Jewish in the Nam

The original text of an article I wrote which was later published in Vietnam Magazine.

No one knows precisely how many American Jews served in Vietnam, or how many died there. One Israeli journalist, Koby Segal, actually walked the length of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, counting “Jewish-sounding” names in an effort to find out.
I travelled the length and breadth of Israel, from the Lebanese border in the north down to the port city of Eilat on the Red Sea, to meet with Americans who served in Vietnam and later emigrated to Israel. I recorded their stories for my book, Saigon to Jerusalem: Conversations with Israel’s Vietnam Veterans (McFarland, 1992).
I spoke with nineteen vets about a wide range of issues, including their childhood experiences in the United States, their encounters with anti-Semitism, their time in Vietnam, the trauma of returning to “the World,” and their decisions to come settle in Israel. Most of the time, we talked about Vietnam�about the experience of arriving, the first time under fire, the medics, the racial tension, the drugs, the relations between officers and men, the so-called “Free World Forces,” the local Vietnamese, the fear, the atrocities, and the heroism.
. One of the subjects which came up repeatedly in the interviews was the question: was there a uniquely Jewish experience in the Vietnam war?
Most of the nineteen men I spoke to said that there was not.
Arthur Regev, a former officer in the combat engineers and today a musician, told me that “nobody asked what religion I was. It was on my dogtags, so they knew how to bury me.” Jerusalem tour guide Ronnie Cohen, who was a LRRP with the 101st Airborne, told me: “I never went around asking people who was Jewish and who wasn’t Jewish. It wasn’t important to me.” Be’er Sheva pathologist Dr. Jed Goldstein, a field surgeon, was too busy to have had a “Jewish experience”�”there just wasn’t time for that sort of thing,” he said.
Nevertheless, a number of the Jewish veterans I spoke with did recall some of the Jewish holidays and even the June, 1967 Six Day War in which Israel swiftly defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
“We were in Vietnam when the Six Day War broke out,” recounted journalist William Northrop, a Special Forces officer who was wounded at Lang Vei in 1968. “We didn’t hear anything. All we knew was what the Arabs were saying. The Israelis were quiet; they weren’t bragging about anything. I remember listening to Armed Forces radio. There was nothing coming out of Israel.
“Hell, all of a sudden, three, four days later, the Jews were sitting on the [Suez] canal. I mean, it was over. I thought it sure would be nice to win a war in six days.”
Kibbutz member Dov Ben Galil, who was based in Thailand working in Military Intelligence, recalls that “the little bit of news that we had, we got from Hanoi. And they had Israel being massacred on the first day of the war.”
He remembered reading a report in the Stars and Stripes that in Japan, “loads of American soldiers were walking around with jackets saying `5-10-5′ written on the back�and in Japanese that’s pronounced `Go Jew Go.'” American soldiers joked about “How the hell can we get our generals to wear eyepatches? Maybe then we’d get the hell out of Vietnam.”
For American soldiers bogged down in a long guerrilla war, the image of Israel swiftly routing its Arab enemies was impressive indeed. For some of the veterans, this was the time when the idea of aliyah (emigration to Israel) first crossed their minds.
For some of the Jewish soldiers, their year in Vietnam was the first time in their lives that they did not observe some of the most important holidays, including the fast on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.
Arthur Regev wrote to his father in the States, telling him that he did manage to fast. But his father wrote back to tell him that the date he had given was not the Jewish holiday. “But no one else knew,” said Regev, “so it was fine.”
Cable splicing specialist Michael Chai, today a kibbutz member, ate meals on Yom Kippur for the first time in his life during his tour in Vietnam. “There was work to be done,” he explained, “and I just figured — nothing’s gonna happen.”
History teacher Jack Pastor was an officer with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, and remembered being called in by his company commander just before the Jewish high holy days. He asked whether another Jewish soldier was justified in asking to go into Long Binh for religious services. “It really is the holiest day for Jews,” Pastor explained. “Well, we don’t get off for Christmas,” the company commander replied.
“Which is not true,” Pastor recalled. “The whole fucking war stopped for Christmas. . . . The next day, Yom Kippur day, was the only Yom Kippur in my life I ever ate.”
Samuel Hilburg was a “tunnel rat” for the 26th Marines until he was wounded and medevaced out of Vietnam. Today he lives in a small Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied Gaza strip. Like most Jewish Vietnam veterans, he never attended religious services and had no memory of the various Jewish holidays during his tour of duty. Except for Channukah, the festival of light.
“The guys in my platoon lit a channukiah for me,” he recounted, referring to the candle holder Jews use on that holiday. “The knew I had a holiday some time around Christmas. Around Channukah time we were around some village. So the first night they lit up one building in the village. And the second night, they lit up two. And the eighth night, we burned down the village.”
