Daughter’s drive wins honor for dad’s WWI heroism

In this 2009 file photo, Elsie Shemin-Roth with a book that describes the  heroism  of her father, Sgt. William Shemin, during World War I (pictured at far left).  On June 2, Shemin-Roth will accept the Medal of Honor on her father’s behalf during a ceremony at the White House. Photo: Mary Delach Leonard

By Ellen Futterman

When the phone rang at her Webster Groves home at 10 a.m. Friday, April 24, Elsie Shemin-Roth half expected to hear Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the 38th Army chief of staff, on the other end. That would have been a thrill.

But when the caller turned out to be none other than the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, well, that’s when Elsie found herself just about speechless. And if you know the 86-year-old activist and humanitarian, you know Elsie Shemin-Roth is capable of many things. Being speechless isn’t usually one of them.

“I heard this very clear, lovely voice say, “This is Barack Obama. Is this Elsie Shemin-Roth?’ ” Elsie recalled. “I was told I would be getting a very special call and to be by my phone, but I had no idea it would be him. All I could think to say was, ‘I voted for you twice.’ Then I heard a hint of a giggle and he said, ‘Thank you. I needed every vote.’ ”

But Elsie’s voting record wasn’t why the president was calling. He wanted to tell her that he knew all about her late father, Army Sgt. William Shemin, who, next month, will be awarded the Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest military decoration – for his heroism during World War I. The honor comes nearly a century after Shemin fought in the war.

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“The president told me he looked forward to meeting my family and me at the White House,” Elsie said, referring to a ceremony June 2, when she will accept the medal on her father’s behalf. “He was so authentically genuine. When I could finally pull myself together I told him, ‘Mr. President, we both have had uphill battles in our lives. That’s why if I had to choose a president to give my father posthumously this tremendous honor, it would be you.’ He was silent for a moment. Then he said, ‘I appreciate that.’ ”

For 13 years, Elsie Shemin-Roth has been fighting to right what she felt was a terrible wrong done to her father as a result of his service in World War I. While he was awarded a Purple Heart as well as the nation’s second-highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism,” there was never any explanation as to why he didn’t receive the Medal of Honor. 

Elsie and many others are convinced it was because he was Jewish, and anti-Semitism was rampant at the time. 

“I remember sitting on the front porch when I was 12-years-old with my dad and his Army buddy, Jim Pritchard, a dear family friend who was in the trenches with my father,”  Elsie said. “Jim said to me, ‘Elsie, you’re old enough to know that your father never got the medal he deserved because he was a Jew.’ I was horrified. I ran to my dad and said, ‘Can this be true?’ He said anti-Semitism and discrimination were a way of life back then in the Army. But he never dwelled on it.”

During combat near Bazoches, France, Sgt. Shemin, a mere 19 years old at the time, “upon three different occasions left cover and crossed an open space 150 yards, exposed to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, to rescue wounded. After officers and senior noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Sgt. Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until wounded on Aug. 9, 1918,” according to the citation for his Distinguished Service Cross. 

A bullet pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear, leaving him partially deaf. At least five comrades witnessed his bravery during three days of heavy fighting.

Shemin, a first generation American born to Jewish parents who came to the United States from Russia in the late 1800s, died in 1973. 

In the early 2000s, Elsie read in Jewish Veteran magazine about a congressional review of cases involving Jewish veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, who may have been overlooked for the Medal of Honor because of their race or religion. But there was no similar mechanism for Jewish veterans from World War I.

“What the heck is the difference?” Elsie asked. “Discrimination is discrimination. It doesn’t have a time frame. It made no sense to me.”

So she embarked on a mission to prove that her father was deserving of the highest medal of valor. Living in Labadie at the time, she enlisted help from her congressman, U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, and from retired Army Col. Erwin Burtnick of Baltimore, who is very involved in the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. 

Burtnick reviewed Shemin’s case and advocated on his behalf to the Pentagon that the sergeant be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Elsie’s resolve finally paid off. In December 2011, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which contained a provision known as the William Shemin Jewish World War I Veterans Act. It provides for a Pentagon review of Jewish soldiers and sailors who may have been overlooked for the Medal of Honor simply due to their faith. This year, a waiver of time limitations passed by Congress ensured that Shemin was eligible to receive the medal.

Although it took much longer than she would have liked, Elsie said, “Basically, I can sum up what I am feeling in 11 words: Discrimination hurts. A wrong has been made right. All is forgiven.”

Elsie is putting the finishing touches on the speech she will give at the Hall of Heroes in the Pentagon to top military personnel. Assigned by the White House to help her is one of former President Bill Clinton’s speechwriters.

Not that Elsie needs a whole lot of help. A mother of five who was widowed at 43, she went to St. Louis University and received her nursing degree at age 54. The Shaare Emeth congregant has been to Israel 42 times; she worked at Tel Aviv’s main trauma center during the Gulf War and served with Volunteers for Israel on tank and artillery bases. 

She conceived and implemented the Hadassah Bosnian Project, a life-saving effort that sent 108 tons of pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and warm clothing to Sarajevo. She also launched a SLU School of Nursing training program to prepare nurses to deal with the aftermath of terror attacks. 

In 1995, Elsie was named a Woman of Achievement. In 2003, she received the Woman of Valor Award from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. And in 2009, Elsie, who played basketball at Syracuse University, her father’s alma mater, was inducted into the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Her father attended Syracuse after the war and later started a greenhouse and nursery business in the Bronx, New York.

Sixty-one family members, including Elsie’s younger sister, plan to attend the June 2 ceremony. Their one brother is deceased. 

“This Medal of Honor is not just about my father,” Elsie said. “There are many men and women in the military who are so brave yet don’t get the recognition they deserve. But they may not have people like me shepherding the paperwork and advocating for them.

“This also gives me the opportunity to tell the world that Jews do fight in the military and we are very proud to serve our country. There is a feeling on the part of some that Jews don’t enlist, we don’t serve, we don’t measure up, and that is just not true.”

In addition to Sgt. Shemin, Army Pvt. Henry Johnson, who was part of an all-black National Guard unit ordered into battle, will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his bravery during an attack by German soldiers May 15, 1918. He died when he was 32 and has no close family that is still alive.

Not surprising, Elsie has volunteered to be his Jewish daughter.