American Jewish Heritage Month: Jewish Contributions to World War I

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By Larry Domnitch

Over two months after America’s entry into the war, American troops began arriving at France on June 26 1917. On October 21, the first Americans were in combat. For the next year, over two million American troops fighting alongside the Entente would help change the course of the war. Over fifty thousand American troops died on the battlefields of France.

Another forty -five thousand American troops were lost to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918.

Of the approximately 225,000 Jews who served in the US armed forces stateside and in Europe, 1,100 were cited for valor. Three Jewish soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

A few of those heroes are mentioned here.

On October 4th 1918, Sergeant Benjamin Kaufman of Company K of the 308th Infantry was separated from his platoon. With his right arm shattered by a bullet, Kaufman advanced upon the German line throwing grenades with his left hand while charging with an empty pistol. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On October 4th 1918, Sergeant Benjamin Kaufman of Company K of the 308th Infantry was separated from his platoon. With his right arm shattered by a bullet, Kaufman advanced upon the German line throwing grenades with his left hand while charging with an empty pistol. He silenced the machine gun crew and returned with the pistol and a captured surviving German soldier. He then fainted from loss of blood after revealing the position of the German lines which made it possible for the Americans to move forward. Kaufman received the Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre.

William Sawelson of the 312th Infantry on October 28, 1918, heard a wounded soldier nearby calling for water. He crawled through heavy enemy fire and gave from his own canteen. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

William Sawelson of the 312th Infantry on October 28, 1918, heard a wounded soldier nearby calling for water. He crawled through heavy enemy fire and gave from his own canteen. While returning to the wounded man with more provisions he was struck by a machine gun bullet and killed. The Medal of Honor on his behalf was presented to his father.

The companies of ‘The Lost Battalion’ of the 77th Division were given that title due to their isolation from allied forces during the allied push in the Meuse – Argonne offensive, as they unknowingly advanced without flank support. Consisting of about 554 troops, The Lost Battalion as the rest of the division were made up of a large percentage of immigrants from New York City. About forty percent of the battalion was Jewish. Despite being surrounded from October 2 to the 7th, they held their ground without provisions while sustaining very heavy losses, allowing for the arrival of reinforcements.

Among the heroes of the Lost Battalion was Private Jack Herschkowitz who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Herschkowitz along with another soldier while acting as a runner was attacked by a small party of Germans killing one before they were driven off. When night arrived, the two unknowingly crawled into the middle of a German camp. When discovered, they fled and Herschkowitz intentionally drew the fire towards himself in order to protect the officer. The next morning, he managed to deliver the intended message as per his mission.

Private Abraham Krotoshinsky also of the ‘Lost Battalion’ was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Photo Credit: nmajmh.org

Private Abraham Krotoshinsky also of the ‘Lost Battalion’ was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. At great peril, while other messengers on the same mission were shot down, he successfully passed a message which saved the remnants of the beleaguered battalion (by informing the US army of their situation and position). In his own words, “I got my orders and started. It was five o’clock in the morning on October 7th. I had to run about thirty feet in plain view of the Germans before I got into the forest. They saw me when I got up and fired everything they had at me. I could feel the bullets whistle around me but I didn’t get hit once. I guess it wasn’t “bashert” that I should get killed by the Germans.

Then I had to crawl right through their lines. They were looking for me everywhere. I just moved along on my stomach. In the direction I was told, keeping my eyes open for them. The brush was six feet high and often that saved me. Once a squadron of Germans passed right by my hiding place jabbing their bayonets into the thicket and swearing like the devil. One big fellow nearly stepped on my hand. He looked right into my eye. I thought I was finished at the time. But he never saw me.”

The 77th Infantry Division in its entirety consisted on about 28,000 officers and men under the command of General Robert Alexander, who wrote in his memoirs of the war that among the many ethnic groups in the division “There were large numbers of Hebrews.”The 77th sustained heavy losses as they engaged German forces helping to break the stalemate on the Western Front.

A senior Chaplin of the 77th Division was Rabbi Elkan Voorsanger. When the troops left the trenches to attack the Germans, Rabbi Voorsanger also went with them and he was highly decorated. Among his awards was the Purple Heart. In his words, “The Jewish men in this division were good soldiers, brave, fearless, and resourceful.

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