Several of Israel’s Vietnam veterans managed to survive their year in Vietnam as religious Jews, keeping kosher and celebrating the holidays. For Lewis Alster, who served as a clerk in the headquarters of U.S. Army Vietnam, it was not difficult.
“I would eat in my room; I’d eat alone,” he recalled. “I had a hotplate and I would put the can [of kosher food] on the hotplate and let it boil. I was able to attend shabbat services because I was off every shabbat. Services were held at Long Binh.”
Kuzriel Meir was a medical officer with Special Forces, and served far from the comforts of a giant base like Long Binh. Nevertheless, he too managed to keep kosher and to follow proper religious observance in Vietnam. “When I lived in the field, I [ritually] slaughtered chickens and I ate fish and rice, for the most part.” He even managed to carry around a bottle of kosher wine, an essential component of festive meals. Today, a resident of Kiryat Arba, a West Bank settlement, he is a qualified Jewish ritual slaughterer, a shochat.
Chaplain’s assistant Israel Hartman, today a member of a religious kibbutz in the north of Israel, had the most intensely “Jewish experience” of any of the veterans I met. In Vietnam, he worked out of Long Binh, serving not only the Jewish chaplain, but the Christian chaplains as well. He ran the kosher kitchen, travelled with the rabbi to firebases, and organized the annual Passover seder, perhaps the one time every year when hundreds of Jewish soldiers from throughout Vietnam came together in one place. He even helped organize a number of religious retreats for the Jewish men where there would be lectures and an opportunity to relax and even swim. His office put out a monthly journal for the Jewish soldiers. The copy Hartman showed me included a message from General Creighton Abrams, then commanding U.S. forces in Vietnam, to Jewish soldiers on the subject of Passover.
But Vietnam was not only kosher kitchens and Jewish holidays for these men. About half the veterans I interviewed were wounded during their tour, and a number were highly decorated combat vets. Jewish soldiers took their positions side by side with non-Jews in the dirty job of fighting the Vietnam war.
William Northrop remembered cross-border missions into Laos. “We didn’t hump any 40 pound rucksacks. We went through the jungle real quietly and slowly. Mostly I moved at night. There was an artillery regiment of gooners that moved in to the Co Rock. We would just infiltrate in, set up MA’s�mechanical ambushes, booby traps�or call down strikes on them. Claymores, grenades, anything we could lay our hands on. I used to do a real cute trick with decord. We’d make life generally exciting for them.”
Northrop’s team would sneak up on fresh North Vietnamese troops just coming in off the Ho Chi Minh trail. “We used to come right up and jump into the trench with them, with a shotgun and at night. I had a wonderful shotgun. Somebody in the Baltimore Police Department sent us a whole bunch. You shoot a shotgun at night, and it throws a flame like that. We’d paint ourselves up real pretty, with war paint. We’d crawl up on them, and half of them would be asleep, the other half’d be sort of nervous, chatting real quietly to one another. And all of a sudden you jump out of the darkness�my friend, you were the bogey man! And when you got through firing the first round, there was nothing in the bottom of that trench but shit and tennis shoes. I mean, everybody else was headed back home.”
Jack Pastor recalls the disastrous situation he found in his unit when he took over. “Unbelievable things were happening. Men would sit around, facing each other and talking while they were in the jungle. I made them spread out, get down, face out. An Israeli soldier would laugh at this.”
“At first, my platoon sergeant thought I must be nuts,” Pastor recounted. “I used to hit him with all sorts of tactics. . . . I was doing it by the book. And when he left Vietnam after being my platoon sergeant, he came in dead drunk and said, `You know, sir, you really had your shit together.'”
Ronnie Cohen wanted to be the best soldier he could be�because he wanted to come home alive. “When I went on patrol in the morning, I wouldn’t put on Aqua Velva. I wouldn’t brush my teeth. That’s how they find you. You walk in the boonies and everyone smells like Colgate. . . Sometimes a guy that was on R & R would buy a bunch of girdles for the guys. A lot of times you’d be laying out in the swamps at night, and you’d wear a girdle so you won’t get leeches up your ass or on the tip of your dick.”
Jeffery Gunsburg, today a military historian living in Eilat, walked point with the First Air Cavalry in Vietnam until he was wounded. “Once we did an ambush on a trail and blew away a bunch of North Vietnamese who came down the trail singing, with lights on. And we thought that was very funny at the time. They obviously thought that they were in Cambodia. But it occurs to me now, in retrospect, that they may have been right. We may have been in Cambodia.”
In the course of interviewing the veterans and writing the book, I was contacted by the central archive of the Israel Defense Forces. We are preparing a book, they told me, which will highlight the participation of Jewish soldiers in the armies of many countries over the last several hundred years. Our goal is to help destroy the myth that Jews don’t fight.
They knew that Jews had fought in America’s wars, and had collected material about the Jewish veterans of World War II, for example. But, they asked me, were there Jews in Vietnam too?