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Shabbos in Vietnam

May 9, 2009 | by

I was determined to take Saturdays off. My commander had other ideas.

While serving in Vietnam, Captain Hank Webb found himself in the midst of a battle; bullets whizzed so close to his head that one actually grazed his ear. At that moment he promised God that if he came out alive, he would take upon himself the observance of Shabbos. Webb relates:

Although I didn't know much about keeping Shabbos, I did know some basic rules that I had managed to pick up. I knew, for example, that writing, traveling, and talking on the phone were all forbidden. This provided some challenges, since my job at the headquarters office required me to do quite a bit of writing.

Generally, the men on base were given the day off on Sunday. They would go out to a nearby beach, grill hamburgers and play volleyball. I decided to request that I be given the day off on Saturday instead of Sunday. Of course, in the case of a firefight, or other military emergency, I would join the other men in the field, but at least when things were peaceful, I would be able to rest on Shabbos.

With this plan in mind, I approached my boss, Lieutenant Colonel Pride, nervously. Although he was a nice man and we got along well, he had no tolerance for someone who, he believed, was trying to "shirk duty." He was not interested in excuses and was outraged when he observed laziness in his men.

"Sir," I began, "I would like to make a request. I know that we all get a day off on Sunday, but for me, I'm Jewish... and Saturday is our day of rest. I want to take off on Saturdays, so that I can help with the Jewish services and avoid doing work, like writing, in the office. I will make up for it by working on Sundays instead.

"And of course, sir," I added quickly, "it is self-understood that in case of an attack on Saturday, you can be sure that I will be the first one in the field to help defend my sector of the perimeter."

If that Jew-boy could mow the lawn on Saturday, there's no reason why you can't work, too.

Pride looked at me with an amused smile. "Webb," he said in his deep Southern drawl, "I had a Jew-boy neighbor who lived next door, and he was Orthodox, mind you. Every Saturday, the two of us would mow the lawn together. So I figure, if that Orthodox Jew-boy could mow the lawn on Saturday, there's no reason why you can't come in and push a pencil on Saturday."

For a moment, I was speechless. How could I explain that his "Orthodox" neighbor was clearly not? However, I was not ready to give in. Before coming to speak to the colonel, I had done some research, and I had come across an army regulation stating that "All Sabbath-observing personnel shall be given time off, consistent with military exigencies."

Knowing my rights as a soldier, I proceeded to make the biggest mistake of my career and blurted out: "Sir, with all due respect to your rank, I think there's a higher authority than you.

No sooner had the words left my mouth, then the colonel's face turned red with rage. I had spoken disrespectfully. This was considered an insult and "insubordination" to a superior officer. The man was livid!

"Webb," he said in a barely controlled voice, as he gritted his teeth in anger, "the general will hear about this."

I trembled as I left his presence, as visions of a court martial and dishonorable discharge flashed through my mind. I could be thrown into jail, I realized. This could be the end of my military career.

My emotions were in turmoil as I prayed with the other men that Friday night. After services, I went directly to my hooch and soon fell into a restless sleep.

When I woke up on Shabbos morning, I had to make one of the most important decisions of my life. I could go to work as usual, or I could risk a court martial for "disobeying a lawful order of a superior officer" -- in a time of war! I felt that I was standing at a crossroads, and I didn't know which road to take. True, it was a time of war. But even so, there had been a lull for weeks, except for one major firefight. It was really a time of relative peace and quiet.

In the end, I resolutely decided to observe this Shabbos, come what may. At the time, I couldn't say from where that incredible resolve stemmed. In retrospect, I believe God gave me the special strength I needed. I became determined to stand firm and not yield to the wishes of the colonel.

"I came here to fight for freedom," I thought to myself, "including the freedom of religion. Well, I have rights, too, and shouldn't I be able to practice my own religion? If not, then what am I putting my life at risk for?"

Running the Show

A sense of peace washed over me, and I calmly walked to Shabbos morning services. As soon as the prayers were over, I decided to make myself scarce. I was in no mood for a confrontation, so I wanted to avoid any place where I might encounter Colonel Pride.

