Jewish WWI Soldier Getting Medal of Honor One Step Closer to Reality A Century On

At long last, a Jewish WWI soldier is closer to being posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery during the Great War after almost a hundred years.

Almost a century ago, Jewish WWI soldier Sergeant William Shemin ran through a WWI battlefield to pull fellow wounded soldiers to safety. He did this at the height of battle and not only once but thrice. With all of the leaders of his platoon either wounded or killed, the Jewish WWI soldier was able to survive the ordeal. A bullet did find its way in his head but he survived and most of all, was successful in his mission — he was able to lead his unit to safety.

The heroic act should have earned the Jewish WWI soldier a Medal of Honor, the highest service medal given to servicemen of the country. However, maybe discrimination was prevalent within the military at that time and he was of Jewish descent, Sergeant Shemin wasn’t able to get the honor he so deserved.

Now, thanks to the efforts of his now  85-year-old daughter, the Jewish WWI soldier is at the brink of being awarded the said medal. That is, forty-one years after he passed away and almost a hundred years to when the heroic act was done.

It was in Friday, December 12, when the Senate passed the passed the $585 billion defense bill which included a small provision allowing US President Barack Obama to award the Medal of Honor to Jewish WWI soldier Sergeant William Shemin. What the bill needs right now is the signature of the president.

But the road to get that medal wasn’t easy.

It took a decade’s worth of work for Elsie Roth, Shemin’s daughter, to be able to get this far for her father.

In an interview on Monday, December 15, Elsie expressed how wonderful the feeling is to see the fruits of her ten-year effort. She already envisioned the trip to the White House to receive the military accolade for his father and stated that she, along with the whole family, are so proud and honored for their loved one. Her only one regret is that her father had not lived to see the day he will be able to receive the medal himself.

The Jewish WWI soldier had lied about his age just so he could get into the army in WWI. He was only 18 at that time. He was, then, sent off to France and on one particularly hot day in 1918, his platoon got involved in a bloody fight with the enemy. And the Americans were scattered on the battlefield.

In support of a Medal of Honor for Sergeant Shemin, one of his former superiors,  Captain Rupert Purdon, stated that the Jewish WWI soldier went up from his position in the platoon trench, ran out across the open at sight of the firing Germans and went on to save his comrades at the uterr disregard of his own safety.

Jewish WWI soldier Sergeant William Shemin is a step closer to getting the recognition and honor he so deserved.
Jewish WWI soldier Sergeant William Shemin is a step closer to getting the recognition and honor he so deserved.

Shemin sustained shrapnel wounds but survived. He went on to lead his platoon out of harm’s way for three days until a bullet went through his helmet and embedded itself behind his left ear. The Jewish WWI soldier was hospitalized for three months and the said head wound left him partly deaf. Aside from that, the shrapnel wounds he sustained in saving his fellow soldiers made him barely able to walk.

Shemin was given the Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second highest military honor though, there never was an explanation as to why he was denied the Medal of Honor. However, according to Elsie, her father never questioned that out but instead expressed he felt honor with the accolade he was given.

When the early 2000s, Elsie learned of the law which provided for the review of the cases of Jews who served in WWII who may have been denied the recognition of getting the Medal of Honor. However, she was appalled that there was no similar bill for the soldiers of WWI.

So, she went on to gather military records, commendations, photos and even firsthand accounts of her father’s bravery at the front line of the Great War. Then, she asked helped from U.S. Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer, a Missouri Republican, as well as the two US senators of the state.

It was Retired Army Col. Erwin Burtnick of Baltimore, involved in the Jewish War Veterans of the USA organization, who guided the appeal right to the Department of Defense. And in 2012,  Luetkemeyer was able to secure language in the defense bill which allowed for the review of the records of Jewish WWI veterans who may have lost out on getting proper recognition due to discrimination. Shemin’s case was the only one to have proper documentation so it was moved forward.

No timetable has been announced yet on when Obama signs the bill.

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE