BAYONNE, NJ - When President Barack Obama named William Shemin as Bayonne’s third Medal of Honor winner in 2015, some local residents knew the city had to do something special to commemorate Shemin’s heroic acts in World War I.
Bayonne, after all, had named the county park in honor of Stephen Gregg – a World War II Medal of Honor recipient, and named former Public-School No. 22 after Nicolas Oresko, who had also received the medal for heroism in World War II.
Although Shemin’s actions in combat were as noteworthy as those of Gregg and Oresko, he had been overlooked for 97 years yet was as deserving of the nation’s highest military honor as any other.
Glenn Flora, commander of the Joyce Herbert VFW Post No. 226 proposed the idea of naming one of the existing schools after Shemin.
“When Glenn suggested it, I took the ball and ran with it,” said Councilman Juan Perez. “It was his idea. I just brought it to the board for them to consider.”
What started out as idea earlier this year became a reality on Nov. 15 when officials gathered to rename Midtown Community School in Shemin’s honor.
Mayor Jimmy Davis called it “a special day in a special city for a special man.”
With hallways filled with cheering children and a color guard bearing unfurled flags, city and school officials joined veterans and members of Shemin’s family to give lasting recognition to Shemin’s heroic deeds.
Not only were members of Shemin’s family in attendance, but so were descendants of the men Shemin saved.
“This is an important day,” said Schools Superintendent John Niesz, “renaming a school for a hometown hero that went above and beyond. By dedicating this school, students will think about those who served and may well follow in his example to do what is right.”
Shemin, according to Obama, had likely been overlooked because of the intense antisemitism that existed a century ago, even though Shemin had risked his own life to save fellow soldiers.
Born in New York City in 1896, Shemin was moved to Bayonne as an infant and attended local schools before graduating New York Ranger School in 1914. He worked at a forester in Bayonne before entering the U.S. Army in 1917. He took basic training in North Carolina before shipping out to the Western Front in Europe.
Shemin earned his Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award given for valor, for actions taken during a two-day period in August 1918 in what is known as the second Aisne-Marne offensive. A sergeant rifleman he was involved in conflict at the Vesis River near Bazoches, France.
According to documents associated with the awarding of the honor Shemin left the cover of his platoon’s trench, exposing himself to heavy machine gun fire to rescue wounded men from an open area between friendly and enemy trenches.
A short time later, after all of his superior officers were wounded or killed, he took command of his platoon until he was also wounded with shrapnel, and took a bullet from a machine gun that had pierced his helmet and lodged behind his left ear.
Shemin is credited with saving more than 30 men as a result of the actions he took on that day, and at least three of these were from the no-man’s land between trenches under heavy artillery fire
He later spent three months in the hospital before being discharged.
While Shemin received the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart for his actions, he did not initially get the Medal of Honor – which some of his commanders believed he deserved.
After his release from service, he went to Syracuse University where he played lacrosse and football.
At New York State College of Forestry he received a degree after which he opened a greenhouse and landscaping business. Shemin died in 1973.
It wasn’t until June 2, 2015 that Shemin received the honor he really deserved, in a ceremony hosted by Obama and attended by his daughters Elsie Shemin-Roth and Ina Bass.
Shemin-Roth called her father a generous and hardworking man, who taught her family a strong sense of value.
At the 2015 ceremony, Obama said, “We are a nation, a people, who remember our heroes. “
But Obama added that Shemin was among those heroes who had been slighted before they could get the recognition they deserved.
“It takes our nation too long sometimes to say so,” Obama said. “We have to work as a nation to make sure that all our heroes’ stories are told.”
While overwhelmed with joy at the tribute from Obama, Shemin-Roth said the ceremony in Bayonne meant just as much.
“This ceremony naming a school after my father in his hometown means as much to me as when the president gave us his medal,” she said.
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