Days of awe in the Pacific

On every front, from the South Pacific to Sicily, from the jungles of Panama to the icy slopes of Attu, from North Africa to Europe, 550,000 American Jews served in WWII, and were served by their chaplains during the High Holy Days.

World War 2 311 (photo credit: Fenichel family)
World War 2 311
(photo credit: Fenichel family)
 In the spring of 1943 a powerful illustration was displayed on the cover of the Baltimore Jewish Times. Entitled “Americans will always fight for liberty,” it depicted colonial American troops with muskets from 1778 and GIs marching in stride from 1943.
This same spirit is seen in this tribute penned by president Harry Truman at the conclusion of World War II.
“In common with all who fought and died for victory, the Jewish men and women of the armed forces were motivated by unity of purpose and animated by faith in the American way of life. The best monument to their memory would be the kind of world to justify their faith and their sacrifice.”
It is hard to imagine almost seven decades later, but almost 550,000 American Jews served in that war. Louis Kraft, the director of the Jewish Welfare Board’s war efforts, put the Jews’ participation in this perspective in 1943.
“On every front, from the South Pacific to the rugged hills of Sicily, from the jungles of Panama to the icy slopes of Attu, from the sands of North Africa to the European soil, on land, on the sea and in the air, many are fighting in the uniforms of American armed forces. Everywhere one finds among these military forces sons and daughters of American Jewish men and women.”
Since it was clear from contemporary reports, both local and national, that Jews were serving in every locale, it was essential to provide spiritual leaders for them; 311 Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis were in the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force in World War II. They were assigned where the largest numbers of Jewish men and women were stationed. But there was no way they could “cover” more than a half million Jewish troops in hundreds of locations.
The Jewish Welfare Board explained how this situation was rectified. “The lay leaders, through their initiative and enterprise, came to the fore. They kept the spark of Judaism aglow in faraway outposts and on naval vessels seldom reached by a chaplain.”
On this New Year of 5771, we return to survey the observance of the High Holy Days during World War II.
A composite letter from a soldier in 1943 might have read like this:
“We Jews are not deterred. Under oppressive heat, we sit closely together to express our Judaism on this Rosh Hashana with the tension of the war zone ever so close. Services were held throughout the Solomon Islands, New Georgia, Papua and Guadalcanal. At a few places there were Jewish Welfare Board prayer books. We moved close to each other so we could read the small print in Hebrew and English.
“The melodies reminded us of home. We had fought in the bowels of hell, but now there were some moments of calm. Together we recited the words ‘may we be inscribed for a good year in the book of life.’ Can you imagine, someone was leading the service, but he was not a chaplain.”
The American Hebrew weekly captured this feeling in a cover story appearing in November, several weeks after Rosh Hashana. The headline read: “In the remote corners of the globe, Jewish servicemen gathered to usher in the Rosh Hashana holidays.” There were two pictures to make the point. Behind a cane-thatched bima on Guadalcanal, Capt. Benjamin Fenichel, a physician from Newark and Philadelphia, was davening with all those assembled. In the other picture, Marine Capt. Sidney J. Altman was conducting the service in a “tented chapel” on “a tropical island in the Pacific.” Altman was identified as being from Brooklyn and Woodside, New York, and a “former athletic star,” a quarterback for NYU.
Thousands of American Jews were moved by these pictures since little was known about High Holy Day observance on the Pacific islands. The story of each of these noted individuals can now be told.
WHO WAS FENICHEL? This is how his niece Miriam Fenichel Carchman, of Newark, New Jersey, described him. “Uncle Ben was one of seven children. We lived in an almost Jewish neighborhood in Newark during the war... The article about Ben and his picture conducting High Holy Day services was on the front page of the newspaper, probably the Newark News, no longer being published.”
Carchman explained how the family felt about him. “Ben was our hero and we took a lot of pride in his achievements. He was a very caring person and when someone in the family took sick, he was involved. Even after the war, when he lived in Philadelphia, he was called when there was a health problem with a family member.”
Fenichel was born in Newark and graduated from Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia in 1935. He married Fannie Weiner and began his practice in Newark in the late 1930s. The oldest son, Dr. Robert Fenichel, has provided some details of how his father’s military career began.
“I remember well – I was six in early 1941 – my parents and I in our dining room in Newark, my father opening a letter and exclaiming: ‘Oh no! Mississippi!’ And I said or thought, ‘Who is Mrs. Sippi?’ Well, he went to Camp Shelby [in Hattiesberg, Mississippi] and my mother and I came down for two six-month stays, one at a converted dormitory and the second on a farm, coping as best we could. When he had free time, we traveled some – Natchez, New Orleans. When he shipped overseas, we came back to Philadelphia and coped as best we could.”
Statistics regarding Jewish physicians in the US armed forces in World War II are quite an eye-opener. The percentage of Jewish physicians in the service for all ages was 35 percent. Amazingly, for under 40 the percentage serving was 60%. American Jews fought – doctors even more so.
