The journey of Allen Morganstern’s life has spanned continents and even a major war.
Allen was born on November 5, 1940, in St. Louis, located on the Mississippi River in the American Midwest.
Founded in 1764 by French fur traders, St. Louis grew into a significant port city by the 19th century. By 1880, the Jewish population in St. Louis had risen to 10,000.
Between the 1880s and the 1920s, two million Jews came to the United States from Eastern Europe. The Morganstern family came to St. Louis as part of this wave of immigrants. Though Allen is unsure of the year his mother, Marie, arrived, his father, Oscar, came to St. Louis in 1904.
Leaving Tsarist Russia
Morganstern’s parents departed the Russian Empire in a way different from other Jews at that time. “They came across the Alps,” he said. “I think they entered through Canada. Neither my father nor my mother came through Ellis Island.”
“They came across the Alps. I think they entered through Canada. Neither my father nor my mother came through Ellis Island.”Allen Morganstern
Though he evaded Tsarist military conscription, Morganstern’s father could not escape the draft upon America’s entry into World War I. Prior to his unit being sent to Europe, Oscar Morganstern contracted the Spanish flu, the influenza epidemic that ravaged the world from 1918-1920. He stayed in the US, and his illness allowed him to avoid the war’s final year of combat in 1918.
The Morganstern family eventually settled in the St. Louis suburb of University City. By the time of Allen’s birth, the Jewish presence in St. Louis had become well-established.
“There must have been 20 temples of the Reform, Orthodox, Conservative nature. It was not an insignificant population.”
Allen attended University City High School.
“You had a high school, where the quarterback was Jewish, the tight end was Jewish, the running back was Jewish. You didn’t have this [idea] that Jewish boys don’t play football.”
The Morganstern family kept kosher in their house and celebrated all of the Jewish holidays.
Morganstern also underwent a rigorous religious education. “I went to a reformed Sunday school. I went also to the Orthodox Hebrew school in preparation for a bar mitzvah. I went Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday after school every week. Come Saturday, I was expected to be at the Orthodox shul in the morning.”
Shortly before his bar mitzvah, the Morganstern family suffered a personal tragedy when Allen’s older sister, Elaine, died of ulcerative colitis.
When he entered college at St. Louis’s Washington University, Morganstern joined the Army ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) as a means of influencing his place in the draft, to which all American males were subject from 1940 to 1973.
“I was aware of the draft and chances are, I’m going to be drafted. If I have to go on active duty, I don’t want to go as a private.”
When Morganstern graduated from Washington University, he received his commission as a second lieutenant in the US Army but delayed active duty by going to law school.
Upon graduating in 1965, Morganstern now faced entering the escalated Vietnam War. “I delayed three years, I should have gone three years ago. Now, there’s 480,000 troops there. Back three years ago, there were 67,000.”
After a year serving as a civilian patent examiner in the Commerce Department in Washington, he went on active duty in 1966 and his three-year commitment as an officer began.
The Army assigned Allen as a JAG (Judge Advocate-General) officer in the Patent Division in the Pentagon. By that time, he had risen in rank from second lieutenant to captain.
He was sent to Vietnam in mid-1967. Allen said goodbye to his family at Lambert Airport, the main commercial hub in St. Louis. Upon his departure, his mother told him, “Just come back.”
After an initial assignment in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, the Army sent Allen to the enormous base of Long Binh, 20 miles outside Saigon, where 40,000 American troops were billeted.
Allen served as a defense attorney in death penalty cases. As part of his duties, Allen visited the locations where the crimes were committed, often forward operating bases on hilltops in combat zones.
“Those were prime targets of the Viet Cong. They would attack the perimeter wire and attempt to overrun the base.”
He discussed his survival tactics. “I’m going in and out of these places by helicopter otherwise I’m not going. I would try to get out of there by nightfall at every location I went to. You never went on a road in a jeep or any single vehicle. You needed more than one single vehicle’s firepower to fend off an attack.”
Allen described an additional precaution. “I slept in my clothes 365 days a year. Why? I’m not going to worry about putting on pants or socks or looking where my shoes are. Those are valuable seconds you’re losing to protect yourself.”
He saved men’s lives when he pulled them out of line to testify at murder trials. “I needed the four or five witnesses to be available to testify at the trial. I had the request to hold back from active combat duty these individuals. I go to the company commander and I say I need you to please withhold these individuals from combat.”
When the commander resisted, Allen told him: “Hold them back or kiss your career goodbye in Vietnam.”
By such gentle persuasion, he obtained the men’s withdrawal from combat duty.
Approximately 30,000 Jews served in the Vietnam conflict.
In the midst of his legal defense work, Allen grabbed his single opportunity to practice Judaism: a Passover seder. “[The Army] flew in a rabbi from Japan with the goods and matzah, and there [were] maybe 50 or 60 soldiers from the surrounding units.”
Allen observed the Vietnamese people around him. “The Vietnamese women who waited on US troops in the mess hall, I saw their reaction the first time they saw matzah. They didn’t know what it was. They see people eating like crackers. One of them took a bite and spit it out.”
That was his only Jewish observance in Vietnam. “There were not, where I was, regular Friday night services.”
Asked if he had experienced any antisemitism in Vietnam, Allen replied, “I would say no. I was the only Jew in the whole unit for a while, then Winston Block came, who was Jewish. Winnie was his nickname.”
Allen’s service became even more dangerous with the onset of the Tet Offensive on January 30, 1968. “I was in Long Binh. There was an initial attack by the Viet Cong along a long perimeter line. The massing of 1,500 troops was detected by helicopters that patrolled the perimeter. They were able to decimate the 1,500 or so Viet Cong. They had huge losses.”
Despite this defeat, the attacking Vietnamese troops achieved partial success. “The ammo dump at Long Binh was attacked and set afire as a further distraction to what was going on. A significant amount of ordinance was destroyed over a two-and-a-half day period.”
He took refuge in a bunker and did not fire his weapon during the fighting. Allen described the one time he did fire a weapon in Vietnam after Tet.
“I was part of a perimeter unit to protect the regular troops who were on the perimeter wire. I think it was up in Pleiku at night where I was provided a weapon. The weapon was a shotgun. They said, ‘You suspect anything out, you shoot.’”
Military life returned to normal after Tet. “The country died down from a standpoint of activity and combat.”
His tour of duty ended several days before his year in Vietnam had expired. “I came home in the middle of June .”
Allen received the Bronze Star, the fourth highest military commendation. “It’s for participating in ground operations against the Viet Cong [in] the Republic of South Vietnam. It was not for any particular incident.”
He left Vietnam the same way he came, by chartered private plane.
“I got a 30-day leave in St. Louis before reporting back to the Pentagon. I had three to four months of active duty left, so I just spent my time at the Pentagon looking for a job in New York. I felt the professional opportunity was better [there].”
The military discharged Allen in 1969.
He suffered the aftereffects of his service. “I did not realize for a number of years that I perhaps suffered from post-traumatic syndrome. I had the tendency to sleep in my clothing. I had a tendency to be afraid of dark environments because it would take me back to the jungle. I still to this day will not sit with my back to a front window. I need to have my back covered by sitting against the wall.”
He married his wife, Alice, in New York and set up a law firm on Long Island. At the age of 81, he continues to practice law.
“I am very fortunate and was very lucky. There were others who were not. I’m a lucky guy because it could have been a lot worse.” ■