About a year ago I got a phone call out of the blue from a woman who was breathless with excitement over an article I had written for Hadassah magazine about the Jewish experience in World War I. “Do you have a minute?” she asked, identifying herself as 85-year-old Elsie Shemin Roth of St. Louis. “I thought you might be interested in the story of my father, Sergeant William Shemin.”
Without waiting for an answer, she launched right in. When the United States entered the Great War in the spring of 1917, William Shemin, the athletic, broad-shouldered son of Russian Jewish immigrants, enlisted to fight for his country. Even though he was only 18, and thus technically too young to serve, he lied his way into the infantry. Assigned to Company G, 47th Infantry, Fourth Division, Shemin shipped out for Europe, and by the summer of 1918 this scrappy Jewish kid from Bayonne, New Jersey, was fighting in one of the costliest engagements of a very costly war — the battle of the Vesle River in the Second Battle of the Marne.
Despite his age, Shemin had the calmness and stubbornness of a seasoned veteran. Over the course of three days in August 1918, he proved that he had the courage of a hero. “Three times he exposed himself to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire in order to rescue wounded comrades,” his daughter told me. “He led them all to safety and returned to the battlefield. When the entire officer corps of his unit was killed or wounded in action, my father took control of the platoon and saw the survivors through the battle, until he himself sustained a serious head wound. He was found unconscious the next day.”
For these actions, William Shemin had received the Distinguished Service Cross. But his daughter was convinced that he had been cheated. “The reason he didn’t get the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military award for valor — was anti-Semitism.”
By this point, having swallowed my initial skepticism, I was all ears. Shemin Roth told me that for the past 13 years she had been engaged in a multi-front campaign to secure the medal for her father — and now victory was in sight. “I’ve been in touch with the office of Chuck Hagel [secretary of defense at the time], and they told me it’s not a question of if but when the authorization comes through. I thought you’d be interested in this because of what you wrote about Jews in World War I.”
“Call me back when the word comes through from Hagel,” I said, promising to send her a copy of my book “The Long Way Home,” about the immigrant experience in World War I. “I’d love to write something about it.”
Late in May, Shemin Roth was back on the line — even more breathless than the first time. “The president himself called last week to tell me the news,” she said. “The award ceremony is going to be on June 2 at the White House. “Simultaneously, they are awarding a posthumous Medal of Honor to an African-American soldier named Private Henry Johnson, another World War I hero who never got the recognition he deserved. This is so big!”
I said mazel tov, jotted down a few notes and hung up. Two minutes later the phone rang again. It was Shemin Roth, inviting me to join the 66 members of her family who would be going to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the award. “You and Col. Erwin Burtnick, who worked with the Jewish War Veterans to shepherd this through the military bureaucracy, are the only nonfamily members who will be included,” she said. How could I pass this up?
The lobby of the Pentagon City Sheraton was packed and buzzing. Shemins ranging in age from 16 to 86 were out in force, along with assorted military brass. Johnson had left no descendants. He never recovered from his war wounds, and died a broken man, alone and penniless, at the age of 32. But a sizable contingent of his regiment, the celebrated Harlem Hellfighters (369th Regiment, New York National Guard), had turned out on his behalf. I worked the lobby crowd with my daughter Sarah (whom Shemin Roth had graciously invited, since my wife couldn’t make it) while we waited to be whisked to the White House.
“This is quite the study in contrasts,” Col. Richard L. Goldenberg, the public affairs officer for the New York Army National Guard, told me. “Shemin had friends and family to help him deal with the aftermath of combat — and look at all these descendants on hand to celebrate today. But Private Johnson had no support network and he fell apart after the war.” The diverging trajectories of the two enlisted men’s lives epitomized the lot of American Jews and blacks in the early 20th century.
By the time we boarded the buses, I felt like I was part of the extended Shemin family. Shemin Roth’s daughter Carolyn Roth, a St. Louis nurse and attorney, recalled hiding from her grandfather when she was a little girl. Sergeant Shemin had a temper; he was tough, and he brooked no slacking or whining. Suzanne Katz, another granddaughter, remembered her grandfather shouting “Get up!” whenever a grandson got tackled during a football game. “There were 14 grandkids and they all went through Shemin basic training,” Shemin Roth said. “When my sister and I were little girls, my father barked at us at the start of each day: ‘All right, men, let’s go to work. Police the grounds and clean up your areas.’”
The tradition of American military service that William Shemin started continues in the family to this day: His late son Emanuel “Manny” Shemin, who inherited and expanded his father’s successful nursery business, was a lieutenant in the Air Force during the Korean War and went on to serve as a major in the Reserves; Shemin Roth’s son, named after his grandfather, served four years with the Marines. “My father always said, when our country needs us, we go — no questions asked,” as she put it. “Always give back more than you’re asked.”
Shemin Roth has taken that advice to heart. Widowed at the age of 43 with five children, she went on to earn a degree in nursing at 54. She devotes her considerable energy to what she loves best — her family, Israel (which she has visited 42 times and where she staffed Tel Aviv’s main trauma center during the Gulf War), Judaism, nursing, basketball (she played women’s varsity for Syracuse University, her dad’s alma mater) and animals (she currently cares for four dogs and six cats). In 2003, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis gave her its Woman of Valor Award.
She is, in short, a force of nature — and multiple strands of her passionate intensity converged in securing the medal for her father. “This is not just about my father,” she told me. “It’s really a thank you for the Jewish people.”
