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Jewish War Veterans salute local winners
of the Congressional Medal of Honor
By Donald H. Harrison
The Jewish War Veterans of San Diego honored three local Congressional Medal of Honor winners, who in turn listened attentively to a letter written by retired U.S. Army Col. Jack Jacobs, the nation's only living Congressional Medal of Honor winner who is Jewish.
The patriotic, interdenominational ceremony was held Thursday, June 13, on the eve of Flag Day, at the Veterans Memorial Center Museum, which once served as a chapel for Jews, Catholics and Protestants at the Navy's Balboa Medical Center.
The local honorees included a World War II veteran, retired Navy Lt. John William Finn who at 92 is the oldest Congressional Medal of Honor recipient still alive, and two veterans of the Vietnam War, retired Marine Maj. Robert Modrzejewski and retired Army Spec. 4th Class John P. Baca. Jacobs, one of 14 Jews known to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor from the Civil War through the present, had been invited to the ceremony, but had to decline because of a business engagement in London. The Vietnam War hero sent a letter to be read at the gathering by Abe Baum, a retired Army major who is a recipient of the nation's second-highest decoration -- the Distinguished Service Cross -- for bravery during World War II.
"The United States of America has been the most successful political experiment in history because we began with two great concepts: equality and freedom," Jacobs wrote.
"These precepts attracted those who suffered oppression and slavery and mistreatment in places that they called home. They attracted, among others, the Jews who, even as early as the birth of this nation, paid in money and blood to bring life to the flame of liberty.
"They -- and we -- were willing to pay this price because we know first-hand that there is nothing as horrid as oppression and nothing as lovely as equality and freedom."
While advising South Vietnamese troops, Jacobs suffered a head wound from Viet Cong fire during an engagement on March 9, 1968, in Kien Phong Province. Nevetheless, Jacobs, "with complete disregard for his safety, returned under intense fire to evacuate a seriously wounded advisor to the safety of a wooded area where he administered lifesaving first aid," according to his Medal of Honor citation.
"He then returned through heavy automatic weapons fire to evacuate the wounded company (2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division, Army of the Republic of Vietnam). Capt. (then 1st Lt.) Jacobs made repeated trips across the fire-swept open rice paddies, evacuating wounded and their weapons. On three separate occasions, Capt. Jacobs contacted and drove off Viet Cong squads who were searching for allied wounded and weapons, singlehandedly killing three and wounding several others.
"His gallant actions and extraordinary heroism saved the lives of one U.S. advisor and 13 allied soldiers. Through his effort the allied company was restored to an effective fighting unit. ... Capt. Jacobs, by his gallantry and bravery in action in the highest traditions of the military service, has reflected great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army."
According to an exhibit created by Ralph Leventhal, commander of JWV's Department of California, who attended the ceremony, other Jews to have won the Medal of Honor and the years of their heroism were: Benjamin Levy, 1862; David Urbansky, 1862-63; Leopold Karpeles, 1864; Abraham Cohn, 1864; Simon Suhler, 1868; Samuel Marguiles, 1915; Sydney Gumpertz, 1918; Benjamin Kaufman, 1918; William Sawelson, 1918; Ben. L. Salomon, 1944 (awarded posthumously earlier this year); Raymond Zussman, 1944; Isadore Jachman, 1945, and John Lee Levitow, 1969.
In the letter read to the affirmative head-nods of his fellow medal winners, Jacobs said: "If I have an enduring recollection of my time in combat, it is a combination of fear and love. There is nothing that fans the flame of fear more than the violence of combat and the expectation of imminent death, and there is no love like that for the buddies who share the hell of fighting and the exalted mission of defense.
"I believe that extraordinary events are shaped by ordinary people doing only what they believe is right. When circumstances are difficult, I think that all who lose liberty motivate themselves with the strength of Hillel's observation: OIf not you, who? If not now, when?² This is what arms people in combat, when fear is unquenchable, pain unbearable, sadness overwhelming."
Each of the three Medal of Honor winners at the ceremony could relate personally to Jacobs' observations. Finn won his medal for returning enemy fire during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. "Although painfully wounded many times, he continued to man this (50-caliber machine gun) and with telling effect throughout the enemy strafing and bombing attacks and with complete disregard for his personal safety," his citation said.
Modrzejewski, during the Vietnam War, also was wounded, yet "crawled 200 meters to provide critically needed ammunition to an exposed element of his command and was constantly present wherever the fighting was heaviest, despite numerous casualties, a dwindling supply of ammunition and the knowledge they were surrounded." Over and over he was able to call in air strikes at close range to repel the enemy.
Baca led his rifle team to assist a platoon that had come under fire. "As they prepared to engage the enemy, a fragmentation grenade was thrown into the midst of the patrol. Fully aware of the danger to his comrades, Sp4c Baca unhesitatingly, and with complete disregard for his own safety, covered the grenade with his steel helmet and fell on it as the grenade exploded, thereby absorbing the lethal fragments and concussion with his body..."
Rabbi Arthur Zuckerman of Congregation Beth Am, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, said prior to delivering the evening's invocation that he felt humbled to be in the presence of such men. International esteem for their bravery also was indicated by the presence at the ceremonies by approximately 30 Russian Jewish veterans of World War II and spouses, now living in San Diego.
There is a tradition in the military that no matter what the rank of a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, low or high, he is to be saluted, even by generals or admirals. In a remarkable ceremony arranged by Cmdr. Mort Vogelson of JWV's Harry Apelman San Diego Post 185, there were numerous stirring moments.
Watching the old heroes come to attention and place their hands over their hearts as a color guard unit from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot formally paraded the American flag was one such moment.
Another came after the ceremony, when musicians from the Marine Corps Brass Quintet from MCRD came to stiff attention and saluted the heroes, then filed by them, one by one, clearly glad for the privilege of shaking their hands.
© 2002, by San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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