WWI vet to be considered for honor that anti-Semitism may have thwarted

William Shemin was 19-years-old when his heroics during World War I earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest combat award.
William Shemin was 19-years-old when his heroics during World War I earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest combat award. MCT

WASHINGTON — Almost a century after her father's act of wartime bravery, 82-year-old Elsie Shemin-Roth of Missouri is nearing the end of her own determined battle.

William Shemin was a 19-year-old kid from Bayonne, N.J., in 1918 when his heroics during World War I made him the recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest combat award.

The legendary Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, signed it himself.

But for a decade, Shemin-Roth has pushed to get the Army to determine whether her father actually deserved the ultimate military award — the Medal of Honor — but was denied because of discrimination.

Now her father, who died in 1973, will get that chance because of a largely unheralded provision tucked away in the defense authorization bill that Congress passed this month.

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.

It doesn't mean that Shemin will get the higher recognition, only that the Army will consider it. For his daughter, that alone is enough.

"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 lives in Labadie, Mo., about an hour west of St. Louis. It was not until she was a teenager living in New York City during World War II that she learned about her father's earlier valor. 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.

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

He was an athlete who had played semi-pro baseball. He also played football and lacrosse and boxed while studying horticulture at Syracuse University. But by age 40, he walked with a cane.

The family ran a nursery business on a five-acre farm in the Bronx, which, these days, sounds hard to picture.

"Now, forget it," Shemin-Roth said. "It's all high-rises. It was a very hard life, but a very beautiful life."

The son of Russian immigrants, Shemin was just 17 when he told his father he was enlisting to fight in The Great War. If his father withheld his blessing, Shemin said, he would never return home, according to his daughter.

Little more than a year later, he was fighting in France, a platoon sergeant in the 4th Division, 47th Infantry, Company G.

The fighting occurred over three days in August 1918, near the village of Bazoches. Under heavy machine-gun fire, Shemin crossed the battlefield three separate times to rescue soldiers. On the third, he was wounded in the head.

But with his commanding officers either hurt or dead, he 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.

Retired Col. Erwin Burtnick, Maryland commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, has aided Shemin-Roth's efforts. 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.

His daughter inherited a measure of the same sort of pluck.

Widowed with five children at age 43, Shemin-Roth enrolled in college and earned her nursing degree. She has volunteered her medical skills in war zones, from Bosnia to the Middle East. She also has worked with refugees in Ethiopia.

Now in her ninth decade, she operates a nonprofit animal rescue business with a local veterinarian.

The campaign on behalf of her father commenced 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. So Shemin-Roth went from "pillar to post, year after year," to push for the same second look.

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.

Now when Shemin-Roth daydreams, she imagines a ceremony in the White House East Room. Her extended family is there, alongside friends, military officers in polished regalia, and the president.

He recounts a day misted over by time, when, amid the terrors of war, a young man unlocked that mysterious place where fear gives way to courage and thought only of his fallen comrades.

"Being in this war completely changed his life," Shemin-Roth said of her father. "His whole life was lived differently. He loved this country so much. He was honored to do what he did. He never felt any regret or hostility about what happened. Never.

"He would be so, so humbled."


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