The base covered a very large area, and I began circling around the perimeter, away from where the barracks and buildings were situated. The grass at the edge of the perimeter was very high, even taller than a human being, and there I could walk undisturbed, hidden from view. Many booby traps and mines had been placed there to prevent the Viet Cong from entering the base. I had spent lots of time in the sector that I had to defend during enemy attacks, so I knew the precise areas where the traps had been laid. For someone who was not familiar with the area, it could be suicidal to walk around there. But since I knew the "safe" areas, it was the ideal place for me to hide. No one would dream of looking for me there.

After strolling around for a while, I took a Jewish Bible (Chumash) from the battalion chapel and went deep into the tall grass. No one could see me; I was safe. It was incredibly hot. I took off my shirt and stretched out on the ground. I opened the Chumash and began reading the English translation of the week's parsha. Suddenly, I came across a verse that shocked me to the core: "Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God."

I could not believe my eyes. How incredible that, of the entire Torah, this should be the verse that I found!

I read the verse again and clapped my hands with joy. "There is a Higher Authority," I exclaimed with excitement. Earlier, I had referred to the army regulation as the higher authority, but now, right before my eyes, I read: "...the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God."

It now became clear to me, more than ever, Who was really running the show. Forget Colonel Pride and the general! God was in command! This deep awareness took my breath away and made me feel confident that I had made the right choice.

The rabbi simply shook his head. "It's a matter of principle."

Suddenly, I recalled an incident of my youth. I was sitting beside my father in the front seat of the car during a heavy downpour. It seemed as though the skies had opened, allowing buckets of water to gush down. As my father drove down the street, he suddenly spotted our rabbi, Rabbi Aaron Kra. He was getting drenched to the bone as he walked through the rain. It was Friday night, and we knew that the Rabbi didn't drive on Shabbos.

My father pulled up next to him and rolled down his window. "Hey, you want a lift, Rabbi?" he asked.

"No, thank you," Rabbi Kra replied. "Good Shabbos."

"Oh, come on, you're dripping wet. Please, get into the car."

Rabbi Kra simply shook his head. "No, it's okay. Don't worry about it. It's a matter of principle."

I could not help but admire the man. He had not even considered my father's offer for a moment. I was amazed at his commitment to his faith and his willingness to put himself in such an unpleasant situation to avoid violating the laws of Shabbos.

Now, I could suddenly identify with Rabbi Kra. For me, it wasn't just a matter of getting wet. I had truly put my military career on the line on account of my beliefs. And the Chumash had assured me that I had acted correctly. God was on my side. And while I hoped to remain a loyal soldier in the U.S. Armed Forces, I was also determined to remain faithful to the true Commander-in-Chief...

Hand Grenade!

In the late afternoon, I finally began heading back to my hooch. I felt euphoric, as though I had just made some incredible, life-altering discovery. Nonetheless, I was not ready to face the colonel quite yet. I knew that he was mad at me and I wanted to stay out of his sight.

Trying to keep a low profile, I went quietly to bed and soon fell asleep. On Sunday morning, just as I was getting dressed, I suddenly heard my name on the loudspeaker. "Captain Webb, Captain Webb. Report immediately to battalion Headquarters. This is an emergency!"

I jumped up and ran for the door. Although I had my M16 rifle in my wall locker nearby, I was so startled by the unexpected announcement that I left it behind. I also had no time to strap my .45 caliber pistol around my waist. As I ran out of my hooch, I couldn't help wondering why I had been summoned if, as the announcer said, there was indeed an emergency. Why hadn't they called Colonel Pride or one of the other superior officers?

As I neared the building, it quickly became apparent that something unusual was indeed happening. About fifty or sixty men who worked in the building were standing anxiously outside.

"What's going on?" I asked breathlessly when I arrived at the scene.

"There's a soldier inside with a hand grenade!" I was told. "He's threatening to blow up the place. We all ran out, but he's still in there."

It was a dangerous situation, as I realized that if he were indeed to use the grenade, we could all be hurt or killed.

At this moment, I became acutely aware of the fact that I had run out of my hooch empty-handed. "Hey," I said to a soldier standing next to me, "let me borrow your weapon!"

"No, sir. It's mine," he replied.

In truth, the man was not trying to be disrespectful. In the army, every soldier is responsible for his or her own weapon. No one is ever obligated to part from his weapon -- not even when a superior officer demands it. I could not expect someone to give up his rifle and put himself in possible jeopardy just because I had failed to bring my own.

