President awards Medal of Honor posthumously to Jewish WWI serviceman

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President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Sgt. William Shemin as his daughters, Ida Shemin and Elsie Shemin-Roth, looked on.  Photos by Suzanne Pollak
President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Sgt. William Shemin as his daughters, Ina Shemin-Bass (left) and Elsie Shemin-Roth, looked on.
Photo by Suzanne Pollak

Three sisters looked on with a mixture of pride and tears as their great-grandfather, Sgt. William Shemin, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously by President Barack Obama.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s so exciting,” said Alice Philips-Roth of Missouri.


Her sisters, Julie and Emily, said they didn’t know which was better – to watch as their great-grandfather was honored or to see their grandmother, Elsie Shemin-Roth, who is in her 90s, watch as her father finally received the medal she so wanted him to have.

More than 96 years after Shemin ran across an open field through heavy machine gun and rifle fire to help wounded soldiers during World War I, Shemin-Roth and her sister, Ina Shemin-Bass, stood next to Obama on Tuesday morning to accept the award for their late father.

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The president spoke of Shemin’s courage.

Shemin ran through an area about as large as a football field. “That open space was a bloodbath,” Obama said.


Sgt. Shemin in uniform in 1919
Sgt. Shemin in uniform in 1919

Shemin’s choice was to try and rescue those he served with “or watch them die. William Shemin couldn’t stand to watch them die,” the president said. “Too young to enlist, no problem. He pumped his chest and lied about his age,” Obama said. While serving in France, Shemin not only risked his life for others, but when his officers were injured or killed, Shemin stepped up and led his group.

He was wounded during the fighting. “He was the son of Russian immigrants,” and his father lived through the pogroms, Obama said. “That’s why he would do anything for this country.”

Although Shemin, who was a rifleman, had received the Distinguished Service Cross, he, like other Jews who served, “were too often overlooked,” Obama said. Honoring Shemin helps “make this right. “We have work to do as a nation, to make sure all their stories are told,” Obama said. “The least we can do is say, ‘We know who you are. We know what you did for us.’”

The father of three, grandfather of 14, loved sports, including football, wrestling, boxing and swimming, Obama told a room crowded with many of Shemin’s relatives.

Shemin made sure all his grandchildren knew the meaning of hard work, how to salute and how to fold a flag. “He taught them how to be Americans,” Obama said.

Barry Shemin, whose father was the late serviceman’s cousin, said his calloused hands earned while picking vegetables in Shemin’s nursery proved how true that was. “He put me to work,” said Barry Shemin.

Vicki Shemin, another relative, came from Boston to watch the ceremony.

“He was a man of incredibly strong character. Even in his advanced years, he was as strong as an ox,” she said. “We learned how to raise the flag,” added Shemin’s granddaughter Suzanne Shemin Katz of Connecticut.

The Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor

Elsie Shemin-Roth beamed from her wheelchair. She had fought hard for at least four years to see this day. With a broad smile that did not fade, she shook hands and kissed relatives, military officials and politicians alike.

Her sister stood beside her, holding the framed Medal of Honor.

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. He was awarded the country’s highest military honor for his efforts in the vicinity of the Vesle River in Bazoches, France, on Aug. 7-9, 1918.

Also receiving the Medal of Honor posthumously was Henry Johnson, a private who fought in combat operations in the vicinity of Tourbe and Aisne Rivers in France on May 15, 1918. While on night sentry duty, Johnson and another soldier were attacked by a German raiding party. Under fire and wounded, Johnson fought back, killing several people.

“They both risked their own lives for the lives of others,” Obama said. Although both men should have received these honors much earlier, “it’s never too late to say ‘thank you.’”

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@SuzannePollak

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