10 min read
Three remarkable Jewish servicemen who displayed extraordinary bravery in battle.
From the earliest day of the American Republic, Jews have fought valiantly in the nation’s armed forces. Let’s remember these little-known heroes.
The tefillin (phylacteries) and siddur that Mordechai Sheftall’s father ordered for his bar mitzvah in Savannah, George in 1747 are the very first recorded mention of these Jewish religious items in the United States. Mordechai’s parents, Benjamin and Perla, had immigrated to the American Colonies from England (Benjamin grew up in Germany) in 1733, part of 40 Jewish families who moved to Georgia that year. Orthodox Jews, the Sheftalls helped found Mikveh Israel congregation; Benjamin served the nascent Jewish community as a kosher slaughterer.
Even though there were no local schools to educate children past the age of 11 in Savannah at a time, Mordechai became a successful businessman. He started off as a leather tanner, then built up a cattle business and a trading enterprise. He remained resolutely religious his entire life. With his wife Fannie, they kept strictly kosher and even held Jewish holiday services in their home when attendance at the local synagogue faltered. Mordechai served as Savannah’s mohel, performing circumcisions, and donated land to form Savannah’s first Jewish cemetery.
Mordechai worked tirelessly to create an independent United States of America. He joined a secretive group, the Union Society - dubbed the “Liberty Boys” - opposing British rule. They group stole British arms, built up a nascent weapons cache, and staged public stunts. One of these was tampering with British cannons in 1775 so that they couldn’t fire shots in celebration of King George III’s birthday that year.
When American patriots declared independence in 1776, Mordechai’s fellow “Liberty Boys” elected him the Chairman of Savannah’s Revolutionary Committee. (James Georgia’s Wright, Georgia’s Royal Governor, lamented that Savannah was now in the hands of “a Parcel of the Lowest People, chiefly carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, etc., with a Jew at their head.”) Mordechai became the Commissary General of the revolutionary troops in Georgia, charged with making sure that American rebel troops were supplied with guns, ammunition, uniforms, food and supplies. He gained the rank of Colonel, making him the highest ranked Jew during the Revolutionary War.
The needs of the rebel troops were overwhelming. Uniforms, horses, arms, ammunition, and food were all in desperately short supply. Mordechai bankrupted himself, liquidating all his capital, and then taking personal loans and going deep into debt, to make sure Georgia’s troops were adequately supplied.
In 1778, Mordechai - along with his 15-year-old son Sheftall Sheftall - fought in the First Battle of Savannah. Facing a rout, many of the rebel troops evaded capture by swimming across the Savannah River to safety. That was impossible for Mordechai’s son who didn’t know how to swim. Mordechai and his son remained in the city and were captured by the British, held prisoner first in cramped conditions on a ship then in a prison on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Taunted by the British for their Jewish faith, Mordechai was starved, threatened with violence unless he divulged American military secrets, and fed only pork, which he refused to eat. Throughout his ordeal, Mordechai refused to betray his fellow soldiers.
In 1780, Mordechai and his son were freed in a prisoner exchange. When the British finally retreated in 1781, they returned home to Savannah. Mordechai tried to build up his trading business once again, but never met with commercial success. He became a civil servant, working for the newly independent state of George he’d help forge. Mordechai threw himself into religious life and dedicated the rest of his years to helping build Savannah’s Jewish community.
The youngest of nine children, Benjamin Kaufman grew up in a hardscrabble Russian-Jewish immigrant family in a poor area of Brooklyn that was plagued with violence. “Unless you could fight in East New York in Brooklyn at that time, you just didn’t have a chance,” he later recalled.
A gifted sportsman, Kaufman gained a scholarship to Syracuse University, then dropped out to pursue a career in baseball. The entire Kaufman family was intensely grateful to the United States. They celebrated October 27, the anniversary their parents came from Russia, as a personal family holiday. “It’s not our duty to serve our country,” Kaufman later explained; “It’s our chance to pay back a little for the good things we have received.” When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Kaufman volunteered to fight.
He was assigned to the US Army’s most Jewish company, the 308th Regiment’s 77th Division “Company K”. Drawing most of its soldiers from New York, Company K was also known to have the most languages spoken amongst its ranks. Hoffman was soon promoted to Sergeant. Later on, he was offered chances to enter officer training, but always turned it down, choosing to remain with his beloved Company K comrades.
“We were very much attached to one another,” he later recalled; “I couldn’t think of leaving them and going to some other outfit.”
Facing antisemitism from other soldiers - including their commanding officer - Kaufman insisted on fighting hate with love. He found ways to perform kind acts for those who hated him because he was Jewish, “just to show you how wrong you are,” he later explained.
