By Bill Simons
As November 11, 2021 – Veterans Day – draws closer, I find myself returning to a time-worn book, published 77 years ago. The National Jewish Welfare Board produced “Fighting for America: A Record of the Participation of Jewish Men and Women in the Armed Forces” during 1944 while the European war against Hitler and fanaticism in the Pacific still raged. Nearly 406,000 U.S. military personnel died during World War II, and Jewish-American military casualties are estimated at 38,338.
Despite its broken spine, “Fighting for America” remains well served by the wartime paper on which it was printed. I turn its pages reverently, keeping in mind the volume’s dedication to “young Americans of all faiths who are fighting side by side and making sacrifices in measures surpassing understanding, that America and the world might survive as the home of [the] free.”
The book reached me through the good services of a dear friend, Dr. Bernie Ulozas, longtime training specialist and researcher for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center. At a new housing development “model” home in metropolitan Las Vegas, Bernie spied a book apparently employed as a prop, meant to blend into the setting. “Immediately,” recalls Bernie, “I knew where this book belonged, and it was not in that model house where its value could never be found nor appreciated. Deciding the book’s true value, I made a simple decision to liberate it.”
“Fighting for America” provides text commentary on the World War II Jewish-American presence in the Army, Army Air Force, Marines, Merchant Marines, Coast Guard, Navy, Chaplains Corps and Medical Corps. The volume also includes a long, long honor roll, listing the names, ranks and hometowns of Jewish American military personnel who died in service and/or received decoration in 1944.
At my request, landsman Ira Cooperman, a retired Air Force intelligence officer and liaison to the National Security Agency, Vietnam veteran and former Los Angles Times reporter, provided a Jewish perspective on Veterans Day: “Most members of America’s Jewish community are unaware of the many sacrifices made by their fellow Jews in war. Since the Civil War, for example, more than two dozen Jewish men have been awarded the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military decoration for valor, many posthumously. Jewish leaders from Haym Solomon, a major financier of the American Revolution and a colleague of George Washington, to Admiral Jeremy Michael Boorda, who was chief of naval operations from 1994-1996, to General David Goldfein, chief of staff of United States Air Force from 2016-2020, have proudly served our nation’s military. While many Jews volunteered in our country’s earlier wars, more than 500,000 Jewish men and women served in World War II.” And as “Fighting for America” notes, “More than 50 percent of America’s rabbis volunteered to serve in the [WWII military] chaplaincy.”
Prompted by Bernie’s book and Ira’s words, I think of Shep, a Jewish-American veteran of the old Army Air Force. Toward the end of his long life, Shep participated in a one-day Honor Flight for World War II veterans to Washington, DC. Honor Flights match each veteran with a volunteer guardian. I volunteered through Honor Flight New England and was matched with Shep.
At 3 am on Sunday, November 1, 2015, Shep and I started our day in Peabody, MA. By 5 am, we were at the point of rendezvous, State Police Headquarters, Troop F, at Boston’s Logan Airport, along with about 70 other veterans and their guardians.
Following orientation, Honor Flight New England headed to Logan’s Southwest Airline terminal. From this point forward, all veterans, even those like Shep who still walked unimpaired, needed to use wheelchairs pushed by their guardians to maximize time. Suddenly large lines formed on both sides of the wheelchair convoy. Active-duty soldiers from Massachusetts’ Fort Devens, joined by ordinary travelers, lined the right and left sides of the veterans’ wheelchair route. Loud and sustained applause was accompanied by gentle pats on the back and respectful handshakes. A young soldier grasped Shep’s forearm, looked him in the eye and said, “Thank you for my freedom.”
In Washington, the veterans and their guardians visited a number of memorial sites. The vets viewed the sculpture of soldiers raising the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi amidst the fierce fighting at Iwo Jima. Located between the Washington and Lincoln monuments, the National World War II Memorial includes 56 granite pillars, one for each state and territory as well as the District of Columbia. At the Korean War Veterans Memorial, 19 large statues, depicting a squad on patrol, stand as testament to the dangerous mission of soldiers in harm’s way. In absolute quiet and reverential solemnity, the New England Honor Flight veterans witnessed the ritual changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Back at Thurgood Marshall Airport after a long day, the veterans sat near the boarding gate waiting for the flight back to Boston. Suddenly, swing music, the soundtrack of their youth, came through the overhead speakers, filling the area with its infectious beat. An attractive woman approached a 90-year old, one of the younger and spryer veterans. She held out her hand and he took it, standing up to dance with her. At first, his movements were somewhat stiff, but he trumped the calendar as they jitterbugged to the Andrews Sisters’ rendition of the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” They made quite a couple and every veteran kept time with them. Travelers scurrying in the corridor stopped in their tracks to join the lively gathering in this impromptu recreation of a World War II canteen.
About 11 pm, the Honor Flight landed in Boston. After the final roll call at the State Police Headquarters, the veterans were mustered out and headed home. Back in Peabody at around 12:30 am, Shep passed through his doorway, to which a mezuzah was affixed. My Dad was asleep within an hour.
Unlike World War II veterans who, appropriately, received a warm welcome home and generous benefits, too many veterans of America’s more recent wars have been met with shameful indifference, neglect and even scorn. On November 11, thank veterans of all faiths for their service.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.