A century too late? How antisemitism almost stopped an American soldier receiving the Medal of Honor

Portrait of Sgt. William Shemin in uniform overcoat.

It took nearly a century to honour the bravery of a Jewish man – after antisemitism denied him the Medal of Honor (the highest military honour bestowed in the United States).

Sgt. William Shemin (who lied about his age to enlist at 18) joined Company G, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment (Raiders), 4th Infantry Division. He soon found himself serving in France.

During the Aisne-Marne Offensive (August 7-9, 1918). Shemin left the cover of his platoon’s trenches and raced towards the wounded with the sounds of machine gun and rifle fire around him. That moment of bravery left an indelible impression on his superiors; but shrapnel left a physical reminder that made walking a challenge.

Injuries to officers and senior non-commissioned officers thrust leadership upon Shemin’s shoulders; a position that helped him move his platoon to safety during a three day period that only ended after a German bullet pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear. That injury left him hospitalised for three months and partly deaf in one ear; but Shemin completed his tour with light duties in occupied Belgium and Germany.

For his injuries and battlefield valour, Shemin received the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross (the second highest military honour in the United States) in 1919. An honourable discharge that same year provided the platform for his studies at New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University. Post-graduation, Shemin established a greenhouse and landscaping business in New York, where he raised three children before his death in 1973.

Without the tireless campaigning of his daughter, Elsie Shemin-Roth, now 85-years-old, his gallantry would wrongfully escape the highest of military honours. Shemin-Roth remarked that her father felt proud to receive the Distinguished Service Cross but antisemitism stopped Shemin (and others) from true recognition.

In the early 2000s, Shemin-Roth learned of a review into Jews who may have been denied the medals they earned in World War II. But to her disgust, there was no equivalent mechanism of review for Jewish soldiers who served in World War I.

That sense of injustice motivated her to collect evidence of her father’s military record and bravery. Soon, Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer, a Missouri Republican, and both of the state’s senators joined her cause.

Erwin Burtnick, a retired army colonel who is involved in the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. organisation, helped the project pass through the Department of Defense.

In 2012, Senator Luetkemeyer secured a passage of language in defence legislation to allow a review of potential discrimination against Jewish servicemen. Shemin’s case was the individual exception with enough documented evidence to progress. Further lobbying preceded President Obama’s announcement on May 14 that he intended to posthumously award Shemin the Medal of Honor.

Prior to reform, the Medal of Honor rules stipulated that heroic actions have to have taken place within five years to be considered.

The service took place on June 2. In his remarks, President Obama reflected that “No one who serves our country should ever be forgotten. We are a nation, a people who remembers our heroes,” as he sought to correct a historic wrong.

Shemin-Roth attended the ceremony alongside her sister to accept the award on behalf of their father. The family forgave past transgressions now this injustice was corrected.



Other Jewish recipients of the Medal of Honor:

Private Benjamin Levy (1845-1921)

Private David Urbanksy (1843-1897)

Sergeant Leopold Karpeles (1838-1909)

Sergeant Major Abraham Cohn (1832-1897)

Private Simon Suhler – who used the name of Charles Gardner during active service (1844-1895)

Private Samuel Marguilies – who used the name of Samuel Gross during active service (1891-1934)

First Sergeant Sydney Gumpertz (1879-1971)

First Sergeant Benjamin Kaufman (1894-1981)

Sergeant William Sawelson (1895-1918)

Second Lieutenant Raymond Zussman (1917-1944)

Staff Sergeant Isadore Jachman (1922-1945)

Captain Jack Jacobs – who served as First Lieutenant (1945–present)

Sergeant John Lee Levitow – who served as Airman First Class (1945-2000)

Captain Ben L. Saloman (1914-1944)

Corporal Tibor Rubin (1929-present)

Private First Class Leonard M. Kravitz (1930-present)

Source: National Museum of American Jewish Military History