William Shemin, a Medal of Honor recipient from World War I, was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in 1896 in Bayonne, New Jersey. He was working as a forester in Bayonne when the United States was drawn into World War I, and he enlisted in the U.S. Army in October 1917.
He was promoted twice and by June 1918 was a sergeant in the 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division Expeditionary Forces, on the banks of the Vesle River near Basoches, France. As German troops poured a constant stream of fire and spread lethal gas as the Americans tried to advance, Shemin and his platoon managed to swim across the river and organize at the base of a steep, rock bluff. A three-man team, including Shemin’s friend, Jim Pritchard, was ordered to take out a German machine gun position.
The three men were hit as they crossed an open field. Pritchard was badly wounded and the two other men were killed. Without hesitation, Shemin darted out into the open field under intense German fire, ran 150 yards to his wounded friend and brought him back to American lines for medical aid. During the next few days, amidst hand-to-hand combat, Shemin rescued two more wounded men from open fields under heavy fire.
“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.”
Shemin was badly wounded in the head in August 1917, but initially refused medical help to stay with his platoon until he lost consciousness. He spent six weeks recovering in a hospital. In 1920, Shemin was awarded the nation’s second highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross; although some of his men had hoped to nominate him for the Medal of Honor, it became clear that Shemin’s faith would be an obstacle to the process. But Shemin reportedly remarked, “War is not about medals. I love my country, I love my men. That’s all that counts.”
“Though my father always told me his war experience was never about medals, I knew in my heart he was deserving of the highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor,”
He returned to forestry work in New York and was appointed as Forrester of the Niagara Falls State Reservation. He married, raised three children and later started his own gardening and landscaping business in the Bronx in New York City. Shemin died in 1973.
Beginning in 2001, the U.S. government began to examine the valor awards presented to Jewish soldiers during WWI to determine if historic discrimination had led their service to be devalued. As a result, Shemin’s award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in a 2015 ceremony featuring his daughter Elsie Shemin Roth.
All photos courtesy of the Shemin family