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Medal of Honor awarded to WWI vet is triumph over anti-Semitism, says daughter

Ina Bass and Elsie Shemin-Roth, the daughters of World War I Sgt. William Shemin, accept the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama.
Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio
Ina Bass and Elsie Shemin-Roth, the daughters of World War I Sgt. William Shemin, accept the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama.

Updated from the ceremony - WASHINGTON - It took nearly 100 years, approval from Congress and the decades-long determination of an admiring daughter, but Tuesday, President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Army Sgt. William Shemin, a World War I veteran who had been overlooked at the time to receive the nation’s highest military honor for multiple acts of bravery in 1918, because he was Jewish.

The president opened his comments by acknowledging that Sgt. Shemin had died — in 1973 — decades before receiving his full recognition. “But, it’s never too late to say thank you,” the president said. 

Obama told Shemin’s life story to a room packed with military officials, Cabinet members, lawmakers, and what he described as “a platoon of Shemins,” — to polite laughter. Members of the Shemin family and their friends filled several rows of seats in the East Room of the White House. Elsie Shemin-Roth and her sister, Ina Bass, sat in the front row, just inches from the small stage where the president stood.

Obama told how Sgt. Shemin had climbed out of the safety of a trench to rescue a wounded colleague lying on an open battlefield in France with German troops only 150 yards away. “He ran out into the hell of No Man’s Land and dragged a wounded comrade to safety. Then he did it again, and again. Three times he raced through heavy machine gunfire. Three times he carried his fellow soldiers to safety.”

The president explained how the battle stretched on for days and how Shemin took command of his platoon when company officers had become casualties. The president said, a lieutenant who witnessed the events described Sgt. Shemin as “cool, calm, intelligent and personally fearless.”

Ina Bass, Elsie Shemin-Roth and President Barack Obama
Credit Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio
Ina Bass, Elsie Shemin-Roth and President Barack Obama

Then, directing his comments to Elsie, the president said, “as much as America meant to your father, he means even more to America.” Obama added that it sometimes takes the U.S. too long to say thank you — “because Sgt. Shemin served at a time when the contributions and heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked.”

He added that because Sgt. Shemin had saved lives and represented the U.S. with honor “it is my privilege, on behalf of the American people, to make this right and finally award the Medal of Honor to Sergeant William Shemin.”   He then invited the sisters to join him on stage to accept the Medal on behalf of their father.

With the assistance of two military escorts in dress uniforms, Elsie, 86, of Webster Groves, and Ina, 83, were slow in their steps, but buoyant and beaming in every other way as they stood next to the president while their father’s acts of bravery were read aloud by a military aide.  The president wrapped Elsie’s hand in his arm and steadied her as they stood quietly.  When it came time to hand the wood-framed and glass-enclosed medal to the sisters, all three had big smiles and the president gave each of the sisters a kiss on the cheek.

A Long Time in Coming

U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, Mo., took up her case about five years ago when she visited his district office and told him of the story. Because this case was so old, the Pentagon needed Congressional approval before it could even begin to look at Shemin’s case. Luetkemeyer was able to include a provision in the 2012, National Defense Authorization Act for reviews of the service records of Jewish World War I veterans who may not have received the awards they deserved, due to discrimination at the time.

In a statement, the congressman said, “This morning I was proud to be in the room and watch, Elsie Shemin-Roth, formerly of Labadie, Mo., receive the Medal of Honor on behalf of her father. Elsie and I were on a long and winding journey together and even after five years, we never gave up hope. Today was five years in the making and it was a true honor to watch Elsie stand next to the president of the United States and accept the highest honor for her father’s courageous and selfless acts of valor during World War I.”

Army Pvt. Henry Johnson was the other World War I soldier awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously on Tuesday. He was never even given the Purple Heart, although he had been wounded 21 times. The African-American soldier fought off a German raider force in France’s Argonne forest.

The Medal of Honor

Established in 1861, the Medal of Honor is awarded to service members who distinguish themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity” while in combat against U.S. enemies. To date, the Medal of Honor has been awarded to fewer than 3,500 service members in the 154 years since its creation.

Original article - 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 and took command of his platoon after the officers fell.

Sgt. William Shemin in his uniform coat. An infantryman in the 4th Division of the Army, Shemin fought in France, Belgium and Germany from 1918-1919.
Credit courtesy of the Shemin family
Sgt. William Shemin in his uniform overcoat. An infantryman in the 4th Division of the Army, Shemin fought in France, Belgium and Germany from 1918-1919.

“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 Capt. 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 U.S. Rep. 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.