Traffic was thick downtown in the District of Columbia as the buses headed out at around 10:30 a.m., but our escort — a squadron of military motorcycles and two police cars with sirens blaring — parted the jam-up as if it were the Red Sea, and delivered our motorcade to the White House in minutes. “Keep your ID handy,” an official warned us. “There are three checkpoints to come.”
With the final hurdle cleared, my daughter and I strode like royalty down the long, elegant corridor of the East Wing. Tall, trim military attachés with ropes of gold braid looped around their right shoulders guided us into the library, the Vermeil Room and up the stairs to the reception area. Despite our numbers, we felt like welcome guests. Everything was discreet, polite, elegantly choreographed.
Upstairs in the Cross Hall, as a uniformed pianist played jazz standards on an eagle-emblazoned grand piano set beneath a portrait of Bill Clinton, we rubbed shoulders with politicians and army brass. I can’t say I got close enough to shake hands with all of them, but I did spot Navy Adm. James Winnefeld; the National Guard Bureau vice chief, Gen. Joseph Lengyel; Marine Lt. Gen. General Ronald Bailey; Daniel B. Allyn, the armed forces vice chief of staff, and Lt. Gen. William T. Grisoli, director of the U.S. Army Staff. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, whose office was instrumental in awarding the medal to Johnson, and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill were there as well, but I didn’t see them in the throng of dignitaries.
The East Room was packed by the time Sarah and I took our seats on the far-right side. Standing on bleachers at the back of the room, the press jostled for optimal sightlines. While we waited, I chatted with an elderly veteran of the Harlem Hellfighters seated beside me, mentioning how wonderful it was that an African-American and an American Jewish hero were being honored simultaneously. The veteran expressed surprise to hear that Shemin was Jewish.
Then the strains of “Hail to the Chief” filled the room; we all rose, and there he was, the 44th president of the United States — slim, straight-backed, somber, graying, a touch haggard. “Welcome to the White House,” the president said, scanning our beaming faces. “We are a nation, a people who remember our heroes. We never forget their sacrifice, and we believe that it is never too late to say thank you.”
Obama spoke of Johnson first. This young African-American railroad porter and coal yard worker became a hero in the predawn hours of May 15, 1918, when he single-handedly held off a German raiding party that was attempting to capture one of his comrades-in-arms. When Johnson’s rifle jammed, he used his rifle butt and bolo knife to fend off the enemy and save his buddy. But in the aftermath of the war, Johnson became a tragic hero. Crippled by his injuries, his physical and psychological wounds untreated, his heroism unrecognized by his country, Johnson died alone and impoverished at the age of 32.
“America can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson,” the president said. “But we can do our best to make it right.”
The tone lightened a bit when Obama spoke of Shemin. The president described how this naturally athletic, first-generation American boy was bent on enlisting when the United States entered the war in April 1917, even though he was underage. For William Shemin, the president said, this presented “no problem. He puffed his chest and lied about his age.” The room grew hushed when Obama talked about those three days in August when Shemin proved what he was made of. The men in Shemin’s unit faced “a terrible choice” as they watched their comrades mowed down in No Man’s Land: “Die trying to rescue your fellow solider or watch him die, knowing that part of you will die along with him. William Shemin couldn’t stand to watch.” The Jewish enlistee raced through heavy machine-gun fire not once, not twice, but three times to rescue fallen comrades. “Personally utterly fearless,” Obama said, “that young kid who lied about his age grew up fast in war.”
When the president mentioned that the sergeant was “devoted to his Jewish faith,” the elderly black fellow sitting next to me winked and nudged me in the side. I returned the nudge and grinned at him.
“Well, Elsie,” the president said, turning to the daughter who made it all happen, “as much as America meant to your father, he means even more to America. Sergeant Shemin served at a time when the contributions of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked. It is my privilege on behalf of the American people to make this right and finally award the Medal of Honor to William Shemin.”
With that, Obama summoned Shemin Roth and her sister Ina Bass to the podium, and the three of them beamed as they gripped the medal case.
I mused on history during the long flight home to Seattle. Even for a wizened veteran writer like me, it was enthralling to witness the spectacle and glamour of a full-born White House ceremony. But what moved me was something more than that.
A century ago, Johnson and Shemin were disposable citizens — their brawn, decisiveness and courage were valued in the flashpoint of combat and then rapidly discounted because one was black and the other Jewish. The matter could have rested there, as it did for so many of their forgotten comrades. But thanks to the efforts of a headstrong daughter and a senator’s staff, both their actions and the discrimination that prevented those actions from being fully recognized during their lifetimes became front page, home page, top-of-the-hour news. This was a news story that took the nation 100 years to hear. As Elsie Shemin Roth put it, “A very handsome Jewish man and a very handsome African-American man, each with discrimination up the wazoo, received the Medal of Honor from our African-American president. How beautiful is that?”
The crew-cut blond soldier sitting next to me at the Pentagon ceremony in the Hall of Heroes had zero personal, racial or religious connection to the medal awardees being honored. He was a career Army information technology specialist from Arkansas. By the looks of him, he was 100% apple pie American. Why was he there? “A memo circulated asking if we wanted to attend,” the sergeant told me. “For me, it’s an honor to pay my respects to these two men.”
This solider applauded just as vigorously as we all did when Shemin Roth stood up to say on behalf of her father: “Discrimination hurts. A wrong has been made right. All is forgiven. This true story could happen only in America. Peace be with each and every one of you. Shalom.”
David Laskin is the author of “The Family: A Journey Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” (Penguin, 2013) and “The Long Way Home: An American Journey From Ellis Island to the Great War”(HarperCollins, 2010).