending up in Fort Thomas, Ky., in 1917. On Christmas Day of that year, Woodfill married Lorena Wiltshire and the couple purchased a home in Fort Thomas.

After World War I, Woodfill was encouraged to run for U.S. Congress, an effort he rebuffed. Instead, he worked as a carpenter, a watchman and even tried starting an orchard before the nation — and the Medal of Honor recipient — was thrust into global conflict once again. In May 1942, two months after his wife died, Woodfill was commissioned an Army major and spent two years as an instructor in Birmingham, Ala.

In 1944, Woodfill resigned from the Army and moved to a farm in Switzerland County, Indiana. He was found dead there Aug. 13, 1951. Woodfill was originally buried in the Jefferson County Cemetery near Madison, Ind. His remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery in August 1955.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa