By Jerry Alperstein
In 2006 shortly after Representative John Boehner became Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, he met with leaders from the major veterans service organizations. When a leader of the Jewish War Veterans introduced himself, Boehner said that he did not know there was a Jewish War Veterans. Most of the other veterans leaders – as though on cue – said in unison, quote, It’s the oldest veterans organization; unquote.
Boehner’s lack of knowledge of the Jewish War Veterans and of Jews in this country’s armed services was not unexpected. While the participation and importance of Jews in our country’s armed services are well-known and recognized within the veteran community, it is largely unknown and unrecognized within this country’s population at large; including within its Jewish community.
The truth is that Jews have been a part of this land’s military history since 1654, the year after they first arrived in our corner of the New World. When in the New Amsterdam colony, the Jews were charged an additional tax because they were barred from serving in the local militia, four Jews led by Asser Levy successfully appealed to the owner of the colony, the Dutch East India Company. They were allowed to serve, and Jews have been serving and giving their lives to our country ever since.
Asser Levy should be considered the first Jewish-American veteran. The Jewish War Veterans in 2006 led the successful effort to have Asser Levy Place co-named Jewish War Veterans of the USA Place.
Even though by the time of our revolution against England there were fewer than 3,000 Jews living in the 13 colonies, many served with distinction. The highest-ranking Jew in George Washington’s army was Lieutenant Colonel Solomon Bush. The highest ranking Jew was Colonel Mordechai Sheftall of the Georgia Militia. I had the honor in 2002 of playing Taps at the grave or Colonel Sheftall in Savannah, Georgia.
The name to remember for the early years of American Jewish military history is Levy. I already spoke of Asser Levy. We also should know about Simon Levy and Uriah Levy.
In 1802, Simon Levy was the bottom half of the first graduating class at the United States Military Academy at West Point. One can state with total accuracy that one half of the first graduating class at West Point was Jewish. Simon Levy died a few years later from natural causes.
The most important Jew in the early years of American-Jewish military history was Uriah Levy. This Levy served in the United States Navy for more than 50 years, seeing combat against the Barbary pirates and in the War of 1812 when he became a POW.
He rose through the ranks to commodore – admiral in today’s Navy – and was on station commanding the US Mediterranean Fleet when he died in 1862.
He is best known in the US Navy as the man most responsible for ending flogging as a punishment. Levy’s advancement in the Navy came in spite of anti-Semitism which included being court-martialed six times, being dismissed from the service twice and killing a fellow officer in a duel.
Outside the Navy, he and his family are best known for saving Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home. He purchased the run-down mansion in the 1830s and had it restored. After his death, his family donated it to the Federal Government. His mother is buried on the grounds.
In the Civil War, roughly 8,500 Jews fought. While most Jews on both sides fought in units with gentiles, there were two all-Jewish units; Company C of the 82nd Regiment of the Illinois Volunteers and the Perkins Rifles from Syracuse, New York. The Medal of Honor – this country’s highest military honor for valor – initially was created for this war. At least five Jews are known to have earned the medal. There were at least five Jews who rose to flag-officer rank in the Union Army.
Two noted Jewish Americans fought for the Confederacy. Dr. Simon Baruch – the school two blocks from here is named for him – was on the personal staff of Robert E. Lee. The noted sculptor Isaac Ezekiel was a cadet at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, when the Civil War started and soon thereafter joined the Confederate Army.
In the 1890s, a number of prominent Americans were falsely claiming that Jews were not patriotic because they did not fight in the Civil War. This prompted seven Jewish veterans of the Civil War to organize a meeting in Manhattan of other Jewish Civil War Veterans on March 15, 1896. They organized the Hebrew Union Veterans Association which later became the Jewish War Veterans; today the oldest veterans service organization in the United States.
Turning to the Spanish American War of 1898, did you know that the executive officer of the battleship USS Maine – that’s second in command of a US Navy ship – was a Jew? Lieutenant Commander Adolph Marix survived the explosion and eventually rose to the rank of vice admiral.