Kaufman’s first brush with heroism came in 1918 - and nearly led to him being court marshalled. Company K was defending the Aisne River in France when they came under a gas attack from German troops. As the battle raged, one of the dugouts that American troops were hiding in collapsed on top of a soldier, and Kaufman raced to dig him out. Finding that his gas mask was hindering his rescue search, Kaufman took it off - and was nearly blinded by an exploding gas shell. Nearly blind, Kaufman continued to fight until the evening, when a medic forced him to a first aid station. Later on, he stole a uniform and went back to fight - until he was promptly arrested for violating orders and not staying in the hospital.
Eventually Kaufman rejoined his troops, and in late September 1918, Company K was given a life-or-death order. Part of the 77th Division had become cut off from Allied troops in France’s dense Argonne Forest; they were under heavy fire, without supplies, and Company K was tasked with clearing a way through the forest so Allied soldiers could reach them. Company K’s commanding officers perished in the fighting, and Sgt. Benjamin Kaufman found himself the company’s ranking member. His number one task was to eliminate a German machine gun position which was preventing Allied troops’ passing.
On the morning of October 4, 1918, Kaufman assembled a group of soldiers to crawl through the forest undergrowth with him for half a mile, sneaking up on the German troops. As they got into striking distance, the German machine guns came alive. Kaufman was shot in his right arm and one by one, his comrades were also shot. Kaufman was the only soldier of the group remaining to fight.
In that moment, he thought of his pride in being a Jew and an American. “My country was in danger. My boys, the boys that were fighting with me, they were in danger.” He also thought of how the German troops he knew were “always antisemitic”.
Kaufman lobbed grenades at the German position with his left hand, then drew his gun (which was empty at that point) and charged the German position. Most of the soldiers fled, and Kaufman captured one prisoner, marching him back to Company K’s position, where Kaufman fainted from loss of blood. Kaufman was later awarded the US Medal of Honor - as well as the French Croix de Guerre and the Italian Croce di Guerra.
Back in the US, Kaufman married and built a family, and spoke out tirelessly against antisemitism. He led the Jewish War Veterans Association for decades. He died in 1981, at the age of 86, in New Jersey.
When Dr. Ben Salomon was drafted in 1940, his draft board might have been forgiven for doubting whether he’d make a fierce soldier: a bespectacled Jewish dentist from Milwaukee, Dr. Salomon had been practicing dentistry in Southern California.
In the 102nd Infantry Regiment, Dr. Salomon - now Private Salomon - distinguished himself in marksmanship. His commanding officer called him “the best all-around soldier” in the regiment. Two years later he was ordered to become an officer in the Dental Corps. Dr. Salomon tried to refuse, but his offer to remain a Private was denied. Soon, he was promoted to Second Lieutenant and transferred to work in a dental hospital in Hawaii.
In 1943, Dr. Salomon was attached to the 105th Infantry Regiment as the regimental dentist and went ashore on the island of Saipan with them. He longed to join his men in the thick of battle, and when the 2nd Battalion’s surgeon was wounded, Dr. Salomon volunteered to take his place. That decision would lead to his death.
The 2nd Battalion fought its way across the Nafutan Peninsula, encountering heavy resistance from Japanese troops. Dr. Salomon set up a makeshift aid station in a tent about 50 yards behind the front lines. The Americans were about to become the victims of a major suicide attack.
On July 6, 1944, Japan’s General Yoshitsugu Saito gathered all his remaining troops on the island - numbering well over 5,000 - a mile from the Americans’ position. “We will advance to attack the American forces and will all die an honorable death. Each man will kill ten Americans.”
Within minutes of the Japanese attack, wounded soldiers poured into Dr. Salomon’s tent. As he tried to save the lives of dozens of servicemen, a Japanese soldier burst into the tent and began bayoneting the wounded. Dr. Salomon shot him, then as more Japanese soldiers entered his first aid tent, Dr. Salomon clubbed, shot and bayoneted the invaders before returning to his lifesaving medical duties. More Japanese soldiers entered the tent, slipping under the canvas walls. Dr. Salomon shot one soldier, stabbed two, kicked the knife out of one soldier hand and head-butted another.
Racing out of the tent to assess the situation, Dr. Salomon saw that the Americans were losing ground. He ordered all the wounded soldiers who were able to do so to evacuate, grabbed a knife from one of the wounded Japanese men, and fended off more enemy troops until the wounded had made it away from the fighting. When a group of four American soldiers were killed while manning a machine gun, Dr. Salomon took over the gun, shooting at Japanese troops until he was killed.
Eventually, American troops secured Saipan, but at a staggering cost: the Battle of Saipan had an 83% casualty rate for American troops. When Dr. Salomon’s body was discovered, the bodies of 98 enemy troops lay in front of his position.
Ben Salomon was recommended for a Medal of Honor, but his case languished. At first, his honor was refused on the grounds that Dr. Salomon had been a medic. His case was brought up again and again through the years and each time, the Department of Defense refused to bestow this honor.
Finally, in 2002, Dr. Ben Salomon was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”