Men of Mordechai: Jewish Americans in the U.S. Armed Forces

Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

The U.S. Armed Forces draws recruits from all races, cultures, faiths, and socioeconomic status. Since the nation’s founding, Jewish immigrants and families have had a long tradition of military service in every American conflict since the French and Indian War. Many Jewish Americans participated in the home front as well conducting scientific research and strengthening U.S. industries. This month, as the National Archives highlights Jewish-American heritage, we look at a handful of prominent Jewish Americans who served in the Armed Forces and had a tremendous impact on our society. 

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress desperately needed cash to finance and equip the Continental Army. French loans and colonial fundraising were vital to the cause, and one particular financial broker, Haym Salomon, was instrumental in bringing those funds to North America. 

Born in Poland in 1740, Salomon immigrated to New York in 1775 and made a fortune in foreign trade and currency exchange. As revolutionary fervor rose in the colonies, he joined the Sons of Liberty and managed to escape British custody multiple times after being arrested as a spy. 

In 1781 he moved to Philadelphia and partnered with Robert Morris, the Superintendent of Finance. Together they were able to raise over $600,000 ($9 billion in 2017) for George Washington’s army and collaborated with French consuls to issue French loans with bills of exchange. 

Salomon’s most significant fundraising was during the Yorktown campaign, where Washington personally asked for Salomon to raise $20,000 to obtain the necessary arms and supplies for the final attack on the British. Salomon’s financing capabilities helped keep armies and the Continental Congress afloat during the Revolution. 

Jewish Americans fought with distinction and conspicuous gallantry in both world wars. However, religious prejudices were commonplace in the military, and in recent years, the Pentagon and various White House administrations have undergone a review of those Jewish American soldiers who might have been overlooked for their achievements due to their faith. 

Sgt. William Shemin was one such soldier. During the Second Battle of the Marne in August 1918, Shemin was a rifleman serving with the 47th Infantry Regiment when he left the cover of his trench and ran across no-man’s land. German troops fired on Shemin as he rescued some wounded soldiers and took command of his platoon to return fire on the enemy. For Shemin’s efforts that day he received the second-highest honor, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. In December 2011, a provision within the National Defense Authorization Act (titled the William Shemin Jewish World War I Veterans Act) posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Shemin. 

President Barack Obama, with Elsie Shemin-Roth and Ina Judith Bass, daughters of Army Sgt. William Shemin, reads the Medal of Honor Certificate and Citation in the Oval Office, prior to awarding the Medal of Honor posthumously to Sergeant Shemin for conspicuous gallantry during World War I, June 2, 2015. (National Archives Identifier 179022416)

World War II was of special significance to Jewish Americans. Many heard stories of Nazi persecution from family members in Europe and became personally motivated to enlist and help in the war effort. There was a significant rise in enlistments among Jewish Americans, and when stories of Nazi death camps killing Jewish people reached them, many requested overseas service. Many prominent Jewish Americans we know today served in World War II.

Mel Brooks underwent the Army Specialized Training Program and served as a combat engineer in the Battle of the Bulge with the 1104th Engineers Battalion. After the war, he achieved fame as a comedian, actor, and producer in Hollywood. 

Kirk Douglas served as a Naval officer handling communications on the submarine chaser PC-1139 in the Pacific Theater. Before joining the Navy, he was Issur Danielovitch and graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and changed his name before enlisting. 

Photo of Kirk Douglas from his Official Military Personnel File. (National Archives Identifier 299693)

Henry Kissinger served with the 84th Infantry Division and the 970th Counter Intelligence Corps in Germany, where he was responsible for interrogating POWs and denazification of his military district. He became a naturalized citizen during basic training and after the war engaged in U.S. foreign policy and became Secretary of State in 1973.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 6/17/1976. (National Archives Identifier 7064991)

Harvey Korman joined the U.S. Navy near the end of World War II. Following his discharge, he pursued an acting career and became a staple of comedy shows (including a long run on the Carol Burnett Show) and a frequent collaborator with Mel Brooks.

Harvey Korman from his Official Military Personnel File, ca. 1945. (National Archives Identifier 145764929)

Alexander Goode was a rabbi who joined as a chaplain Army lieutenant in 1942. On February 2 1943, while on board the Dorchester troop transport, a German submarine sank the ship. He and three other chaplains—George Fox, Clark Poling, and John Washington—helped move soldiers and sailors to safety by giving them life jackets and putting them on lifeboats. All four chaplains perished on the ship and were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart. Congress later created a special medal commemorating them, called the Four Chaplains’ Medal.

These are only a handful of the thousands of Jewish Americans who served in the United States Armed Forces over generations. Their commitments are continually being memorialized and, in many cases, reexamined in the wake of overcoming prejudices and recognizing the sacrifices made by many.

May is Jewish American Heritage Month. Visit the National Archives website for our resources and records. 

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