Labadie, MO – It was bravery at the highest level: William Shemin defied German machine gun fire to sprint across a World War I battlefield and pull wounded comrades to safety. And he did so no fewer than
two three times.
Then, with the platoon’s senior soldiers wounded or killed, the 19-year-old American took over command of his unit and led it to safety, even after a bullet pierced his helmet and lodged behind an ear.
Yet Shemin never earned the nation’s highest military citation, the Medal of Honor — a result, many suspected, of the fact that he was Jewish at a time when discrimination ran rampant throughout the U.S. military.
Now, nearly four decades after his death, Shemin may finally get that medal, thanks to the tireless efforts of his daughter, whose long quest to see her father decorated also opens the door for other overlooked Jewish veterans of the Great War.
“A wrong has been made right here,” said Shemin’s daughter, 82-year-old Elsie Shemin-Roth of Labadie, Mo., a small town about 40 miles southwest of St. Louis.
Last month, President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which contains a tiny provision known as the William Shemin Jewish World War I Veterans Act. It provides for a Pentagon review of Jewish soldiers and sailors who may have been overlooked for the Medal of Honor simply because of their faith.
Shemin’s daughter was the driving force behind the measure, an effort that began a decade ago when she read news accounts of a similar law that provided for review of Jews possibly denied recognition in World War II. She was horrified there was no similar mechanism for World War I veterans.
So she began gathering military records, photos, commendations and firsthand accounts of her father’s heroism. Eventually, she enlisted the help of her congressman and support from both U.S. senators from Missouri.
Retired Army Col. Erwin Burtnick of Baltimore, who is active in the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., helped get the bill passed. He also reviewed Shemin’s war record and will present the case on his behalf to the Pentagon.
“I believe, based upon the criteria of World War I, the level of heroism exhibited by Sgt. Shemin will rise to the Medal of Honor,” Burtnick said.
At the time, the enlistment age was 21, but Shemin lied about his age and got in at 18. A tall, strapping athlete who played semi-pro baseball at age 15 and later played college football at Syracuse, Shemin was sent off to France. On a hot day in August 1918, he and his platoon were doing battle near a river in Burgundy.
One of his superiors, Capt. Rubert 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.”
Shemin didn’t stop there. Casualties were heavy. Many senior platoon leaders had been killed or badly hurt, so the young sergeant led the group out of harm’s way over the next three days.
Along the way, a German bullet hit him in the head, went through the steel helmet and lodged behind his left ear. Shemin eventually collapsed and was hospitalized for three months. The wound left him deaf in that ear.
His heroics did not go unnoticed: Shemin was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military honor.
“My father told me there was a lot of discrimination, but he didn’t dwell on it,” she said.
But once, when another soldier paid a visit, Shemin’s daughter was struck by something the man told her.
“He witnessed my father’s actions,” said Shemin-Roth, who was then 12. “He told me, ‘Your father never got the medal he deserved because he was a Jew.’ I thought to myself how terrible that was.”
Shemin was 78 when he died in 1973. His sense of determination clearly rubbed off on his daughter. Her first husband died when she was just 43 and a mother of five. She went to college and became a nurse.
Since then, she’s done volunteer work in war-torn areas around the world. Back in Labadie, she heads a nonprofit animal-rescue group, and her property on a rural hilltop is home to dozens of rescued animals, from cats and dogs to donkeys, geese and fish.
The new law may have arrived too late to recognize many Jewish heroes from World War I. They’re all gone now — the last surviving American World War I veteran died last year. Even many of their children have died or are well into their 80s and 90s, Burtnick said, making it less likely that surviving relatives will have enough documentation to prove worthiness for the Medal of Honor.
So far, Buttnick said, the only veteran whose case will be presented for review is William Shemin.
A decision could come by spring. If the Pentagon approves, the president would present the medal on Shemin’s behalf to his daughter in a White House ceremony. Just the thought chokes her up.
“I try so hard to think of what my father would think of this,” she said. “He was such a humble man. All I can see in my head is this big handsome man sitting down, tears in his eyes.”
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