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Jewish World War I heroes could be awarded Medal of Honor

October 20, 2011 |  1:26 pm

Medal of HonorAt age 82, Elsie Shemin-Roth didn’t expect to be waging a campaign that could lead to the posthumous Medal of Honor award for some Jewish World War I veterans.

But the daughter of one such veteran is the leading force behind legislation that would direct the Pentagon to review the records of Jewish World War I veterans to determine whether any were denied the Medal of Honor because of discrimination.

A little-noticed provision of a House-approved defense bill would require the Defense Department to determine whether Jewish recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross or other military decorations from World War I should posthumously receive the nation's highest military honor.

"This legislation will right past injustices," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), among a bipartisan group of senators who introduced a Senate version of the legislation.

The William Shemin Jewish World War I Veterans Act is named after Shemin-Roth's father, a Jewish sergeant who received the Distinguished Service Cross.

In 1918, Shemin, at age 19, crossed an open field in the face of heavy enemy fire in France to save three fellow soldiers and took command of his platoon after his superiors were wounded or killed. He suffered a head wound in the fight. Shemin died in 1973.

"My job, as his daughter, is to correct this ... and give my father what he justly deserved," she said in an interview.

 Shemin-Roth contacted her congressman, Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.), after reading about passage of legislation that required a Pentagon review of veterans from more recent wars who may have been denied the Medal of Honor because of discrimination.

"My father in his lifetime, perhaps twice, mentioned that there was an officer in his regiment who was very anti-Semitic," she said. "He was always extremely grateful for the Distinguished Service Cross, but he mentioned that there was terrible discrimination."

She said that a fellow veteran, who visited the family years later, told Shemin-Roth, "Your father never got the medal that he deserved because he was a Jew."

Retired Col. Erwin Burtnick, Maryland commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America who has reviewed Shemin’s record, said, "Had he been put in for a Medal of Honor, would he have gotten it? Probably, given the other citations that I reviewed from World War I of people who did considerably less than he did who got the Medal of Honor."

Of 3,458 Medal of Honor recipients, 15 were known to be Jewish, including three from World War I, according to the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C. 

"Thousands of Jewish service members have served our country bravely, but some may not have been adequately recognized for their service because of discrimination," Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, said in a statement. "Any veteran who has put their life on the line to keep us safe here at home or to defend liberty abroad deserve the opportunity to be thanked and awarded appropriately."

A 2001 bill required a similar review of the records of Jewish and Hispanic war veterans dating back to World War II who may have been overlooked for the Medal of Honor because of discrimination.

In 1996, seven African American World War II veterans received the Medal of Honor, all but one posthumously, the first such awards bestowed on blacks in the armed forces during that conflict. In 2000, 22 Asian Americans who fought in World War II received the Medal of Honor after a four-year review prompted by legislation.

There is precedent for awarding the medal decades later. In 2001, President Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to President Theodore Roosevelt for his famous charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War in 1898.

Frank Buckles, the last known living American veteran of World War I, died in March at age 110.

"I’m doing better than [President] Obama because I have Republicans and Democrats working together on this,"Shemin-Roth quipped.

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--Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.

Photo: The U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for valor. Credit: U.S. Department of Defense.

 

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