United States participation in World War I during 1917 and 1918 provided an expanded legacy for Jews in this country’s armed services. While Jews at that time were roughly three percent of the US population, more than five percent of the men in uniform were Jews. And the most common name in the US Army was not Smith or Jones. It was Cohen.
Many Jewish Americans distinguished themselves on the battlefield including recipients of the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross. The most famous of those recipients was Private Abraham Krotoshinsky of the Lost Battalion. The battalion was cut off and surrounded by German troops while allied commanders had lost track of the unit. It was Krotoshinsky who snuck through the German lines to save the Lost Battalion.
During World War II, approximately 550,000 Jews served in our country’s armed services.
I want to tell you about one of them who I knew through our membership in the Jewish War Veterans. His name was Irving. He lived near here. If you can picture in your mind a nebbish, that was Irving. Here is the short version of Irving’s war record. He was an original member of the 101st Airborne who went in behind the German lines in the hours before the Normandy invasion. He fought across France through the Battle of the Bulge; earning a fistful of medals. This nebbish was a warrior in the truest sense of the word.
The Jewish legacy in our country’s armed services is not only about heroes and flag officers. It is also about people like Irving – people one would never associate with being a warrior – who distinguished themselves when in the uniform of our country.
One Jew who is little remembered today for his valor during World War II was Navy Lieutenant Commander Leon Kintberger. He was commanding officer of the destroyer USS Hoel DD 533, one of the ships in the Battle off Samar – part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf – when a handful of destroyers took on the might of the Japanese battleship navy including the Yamato, saving the landings on Leyte. The Hoel and the other destroyers were sunk in the battle. Kintberger survived and some years later retired as a rear admiral.
One Jew whose valor is well remembered was Medal of Honor recipient Captain Ben Salomon. Even though he was a dentist, he volunteered for the infantry and distinguished himself in combat. A shortage of medical personnel forced the Army to transfer Salomon to the Medical Corps.
In the fighting on Saipan, the aid station he was running was being overrun by attacking Japanese troops. He manned a heavy machine gun, killing almost 100 attackers until he was mortally wounded; allowing the 40 patients at the aid station to be moved to safety.
During the Cold War, including Korean and Vietnam, and the wars since, Jews have continued to serve and to die.
The Jewish legacy in our country’s armed services also has an inevitable consequence. Since September 11, 2001, almost 60 Jews in all the armed services have died in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
One thing for the positive that has changed in recent years is Jews rising to the highest positions in the armed services. Two of the last three Air Force Chiefs of Staff – Norton Schwartz and David Goldfein – are Jews. A few years ago the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps was Robert Magnus, a Jew. That is the highest position in the Marine Corps that an aviator can achieve.
One Jew to keep an eye on is Vice Admiral Herman Shelanski, the Inspector General of the Navy. He went from one star to three stars in five years.
Unfortunately, one aspect of the Jewish legacy in the United States armed services that has continued since the days of Uriah Levy is anti-Semitism; but while it once was institutional – like when Levy was court-martialed six times – it now is relegated to the acts of individuals.
In recent years, three Jewish soldiers finally became Medal of Honor recipients decades after their service. They were World War I veteran William Shemin and Korean War veterans Leonard Kravitz and Tibor Rubin. On two different occasions Rubin was recommended for the medal; but an anti-Semitic sergeant both times neglected to fill out the required paperwork.
I have been asked whether I experienced any anti-Semitism during my two years in the Navy. My answer has been that I do not know. There are members of the armed services who pull rank on others of lower rank. One usually does not know why.
Over the last 363 years, Jews like all other Americans have served in the armed services of our country, including many who served with distinction. This record should not be a secret; especially within the Jewish community. Let’s spread the good word.
The author is a Stuyvesant Town resident and commander of the Jewish War Veterans Post 1. This article was originally shared as a speech given last Friday night at The Brotherhood Synagogue. It has been edited slightly for length.