Jewish Soldier May Get Top Medal, a Century Late

Sgt. William Shemin's heroism should have earned him the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest service medal. But it didn't, perhaps because discrimination was rampant in the military — and he was Jewish.

AP

Sgt. William Shemin raced across a World War I battlefield three times to pull wounded comrades to safety, nearly a century ago. With all the senior leaders of the platoon wounded or killed, the 19-year-old survived a bullet to the head and led his unit to safety.

The heroism should have earned Shemin the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest service medal. But it didn't, perhaps because discrimination was rampant in the military — and he was Jewish.

Thanks to the efforts of his now 85-year-old daughter, Shemin is on the cusp of finally being honored with a medal, 41 years after his death.

The Senate on Friday passed the $585 billion defense bill. A small provision allows President Barack Obama to bestow the Medal of Honor to Shemin. The last hurdle is Obama's signature on the defense bill.

Elsie Shemin-Roth has worked tirelessly for over a decade to get the honor for her father. She can already envision that trip to the White House to receive the medal.

"It's absolutely wonderful," Shemin-Roth said Monday. "We'll be so proud and honored to receive this for our father. My one gigantic regret is I wish my father could be here."

Shemin lied about his age and got into the Army at age 18. He was sent off to France where, on a hot day in 1918, his platoon was involved in a bloody fight. Americans were scattered over the battlefield. One of Shemin's superiors, Capt. Rupert 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."

The young sergeant took shrapnel but survived. He led the platoon out of harm's way for the next three days, until a German bullet pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear. Shemin was hospitalized for three months.

The wound left him partly deaf. Shrapnel wounds eventually left him barely able to walk.

Shemin was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military honor. There was never an explanation of why he was denied the Medal of Honor, and Shemin-Roth said her father felt honored by the Distinguished Service Cross.

After leaving the military, Shemin earned a degree from Syracuse and started a greenhouse-and-nursery business in the Bronx. He died in 1973.