In December 2014 I wrote a post about Private Henry Johnson, his heroic actions during World War I, and the quest to award him with the Medal of Honor denied for almost a century. On June 2, 2015 President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military award for valor, for Private Johnson.
During the same ceremony President Obama also presented the Medal of Honor to Sergeant William Shemin’s daughters on his behalf. Shemin had also been denied recognition of his heroic actions during World War I, almost certainly because he was Jewish.
When she was a child, Shemin’s daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth, heard about her father’s actions from one of the men he saved. Although her father received both the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross in 1919, she has worked for over a decade to ensure that her father received the Medal of Honor for his actions in combat.
Sergeant William Shemin (1896-1973) enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and was serving as a rifleman in France with the American Expeditionary Forces in August 1918. Serving in the trenches during a three-day battle, Shemin left the relative safety of the trench to recover wounded colleagues. Three times he left the trench to run 150 yards, across open space, while under machine gun and rifle fire, to bring wounded soldiers back to the relative safety of the trenches.
150 yards. That’s the length of one and a half football fields. Not just once, but three times. While German soldiers were shooting at him.
He did not get through this unscathed. He took shrapnel, some of which could never be removed by doctors because it was too close to his spine. He was shot through the helmet and the bullet lodged behind his left ear. He was deaf in that ear for the rest of his life. He spent three months in the hospital.
After the war Shemin graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in Forestry, started a greenhouse/nursery in the Bronx in New York City, married and raised three children. He died in 1973.
The U.S. Army website gives more detailed information about Shemin, his unit and this battle.
It’s disturbing to me that it took almost a full century to acknowledge and honor the achievements of these two men. More disturbing is that it recently took years of paperwork and administrative wrangling to get this done. Without the dedication of time and energy from people determined to see this happen, the extraordinary actions taken by these two men to save the lives of others, at extreme risk to their own, may never have been recognized. Because one was black and one was Jewish. We can do better than that.