More than 96 years after running across an open field through heavy machine gun and rifle fire to help wounded soldiers during World War I, Sgt. William Shemin will receive the Medal of Honor, the White House announced May 14.
Shemin, who is Jewish, received the Distinguished Service Cross for his life-saving efforts while fighting in Bazoches, France. But he never received the Medal of Honor – America’s highest military honor – possibly due to anti-Semitism, according to daughter, Elsie-Shemin-Roth.
A fellow veteran with whom her father kept in touch with most of his life told Shemin-Roth, “’Your father never got the medal he deserved, because he was a Jew,’” she said.
While serving as a rifleman in the vicinity of the Vesle River, according to the White House, Shemin “left the cover of his platoon’s trench and crossed open space, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue the wounded. After officers and senior non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire, until he was wounded.”
During the bombing on Aug. 7-9, 1918, Shemin heard a fellow soldier yelling for water. Under fire, he rushed to help the wounded three times.
“Let me tell you, that was no small feat, going out there in the line of machine gun fire, across an open field with German machine gun fire,” said Rob Dalessandro, deputy secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission. “This is definitely a deserving case.”
Shemin, who died in 1973 at the age of 78, was attached to Company G, 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division, American Expeditionary Forces.
His daughter, who lives outside St. Louis, Mo., plans to be at the White House June 2 when President Barack Obama honors her father. She has pushed for several years for this day to come.
Shemin-Roth was asked by Pentagon officials not to speak about her father’s honor at this time, she said.
However, three years ago, she spoke to Washington Jewish Week, and said her father “led his platoon back to safety over three days.” While risking his own life, Shemin was “shot in the head,” his daughter said. That injury resulted in his becoming deaf.
“My father told me all my life he should have gotten the Medal of Honor,” she said. However, he said it as part of the story, not as a complaint, she noted.
A fellow veteran with whom her father kept in touch with most of his life told Shemin-Roth, “’Your father never got the medal he deserved, because he was a Jew,’” she recalled.
Shemin-Roth said her father suffered all his life. “It took a tremendous toll. We never thought our father was shell-shocked. We never understood why daddy, that’s what we called him, didn’t sleep much. We were never allowed to slam the screen door. It sounded exactly like a shot,” she recalled.
A provision in the Defense Authorization bill, passed by Congress in December 2011, led the way for Shemin to receive this honor. The provision was designed to right a wrong done to a few Jewish soldiers who were denied the nation’s top military honors.
U.S. Sen Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who was instrumental in putting forth this provision, wrote to Washington Jewish Week, “Sergeant William Shemin courageously served our country, and I am pleased he will finally be awarded appropriately. His heroic acts place him among our nation’s greatest and we remember him with pride and gratitude.”
Heller continued, “Countless Jewish service members have served our country heroically and deserve to be adequately recognized for their service – not discriminated against.”
Private Henry Johnson also will receive the Medal of Honor June 2 for his actions during World War I near the Tourbe and Aisne Rivers in France, on May 15, 1918.
According to the White House, while on night sentry duty, Johnson and another soldier were attacked by a German raiding party of at least a dozen soldiers. Johnson stopped his badly wounded fellow soldier from being taken prisoner, while engaged in hand to hand combat.