Ninety-seven years after Sgt. William Shemin saved more than 30 lives and endured heavy injuries on a French battlefield in World War I, he was awarded the Medal of Honor originally denied to him because he was Jewish.
President Barack Obama presented the medal to his two daughters, Elsie Shemin-Roth, 86, and Ina Shemin-Bass, 83, in a White House ceremony on June 2.
“We never forget their sacrifice and we believe it is never too late to say ‘thank you,’ said President Obama as he opened the ceremony in the East Room.
Noting that William Shemin could not stand to watch his fellow soldiers die, Obama said, “He ran out into the hell of no man’s land” and dragged three wounded comrades to safety.
The president noted that Shemin-Roth “has a theory about what drove her father to serve. He was the son of Russian immigrants and he was devoted to his Jewish faith. He would do anything for this country. Well, Elsie, 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 Sgt. Shemin served at a time when the contributions of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked.”
The Medal of Honor is America’s highest award for heroism, and Shemin-Roth has been battling for it on her father’s behalf since she was 12 years old.
In August 1918, Shemin was a 19-year-old sergeant from Bayonne who was fighting German troops near the town of Bazoches, France. He braved heavy artillery fire in broad daylight to rescue three wounded men from the battlefield.
“After that he insisted on going back into battle again and led more than 30 people in his platoon to safety,” Shemin-Roth, who lives in suburban St. Louis, told NJ Jewish News in a May 29 phone interview. “You can’t do anything more heroic than that. It is the top of the top.”
Two days later Shemin suffered a severe head wound and a piece of shrapnel became embedded near his spine. He suffered pain from both injuries until he died in 1973 at the age of 68, after running a greenhouse and landscaping business in the Bronx and raising Shemin-Roth and her two siblings.
Shemin-Roth said she believes that an army captain who served with her father “was very anti-Semitic. The only reason he recommended my father for a Distinguished Service Cross” — one level below the Medal of Honor — “was because he would have been killed by his men if he didn’t. It was a very nasty situation.”
Shemin-Roth first learned of her father’s war experiences when she was 12. One of the men he saved told her, “‘Your father never got the medal he deserved because he was a Jew.’ It devastated me to hear it,” she said, “knowing what my father had been through and what it was like to live with a wounded veteran who was shot in the head while anti-Semitism reared its ugly head.”
When Shemin-Roth asked her father about the incident, he said, “Yes, it was true. Anti-Semitism was a way of life.” But he also told her he was “very satisfied” with having been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
“He told me, ‘This was never about medals. It was about service to our country. It is fine with me.’”
But it was not fine with his daughter. “It was cruel, but there was nothing much I could do about it at that time.”
In 2002, a congressional committee reviewed the claims of Jewish soldiers who said they suffered from anti-Semitism and wanted the medals they felt they deserved.
Shemin-Roth offered “all kinds of documentation” about her father’s heroism, including the statements of two officers and three enlisted men who were eyewitnesses to his bravery under fire. “Nobody had ever seen documentation like that before,” she said. “But when I told them he was in World War I, they said, ‘Forget it. It ain’t gonna happen.’”
Shemin-Roth was not about to forget it. For eight years she pleaded her father’s case with members of Congress and officials of veterans’ groups, Jewish and non-Jewish.
“I got nowhere until one day the Jewish War Veterans put me in touch with Erwin Burtnick, a retired Army colonel who commands the JWV in Maryland. He reviews records of combat heroism.”
Burtnick advised her to contact her member of Congress, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.), who agreed to pursue her claim.
“Thousands of Jewish soldiers served bravely in defense of our nation during World War I, but unfortunately discrimination at the time denied many of them certain military honors, including the Medal of Honor,” said Luetkemeyer in a 2013 press release.
The secretary of the Army, the secretary of defense, and the president agreed to review the Shemin case.
Then, two weeks ago, a general alerted Shemin-Roth that “someone very important” was going to call her home at 10 o’clock the next morning.
When her phone rang, its caller ID read the “White House.” After a click, a voice at the other end said, “This is Barack Obama.”
“My first reaction was to tell him, ‘I voted for you twice,’” she said. “I don’t care whether you like him or you don’t like him. He is a 100 percent mensch.”
The president told her, “I am going to proceed with giving the Medal of Honor posthumously to your father and I want to congratulate you. I have reviewed the whole action and it is very, very remarkable.”
“He did his homework because he knew what he was talking about,” Shemin-Roth said.
Out of 3,493 Medals of Honor awarded since the Civil War, only 13 have been presented to Jews until now.
Private Henry Johnson, an African-American soldier from Harlem, also received a posthumous Medal of Honor 97 years after his act of heroism. Using his rifle, a knife, and his bare fists, Johnson repelled German troops, prevented a fellow soldier from being captured, and saved the lives of others in his platoon, even after being wounded 21 times. But he, too, was denied recognition for his heroism because of bigotry.
Asked how her father might react if he were still alive and received the phone call from Obama that she took nearly a century later, Shemin-Roth said, “He would be extremely quiet, but he would have a gigantic smile on his face and I know there would be tears in his eyes that the president thought enough of what he did to deserve the Medal of Honor. My father was a very modest person.”