Jewish WWI Vets and Medal of Honor Controversy

Article by Richard Simon for The Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2011:

At age 82, Elsie Shemin-Roth didn’t expect to be waging a campaign for congressional legislation.

But the daughter of a Jewish World War I veteran is the leading force behind a measure that would direct the Pentagon to review the records of such 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 for service during World War I should posthumously receive the nation’s highest military honor.

“This legislation will right past injustices,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of 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 sergeant who received the Distinguished Service Cross.

In 1918, Shemin, who was 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,” Shemin-Roth said in an interview.

She contacted her congressman, Rep. 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, commander of the Maryland department of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., has reviewed Shemin’s record. “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,” Burtnick said.

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.

“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 deserves 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 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 were awarded the Medal of Honor, all but one posthumously, the first such awards bestowed on blacks in the armed forces in that conflict. In 2000, 22 Asian Americans who fought in World War II were awarded the medal after a four-year review prompted by legislation.

There is precedent for awarding the medal decades later. In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded it to President Theodore Roosevelt for his famous charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War in 1898 when he was serving as a colonel in a volunteer cavalry regiment.

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


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