At Camp Shelby, Fenichel became a part of the 37th Division, an Ohio unit. When the troops went overseas in the middle of 1942, they were assigned to the Fiji Islands, where battles with Japanese were being waged. They trained on Guadalcanal after the Americans took the island; they were also on Bougainville. Then in July 1943 they were sent to New Georgia for active participation in the battle of Munda Point.
For working under fire in jungles near Munda, Fenichel received a bronze star. The citation read: “During the fierce battle for Munda, New Georgia, Captain Fenichel led the men of the medical section, stood with the infantry and tended the wounded.” A picture of him and his medical team, emerging from the fierce fighting has survived and it depicts them just after the battle. He is the only Jew in the group.
Several weeks later, in early September, the 37th Division was returned to Guadalcanal to recuperate. There were a few Jewish chaplains in the Pacific, but it is estimated that 60,000 Jews were fighting in army, navy and marine units in 1943 with the High Holy Days at hand. The Jewish Welfare Board Commission for Army and Navy Religious Activities announced in its September publication: “Supplies, including High Holy Day prayer books, talleisim, New Year greeting cards, shofarot and other ritual paraphernalia, were shipped months ago to every point in the world where the troops of US are stationed... word has reached us from the Pacific area that our supplies have been received – redistributed to cover all of the fighting fronts.” Guadalcanal had received its share.
Rosh Hashana was to begin on the eve of September 29. A committee of Jewish personnel did the planning; the Christian chaplains assisted in regard to the facilities, but the man of the hour was Capt. Benjamin Fenichel. He volunteered to lead the services. His family assumes that as a youngster in Newark, he had learned the chanting for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Deftly a thatched bima was prepared behind which Fenichel could make the davening meaningful for the 70 expected soldiers.
The family has preserved three pictures from Rosh Hashana on Guadalcanal. One is the same as the picture on the American Hebrew cover. The other two are most meaningful.
In one, Fenichel is praying with a great deal of intensity. The other provides us with a memory of what the High Holy Days were in the Pacific. Placing his tallit over his head, Fenichel sounded the shofar. “The sounds then,” a rabbi has noted, “extended throughout the world. They were of three score worth – sounds emitted by an American Jew – the sounds of the holiday – truly the sounds of freedom.”
RABBI DAVID CEDERBAUM captured the feelings about such a service in a review that he wrote at the end of the war.
“Everybody participated, everybody read, everybody sang and, for the most part, everybody knew in his heart or felt in his bones what being at a service together was all about – facing issues which were real.”
A few statistics might be helpful to put into perspective the amount of religious supplies for the Jews in the Pacific in 1943. One hundred and fifty tallitot were sent, 600 JWB prayer books, 100 Hebrew-English Bibles and 30 shofarot. How they were distributed is not clear. It can be legitimately stated that the blowing of the shofar by Fenichel on Guadalcanal may never have occurred again after 1943. Because of the seven-month battle for Guadalcanal in 1942 and 1943, that name was on the lips of Americans. At the end of October 1943 the first war movie from the Pacific, Guadalcanal Diary had its premiere and broke all records.
Fenichel’s second child, a daughter, Sandy Asher, was born while he was overseas. She is a noted writer, having published more than 60 books and plays. One of her children’s books won the Jewish Book of the Year award. These are the memories she has of her father.
“My father lived his Judaism and, I believe, loved it in his own quiet way. Being a girl in a traditional household, I wasn’t expected to share in much of it with him. In spite of that, I recall sitting beside him as a child – possibly for hours – in the men’s section during the High Holy Day services.”
She stressed that “I knew nothing about Hebrew, but I held a prayer book open in my hands and murmured along with the chanting all around me. I so loved being there with him. A second memory is of standing beside him as we lit the Hanukka candles each year and read together, ‘In the days of the Hasmoneans...’
“A third memory is our extended family’s Passover Seders. Daddy and Zayde, my maternal grandfather, read every word of the Conservative Haggada together. The rest of us, especially the youngest generation, did not pay rapt attention. But impressions were being made. To this day, no service, no Hanukka, no Seder goes by without those memories of my father.”
His son Robert has pointed to a most significant characteristic of his father. “There may not be many doctors like him any more – the walk-in office hours, the latenight house calls. How we hated when the calls came at two or three in the morning and he went out in any sort of weather to visit a sick patient, often a long drive. He kept on with the house calls even after two heart attacks. And he died with his boots on – at a house call far across town from home.”
When Fenichel died in July 1964 at 56, three obituaries appeared in the Philadelphia papers and another in The New York Times. All of them emphasized that he been a major in the army Medical Corps in World War II. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that “he was stricken while making a medical call.” He was truly a “hero” in the military service and in life.
