This Veterans Day, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia thanks the over 1,000,000 American Jews who have served in the United States Armed Forces. Today we proudly shine a light on the heroism of Army Sergeant William Shemin, who was among the nearly 225,000 American Jews who served in World War I.
On August 7-9, 1918, the United States trench at the Vesle River near Bazoches, France was under constant fire. Inside crouched 21-year-old Sergeant William Shemin, who was less than a year into his service, but his courage fully formed. Incredibly, as many of his fellow soldiers were killed or injured on the battlefield, William leapt from the trench, bolted into No Man’s Land and hauled an injured American serviceman to safety. Then he did it again. Not once, not twice, but three times William raced through machine gun fire, risking his own life to save his brothers-in-arms.
As the battle continued for days, many American officers were lost. Knowing the platoon needed leadership, William assumed control of the unit and bravely led the soldiers against enemy fire until, on August 9th, he was wounded by a machine gun bullet that pierced his helmet and then lodged behind his left ear. By early September — while William was beginning his three-month recovery in the hospital — the Germans had retreated from the Vesle River. William finished his tour on light duty as part of the Army occupation in Germany and Belgium. For his injuries, he received a Purple Heart and was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest award recognizing battlefield valor.
William was honorably discharged in August 1919, and went on to earn a degree from the New York State College of Forestry before starting a greenhouse and landscaping business in the Bronx. When William passed away in 1973, the military still had not presented him with its highest award, the Medal of Honor, though he surely deserved such distinction. In June 2015, President Barrack Obama changed that. “Because Sergeant Shemin served at a time when the contributions and heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked, it is my privilege, on behalf of the American people, to make this right,” he said, handing the Medal of Honor to William’s daughters. “As much as America meant to your father,” President Obama concluded, “he means even more to America.”
To all veterans, from all of us at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, thank you for your service.