On June 2nd, the President of the United States Barack Obama will award the Congressional Medal of Honor to William Shemin posthumously, for his service to this country during World War I.
Mr. Shemin, who died in 1973, and his family were longtime summer residents of Chazy Landing. He bought a camp there in the late 1930s, and his wife, Bertha, and daughters, Elsie and Ina, came for the summers from then on. Mr. and Mrs. Shemin were life-long friends of my mother and father, Tom and Mary Conroy of Beekmantown, where my mother gave riding lessons to their young daughters. Elsie, now Elsie Shemin-Roth, will accept the medal on her father's behalf.
Mr. Shemin joined the U.S. Army on Oct. 2, 1917, after graduating from the New York State Ranger School. He was sent to Fort Greene, N.C., for basic training. Upon graduation, his unit, G Company, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, 4th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, was sent to the trenches in France.
|Sgt. William Shemin (second from left) in France during WWI.|
A sergeant, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in France during early August of 1918. His citation reads as follows:
"The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress ... takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Sergeant William Shemin (ASN: 558173), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism ... on the Vesle River, near Bazoches, France, 7, 8, and 9 August 1918.
"Sergeant Shemin, upon three different occasions, left cover and crossed an open space (of) 150 yards, exposed to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, to rescue wounded.
"After officers and senior non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Sergeant Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until wounded on 9 August."
According to Capt. Rupert Purdon, a superior officer who recommended Sgt. Shemin for the Medal of Honor at that time, "he sprang from his position in the trench and dashed out in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine-gun and rifle fire all the while Sgt. Shemin was rescuing the wounded.”
He took over the command of his platoon for the next three days, leading it until shrapnel wounds and a bullet to the back of his head forced him from the field. After a hospital stay of three months, he was discharged, partially deaf and lame.
Upon returning home, he finished his schooling and established a successful landscaping and greenhouse business in the Bronx.
I knew Mr. Shemin all of my life, until his death in 1973, and he was always horribly lame. The shrapnel left him vulnerable to a crippling form of arthritis that he endured without complaint. He could not walk without the use of a cane. My brothers and I, throughout our youth, were his hands in planting his property along Lake Champlain with every kind of tree, shrub and flower, which he shipped up from his business in the Bronx.
“He was the best man I ever worked for,” said Tom Conroy recently. “Back on the farm, we were making $4 a month, and Mr. Shemin immediately started my brother Will and myself at $2 per hour. On our first payday, he drove us to the bank and helped us open a bank account so we’d learn how to handle money. He was a thoughtful, caring, exacting person."
Elsie Shemin-Roth campaigned long and hard to have the government take a second look at her father's war decorations after reading that Jewish soldiers, along with African American, Asian and Native American military members, were sometimes denied full merit in the awarding of service medals. She was the driving force behind a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act of December 2011, called the William Shemin World War 1 Veterans Act, that provides for a Pentagon review of Jewish soldiers and sailors who may have been overlooked for the Medal of Honor simply because of their faith.
Mr. Shemin had been awarded the Purple Heart for his wounds, along with the Distinguished Service Cross, but his actions in those days under fire in France were in the same league with Sgt. Alvin York, who was the most famous hero of World War I and a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Mr. Shemin was not portrayed in a movie by Gary Cooper, however, in our family any soldier who survived the trenches of World War I, much less went over the top to rescue the wounded, deserved a medal. Mr. Shemin did it all.
In the late 1950s, the Shemins retired to their property in Chazy, where they had built a new house on the lake shore. It was during those later years that we saw the most of Mr. Shemin. He and his wife spent the remainder of their lives living happily there surrounded by the trees and flowers that he had planted.
He was always "Mr. Shemin" to the members of my family, old and young. His presence and dignity commanded that kind of respect.
For a time, the late Clinton County Judge Robert Feinberg and his wife lived in the Shemin house on Lake Shore Road. It is now owned by Jim Carter.
At the same White House ceremony that posthumously recognizes Mr. Shemin, Pvt. William Henry Johnson will be honored, as well. An African-American World War I veteran, he will also have the Distinguished Service medal that he received for bravery under fire in France upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
*A version of this article was published by the Press Republican on May 24, 2015.