I had no choice but to enter the building unarmed. In retrospect, I realize that it was God's guiding hand that led me to leave my rifle behind. Who knows how the panic-stricken soldier would have reacted at the sight of a captain barging in with a weapon in his hands? He might have thrown the grenade the instant he saw me.

"Okay, I'm going in," I announced.

So, with no weapon to protect me, I walked into the building. I immediately spotted a young black private at the far end of a long hallway. He just stood there, holding something in his hand.

Despite my fear, I assumed an air of calmness and confidence. "Soldier, I'm not going to hurt you," I said soothingly. "Don't worry. No one's going to hurt you. Relax. I just want to talk with you."

I walked steadily down the hallway, maintaining constant eye contact with him. When I was standing within arm's reach, I asked in the same even tone of voice, "What's going on? What do you have in your hand?"

I closed my fingers tightly around the grenade, and saw his eyes wide with fear.

He looked at me hesitantly and then, as I slowly stretched my empty hands towards him, he dropped the grenade into the palm of my hand. Fortunately, the pin had not yet been pulled, so the timing mechanism inside was not activated. I closed my fingers tightly around it and looked up. The soldier's eyes were open wide in fear.

I put my hand gently on his shoulder, steered him into Colonel Pride's office, and sat him into the big chair behind the colonel's desk. "How about a cup of coffee?" I asked amiably.

The terrified soldier nodded meekly. I walked over to the coffee machine in the corner and poured some into a cup. I handed it to him.

"You don't have to tell me anything," I said, as he began sipping the coffee. "Whatever you say can be used against you in a court of law. But you must give me your name, rank, and serial number."

He quietly gave me the information, and I quickly jotted it down on a piece of paper. Then, as he continued sipping from his cup, I walked a few steps to the front door with the grenade and gave the anxious crowd the all-clear signal.

At that very moment, as I lifted my arm to the men in the yard, Major Carl Van Sickle, my superior officer, arrived from R&R in Tokyo. He watched in bewilderment as the soldiers began cheering excitedly when I appeared at the front door of the building.

I went back inside while the others explained the situation to him. Within several minutes, the Military Police arrived. They arrested the soldier and took a detailed report from me.

Puzzle Pieces

From the MPs, I learned the story behind the unusual turn of events. That morning, the private had gone to the Post Exchange, the commerce area on the base, where various merchandise is sold. He admired a wristwatch that was on display, and as he walked out with it, the Vietnamese girl behind the counter asked him to pay.

"But I already paid!" the private insisted.

An argument ensued and the Military Police were called. They arrested him and took him down to the police bunker. Claiming innocence, the young man was furious, and he yelled and cursed at the police in anger. In the confusion, there were apparently a few moments when he was not properly guarded. He somehow managed to get hold of a grenade in the MP bunker. Holding it in his hand, he escaped and then ran up the street to our battalion Headquarters.

But why was I the one to be called? After further investigation, the puzzle pieces started to fall into place.

The general, who was supposed to visit our unit, was detained and never showed up. Colonel Pride had been called away to attend to some matter. Major Carl Van Sickle was in Tokyo on R&R. Thus, through incredible Divine providence, all those outranking me were missing, and I was the senior captain and had become Acting Battalion Commander by default. Unarmed, I had confronted a disturbed, grenade-wielding private, and I had managed to diffuse the situation without causing injury to myself or other soldiers, or damage to the Headquarters building. I was the talk of the unit.

After this event, I no longer had any problem with observing Shabbos. I sensed that Major Van Sickle and others on the base viewed me as a hero. Colonel Pride, the man who had threatened to report me, said nothing at all. He never praised my actions, nor did he mention anything about Shabbos. The entire matter became a non-issue. He simply looked the other way and allowed me to do as I pleased without interference. I was able to continue spending time leading Shabbos services in the battalion chapel on Shabbos morning, and during the day, I either roamed around the base or went into my office to speak with my subordinates. I didn't write; I didn't travel in any vehicles; and I didn't use the phone. And, as promised, I came in to work every Sunday.

The men who worked for me at the adjutant's office wanted to send a report to higher headquarters, recommending that I receive a special medal for bravery. I discouraged them, though, insisting that I had just been doing my duty. Besides, with Shabbos observance no longer an issue, I felt that I had already been rewarded. My revelation on the day before the incident had been reinforced. God was in control, and He was taking care of me.

From "Loyal Soldier" - the story of Hank Webb. Published by Israel Bookshop.


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