Today is the first day of Chanukah, which celebrates the rededication of the Temple after a three-year revolt by the Maccabees against the Syrian Hellenists. It commemorates a military victory, of one tiny army over the might of the Greeks, one in which the Jewish people overcame seemingly insurmountable odds.
But today, we also commemorate another military event, the “date that will live in infamy,” the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The attack began early on Sunday morning and when done, left 2,402 dead and 1,282 wounded; 188 US aircraft were destroyed, and 21 ships sunk. The Pearl Harbor attack shocked America, and propelled our entry into World War II.
As Jews, we tend to view World War II through the lens of the Shoah and the war in Europe. But for America, especially early in the war, the focus was the Pacific. Pearl Harbor, located more than 3,000 miles from San Diego, on the southern coast of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, was not someplace Americans routinely thought about. Hawaii wasn’t even a state at the time.
But it roared into our consciousness that morning and I wanted to offer a Jewish perspective—so I went searching for words from someone serving at that time.
Twenty-three-year-old Ensign Nathan Asher, a junior officer, found himself at the helm of the USS Blue, a Navy destroyer at the time of the attack. When the Annapolis graduate learned that the battleship USS Utah had been torpedoed in the harbor, he came to the bridge. Billowing smoke greeted him. He ordered the crew of 155 to take the destroyer to the mouth of the harbor to protect the larger ships from Japanese submarines.
“We all felt it was a suicide mission. We were resigned to the fact that we would not survive a torpedo attack…I was more reacting than anything…I didn’t have time to feel any fear.”
He was not the only one.
Ensign Stanley Caplan, 26, was on another destroyer, the Aylwin, taking a shower. “I thought one of the other destroyers might have a fire. I ran from the shower to my room. On the way I passed a sailor, and I asked him what was going on. He said, ‘The Japanese are attacking.’ I thought he’d blown his stack. But when I got topside, the action was there to see.”
Caplan took the helm and headed to open sea. Reports say the ship shot down three to four Japanese aircraft and Caplan received the Silver Star for his efforts.
These are just two stories from that day. The following day, many young American men from all walks of life, Jewish ones included, enlisted. Along with them, were the rabbis would serve them.
Just one year earlier, when Congress passed the Selective Service Act, 17 rabbis held commissions in the Army and two in the Navy. Eight were disqualified from active duty; the other 11 would server during the war.
- Cerf Straus, was the first Navy chaplain to report in January 1941, and he and Army Rabbi Harry Richmond were stationed in Honolulu during the attack on Pearl Harbor. By the end of the war, when the first Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Morris Adler, entered Japan on Sept. 2, 1945 on the official day of surrender, it is estimated that half the eligible rabbis in the United States had asked to serve in the military chaplaincy. Of those who applied 422 received JWB endorsement —267 served in the Army, 43 in the Navy and one in the Maritime Service. Of these, 250 served overseas; 46 were decorated for bravery.
In all, more than 550,000 Jews served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. And I think I should mention, in memory of all those proud moms and dads out there who insisted on their sons becoming a Jewish doctor, that 60 percent of all Jewish physicians under age 45 wore a uniform. By the war’s end 1,000 American Jews who served were killed and 40,000 wounded. There were two recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, 157 received the Distinguished Service Medal and Crosses, which included Navy Crosses and 1,600 received the Silver Star.
There is a long line of Jewish military service and valor between the Maccabees’ time and Pearl Harbor. I work at JCC Association, which oversees the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council. I’m well aware that Jews bravely serve this country, often in very lonely places where they are the only one of their tribe stationed. And yet, they continue to serve, as Jews and Americans, with valor and distinction.
It seems only right, that as we light the Chanukiah today that we recall those who lost their lives in service to our country 74 years ago today.