Medal of Honor for WWI vet is triumph over anti-semitism, says daughter
A World War I veteran with ties to St. Louis will posthumously receive the Medal of Honor, almost a hundred years after he risked his life to save three fellow soldiers on a French battlefield.
Elsie Shemin-Roth of Webster Groves has been fighting for her father, William Shemin, to receive the medal since 2002, when Congress called for a review of past awards to correct possible discrimination.
In 1919 Shemin was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery during a three-day battle in France. He ran out into heavy gunfire to rescue three wounded soldiers, took command of his platoon after the officers fell, and eventually succumbed to wounds himself.
“They had to give my father a medal because there were people who saw this. But a Jew would never aspire to get the Medal of Honor. It would not be. The highest would not be given,” explained Shemin-Roth on Wednesday.
“His story in World War I is pretty incredible. What he did, if you did once you were a hero. He did it three times,” said Captain John Quin of the Missouri National Guard, which organized the news conference announcing that Shemin would be awarded the nation’s highest military decoration.
According to the army, the Medal of Honor is awarded when soldiers fighting against enemy forces “distinguish themselves conspicuously by gallantry above and beyond the call of duty” in a way that risks their life.
Shemin-Roth said she’s known since she was 12 that her father deserved the Medal of Honor.
“One of the three men (my father) saved told me he never received the medal he deserved because he was a Jew. And that just absolutely shocked (me) and made me so sad. I immediately went to my father and I said ‘Daddy is this true?’” Shemin-Roth said. “I remember it was a long time before he answered, and he said, 'Yes it is true but that was the climate of the military.'”
Even so, Shemin-Roth said her father loved the army and raised his children to be patriotic.
“He taught us to always give back more than we are asked to do and to have a sense of honor. If our country needs you, you go,” Shemin-Roth said.
Her brother and two sons both also served in the military.
Despite indications that Shemin may have been overlooked for the Medal of Honor because he was Jewish, he was initially ineligible for review because he fought in World War I and the review began with the Second World War.
“Each time I would go to Congress or one of the senators, to say what about World War I, I can show you, I have documentation, they would tell me no, there’s nothing for World War I,” Shemin-Roth explained. “And I would always say tell me the difference in discrimination between World War I and World War II. And no one could give me a logical answer.”
Shemin-Roth spoke to Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri, who took up the cause and sponsored the William Shemin Jewish World War I Veterans Act.
Years of paperwork gathering and presenting documents for review followed.
Now Shemin-Roth’s efforts have paid off. On June 2 at the White House, President Barack Obama will award William Shemin and Henry Johnson posthumous Medals of Honor. Johnson was an African American World War I veteran who fought with the Harlem Hellfighters.
At the news conference Wednesday announcing the award for her father, Shemin-Roth said her thoughts could be summarized in eleven words: “Discrimination hurts. A wrong has been made right. All is forgiven.”
Shemin-Roth said she knew this day would come eventually, but at 86 years old she was worried she wouldn’t be alive to see it.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.