Jewish WWI hero up for Medal of Honor

William Shemin was just 19 years old when, over the space of three days in August 1918 during the pivotal Second Battle of the Marne, he crossed the battlefield three times to rescue fellow American soldiers.

On the third effort during the battle, in which the Allies stopped the last German offensive of World War I, he was wounded in the head.

But with his commanding officers either hurt or dead, Shemin refused medical attention and led the platoon out of danger before finally collapsing unconscious.

“He distinguished himself by excellent control of his platoon at every stage of the action and by the thoroughness at great personal danger at which he evacuated the wounded,” according to the battle report submitted three months later by the division commander.

The Bayonne, N.J., native’s heroics made him the recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest combat award, with his award being signed by Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force.

Now, nearly a century later, the Army will consider whether Shemin actually deserved the Medal of Honor, but was denied because he was Jewish.

Shemin died in 1973, but his daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth of Missouri, has been pushing for the Army to review her father’s case for a decade. That will now happen because of a largely unheralded provision tucked away in the defense authorization bill that Congress passed this month, according to the McClatchy Newspapers.

“The William Shemin Jewish World War I Veterans Act requires the Pentagon to review whether Jewish awardees of the Distinguished Service Cross or the Navy Cross should posthumously receive the Medal of Honor,” McClatchy reported. 

The son of Russian immigrants, Shemin was just 17 when he told his father he was enlisting to serve in The Great War. A little more than a year later, he was fighting in France as a platoon sergeant in the 4th Division, 47th Infantry, Company G.

Shemin’s heroics took place near the village of Bazoches-sur-Vesles, in the French Department of Ainse.

The provision to review Jewish World War I awardees of the Distinguished Service Cross or the Navy Cross doesn’t mean that Shemin will get the higher recognition, only that the Army will consider it.

For his daughter, that alone is enough, McClatchy writes. 

“A wrong has been made right,” she said. “Just as important, this bill bearing my father’s name will open up an opportunity for all who felt the sting of discrimination. They will now have the recourse my father didn’t have. I can tell you; only in America can something like this happen.”

Shemin-Roth, 82, lives in Labadie, Mo., about an hour west of St. Louis. She didn’t learn of her father’s valor until she was a teenager living in New York City during World War II.

They only spoke of it that one time.

“He was an extremely modest man,” she said. “He was grateful for what he had.”

But she said that one of his friends who served alongside him in the trenches told her: “I was there with your father and he did not get the medal he deserved because he was a Jew.”

Shemin returned from combat with damage to his hearing, and as his daughter wouldn’t realize until decades later, probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well, according to the McClatchy story.

“If you let the screen door slap, it sounded like a bullet and my father would, literally, jump off the chair,” Shemin-Roth said. 

Shemin-Roth has been assisted in her crusade by retired Col. Erwin Burtnick, Maryland commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America.

He said that compared to others who have won the Distinguished Service Cross or the Medal of Honor, it appears that the level of heroism he exhibited would rise to a level of one who was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Shemin-Roth began her campaign on behalf of her father in 2001, when she read about a new law to review the medal citations of Jewish and Hispanic veterans, going back to World War II.

In 1997, Congress passed a similar law to enable the military service files of Asian-Americans, African-Americans and American Pacific Islanders to be reviewed for Medal of Honor consideration.

But until now, Jewish veterans of the First World War, or their families, have never had similar recourse.

Eventually she found an ally in her congressman, Republican Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri, who introduced the Shemin bill more than a year ago.

Both Missouri senators, Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt, were among those who also championed her cause.

“It is critically important that we provide brave Jewish Americans like Sgt. Shemin the opportunity to receive the recognition they may not have been afforded because of potential discrimination at the time,” Luetkemeyer said.

(Above: William Shemin, second from left, seen here during World War I. Shemin family photo.)

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