Century later, Jewish soldier may get top medal
Dec. 15, 2014
ST. LOUIS (AP) — Nearly a century ago, Sgt. William Shemin raced across a World War I battlefield three times to pull wounded comrades to safety. With all the senior leaders of the platoon wounded or killed, the 19-year-old survived a bullet to the head and led his unit to safety.
The heroism should have earned Shemin the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest service medal. But it didn't, perhaps because discrimination was rampant in the military — and he was Jewish.
Thanks to the efforts of his now 85-year-old daughter, Shemin is on the cusp of finally being honored with a medal, 41 years after his death.
The Senate on Friday passed the $585 billion defense bill. A small provision allows President Barack Obama to bestow the Medal of Honor to Shemin. The last hurdle is Obama's signature on the defense bill.
Elsie Shemin-Roth of Webster Groves, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb, has worked tirelessly for over a decade to get the honor for her father. She can already envision that trip to the White House to receive the medal.
"It's absolutely wonderful," Shemin-Roth said Monday. "We'll be so proud and honored to receive this for our father. My one gigantic regret is I wish my father could be here."
Shemin lied about his age and got into the Army at age 18. He was sent off to France where, on a hot day in 1918, his platoon was involved in a bloody fight. Americans were scattered over the battlefield. One of Shemin's superiors, Capt. Rupert Purdon, later wrote in support of a Medal of Honor: "With the most utter disregard for his own safety, (Shemin) sprang from his position in his platoon trench, dashed out across the open in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine gun and rifle fire."
The young sergeant took shrapnel but survived. He led the platoon out of harm's way for the next three days, until a German bullet pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear. Shemin was hospitalized for three months.
The wound left him partly deaf. Shrapnel wounds eventually left him barely able to walk.
Shemin was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military honor. There was never an explanation of why he was denied the Medal of Honor, and Shemin-Roth said her father felt honored by the Distinguished Service Cross.
After leaving the military, Shemin earned a degree from Syracuse and started a greenhouse-and-nursery business in the Bronx. He died in 1973.
In the early 2000s, Shemin-Roth learned of a law that provided for the review of cases concerning Jews who may have been denied medals they earned in World War II. She was appalled to learn there was no similar mechanism for World War I veterans.
She began gathering military records, photos, commendations and firsthand accounts of her father's heroism. Eventually, she enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, a Missouri Republican, and both of the state's U.S. senators.
Retired Army Col. Erwin Burtnick of Baltimore, who is involved in the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. organization, guided the project through the Department of Defense.
"It was the right thing," Burtnick said. "He should have been awarded way back."
In 2012, Luetkemeyer secured language in the defense bill allowing for the review of records of Jewish World War I veterans who may have lost out on medals due to discrimination. Shemin's case was the only one with adequate documentation to move forward.
"This was anti-Semitism, no question about it," Shemin-Roth said. "Now a wrong has been made right and all is forgiven."
No timetable has been announced for Obama to sign the Republican-backed defense bill.