Capt. Sidney J. Altman of the United States Marine Corps was the second officer on that noted American Hebrew cover. Altman was the commanding officer of Company E, 21st Regiment, Third Marine Division, “the fighting Third.” His regiment had been in numerous fierce battles on different islands. It also returned to Guadalcanal in September to recuperate, so there may have been several Rosh Hashana services on the island, one conducted by Altman and one by Fenichel. From Marine records, we do know that he was awarded a silver star for exemplary action performed on November 14, 1943, on the island of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Altman received a second silver star in 1944 for actions on Guam and two purple hearts.
Altman was born in Brooklyn in 1917 and lived in Woodside, New York, when he volunteered to enter the Marines. Why would a Jewish boy enlist in the Marines? Altman grew up in the 1930s in a New York where Jews could rise in stature as athletes. In high school, he became an outstanding quarterback and received a scholarship to study at NYU and play football. When he graduated in 1940, he worked as a coaching assistant in the New York City area. After Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for the Marines because of his deep patriotism. After his initial training, he was sent to the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, to be an assistant football coach. In 1942 he was assigned to a fighting unit and went to the Pacific.
IT SHOULD BE recalled that Jews made up 1 percent to 2% of the Marine Corps in World War II. In spite of their small numbers, Jews won all types of honors and were wounded at a much higher rate than their fellow marines.
What few people were aware of except his immediate family was that Altman had received very good religious training as a youth in Brooklyn. Some suggest that he had even been in a choir at one of the larger synagogues. Whatever the case, Altman knew how to daven and he knew how to lead a Seder. Moreover, in that first year in the Pacific his regiment was involved in numerous battles with the Japanese in which many marines were killed and wounded.
Altman perceived Rosh Hashana as a cathartic event in 1943. One day in early September a Protestant chaplain informed him and several other Jewish marines that supplies had arrived from the Jewish Welfare Board for the High Holy Days. Altman immediately volunteered to lead the services on “that tropical island in the Pacific.” A tent was prepared in the best way possible to make the atmosphere appropriate for these holiest of days.
In the picture in the American Hebrew, an eternal light is hanging over a small ark which may have had a paper Torah in it. Standing behind a bima, Altman is wearing a tallit and a pith helmet. About 40 men are attending the service, most wearing pith helmets but some with Marine Corps caps.
At the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, there is a picture of Altman conducting the Rosh Hashana service. He is thanking his men for their efforts so that they might all be inscribed in the Book of Life for the year to come.
Altman made the Marines his career and rose to the rank of full colonel. In the Korean War, he led the counterattack against the Chinese at the famous battle of the Hook in 1952. He retired after the Vietnam War and lived in the California area until his death in 1998. On the Web site of the museum, Altman has been designated an American Jewish military hero.
Capt. Elliot Davis was in one of the units which fought in the battle of Munda Point on New Georgia in July and August 1943. His unit remained to protect the airfield which the American forces built.
The description of the Rosh Hashana services at Munda began with this introduction. “In innumerable posts, camps, stations, bases, ships, the religious services are being performed by Jewish enlisted men and officers and by friendly non-Jewish chaplains with the assistance of the Jewish Welfare Board.”
The report by Davis has not been seen since 1943. “This is the story behind the most isolated Rosh Hashana in all the world. It is the story of a service prepared and nurtured by two Jews, who knew no Hebrew but were proud and aware of their Jewishness, and a Baptist chaplain from the hills of Kentucky who possessed an understanding heart and a will that knew no defeat....The story of our Rosh Hashana here seems a far cry from the suffering and slaughter that is the history of Munda.”
Davis explained that by the middle of September the Jews in the unit knew the holiday was going to fall soon, “but we were fighting a war with the Japs to remove them completely and it appeared the possibility of services was remote.”
Then the Baptist chaplain approached Davis. “I have been notified by the Jewish Welfare Board that they were sending a tallit, shofar, prayer books to me, as a division chaplain, since we have no Jewish chaplain attached here.” That motivated Davis and others who worked with him to send an announcement of the service.
He described the arrival for Rosh Hashana in this fashion. “By truck and jeep and boat, they came from all parts to attend the services until there were more than 125 soldiers, sailors, marines and others present.”
Davis captured the deep meaning of that Rosh Hashana for all present. “As the centuries-old hymns lilted through the air, there was a sudden hush that spread throughout the mess hall, where we had gathered, which was no longer a mess hall. To some it became that beautiful temple or synagogue at home with a choir or cantor singing from the soul. To others of us that mess hall was on hallowed ground where God-fearing men of all faiths had fought and died that our way of life might survive.
“I looked out of the building and in the distance was the serene blue Pacific separating us from our loved ones. To my right I saw the Munda airfield, the object of our recent operation in the South Pacific. Its white, coral runways sparkled in the sun as plane after plane took off from its glass-like smoothness. And as those planes soared into the heavens, I could not help but compare them with our soaring hopes for the new year.
“For the first time in years the horizon was beginning to clear. One could begin to see the outline of the future. Each to his own thoughts, but all confident in the eternal optimism of the few that the next year beckoned brightly. The service we had wasn’t Orthodox; it wasn’t even Reform; it was sincere and Jewish.”