Memorial Day: Remembering the Jewish Recipients of The Medal of Honor | Ron Benvenisti

Service personnel put their lives on the line to protect the American way of life and, in exchange, their countrymen would do their level best to perpetuate our democratic ideals. Since The Medal of Honor was instituted there have been 3,473 recipients; at least 17 American Jews have received the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions.

The Medal of Honor was created during the American Civil War and is the highest military decoration presented by the United States to a member of its armed forces. Recipients must distinguish themselves at the risk of their own life above and beyond the call of duty in action against an enemy of the United States. The medal is presented to the recipient by the President of the United States.

Civil War Until World War 1

Abraham Cohn: Army Sergeant Major

Battle of the Wilderness and Battle of the Crater, Virginia, May 6, 1864, and July 30, 1864

“During Battle of the Wilderness rallied and formed, under heavy fire, disorganized and fleeing troops of different regiments. At Petersburg, Va., … bravely and coolly carried orders to the advanced line under severe fire.”

Leopold Karpeles: Army Sergeant

Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia, May 6, 1864

“While color bearer, rallied the retreating troops and induced them to check the enemy’s advance”

Benjamin Levy: Army Private

Battle of Glendale, Virginia, Jun 30, 1862

Drummer boy, took the gun of a sick comrade and went into the fight, when the color bearers were shot down he carried the colors and saved them from capture.

David Orbansky: Army Private

Shiloh, Tennessee, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1862 and 1863

Gallantry in actions.

Simon Suhler: Army Private Arizona, Aug 1868 – October 1868

Enlisted under the name Charles Gardner; “Bravery in scouts and actions”

Samuel Gross: Marine Corps Private Fort Riviere, Haiti Nov 17, 1915

Also known as Samuel Marguiles; “was the second man to pass through the breach [in the fort’s walls] in the face of constant fire from the Cacos and, thereafter, for a 10-minute period, engaged the enemy in desperate hand-to-hand combat”.

World War I

More than 250,000 Jewish Americans served in the armed forces during the war with more than 3,000 killed in action and another 12,000 being gassed or wounded.

One hundred twenty-four people would eventually receive the Medal for their actions during the war, four of them were Jewish. One of them, William Sawelson, received it posthumously, when he was killed by a machine gun attempting to assist another injured soldier.

Sydney G. Gumpertz: Army First Sergeant

Bois-de-Forges, France Sep 29, 1918

“Gumpertz left the platoon of which he was in command and started with 2 other soldiers through a heavy barrage toward the machinegun nest. His 2 companions soon became casualties from bursting shells, but 1st Sgt. Gumpertz continued on alone in the face of direct fire from the machinegun, jumped into the nest and silenced the gun, capturing 9 of the crew.”

Benjamin Kaufman: Army First Sergeant, Forest of Argonne, France, Oct 4, 1918

“He took out a patrol for the purpose of attacking an enemy machinegun which had checked the advance of his company. Before reaching the gun, he became separated from his patrol and a machinegun bullet shattered his right arm. Without hesitation he advanced on the gun alone, throwing grenades with his left hand and charging with an empty pistol, taking one prisoner and scattering the crew, bringing the gun and prisoner back to the first-aid station.”

William Sawelson: Army Sergeant, Grand-Pre, France, Oct 26, 1918

“Hearing a wounded man in a shell hole some distance away calling for water, Sgt. Sawelson, upon his own initiative, left shelter and crawled through heavy machinegun fire to where the man lay, giving him what water he had in his canteen. He then went back to his own shell hole, obtained more water, and was returning to the wounded man when he was killed by a machinegun bullet.”

William Shemin: Army Sergeant, Vesle River, France, Aug 9, 1918

“Sergeant Shemin distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a Rifleman with G Company, 2d Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division, American Expeditionary Forces, in connection with combat operations against an armed enemy on the Vesle River, near Bazoches, France from August 7 to August 9, 1918. Sergeant Shemin left cover and crossed open space, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, to rescue the wounded. After Officers and Senior Noncommissioned Officers had become casualties, Sergeant Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until wounded on August 9. Sergeant Shemin’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness, above and beyond the call of duty, are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”

World War II

During World War II, 650,000 Jewish American men and women served in the armed forces. More than 50,000 American Jews received medals during the war including five Medals of Honor.

Among the recipients were three Jewish Americans, Isadore S. Jachman, Ben L. Salomon and Raymond Zussman who all received it posthumously.

Jachman and Salomon were both killed attempting to assist other fallen soldiers; Zussman’s medal was received for risking his life on September 12, 1944, but he was killed less than a month later before receiving it.

Isadore S. Jachman: Army Staff Sergeant, Flamierge, Belgium, Jan 4, 1945

“Left his place of cover and with total disregard for his own safety dashed across open ground through a hail of fire and seizing a bazooka from a fallen comrade advanced on the tanks, which concentrated their fire on him. Firing the weapon alone, he damaged one and forced both to retreat.”

Ben L. Salomon: Army Captain, Battle of Saipan, Mariana Islands, Jul 7, 1944

Held off advancing Japanese soldiers to protect the wounded he was treating.

Raymond Zussman: Army Second Lieutenant Noroy-le-Bourg, France, Sep 12, 1944

“Reconnoitered alone on foot far in advance of his remaining tank and the infantry … Fully exposed to fire from enemy positions only 50 yards distant, he stood by his tank directing its fire … Again, he walked before his tank, leading it against an enemy-held group of houses, machinegun and small arms fire kicking up dust at his feet. … Going on alone, he disappeared around a street corner. The fire of his carbine could be heard and in a few minutes he reappeared driving 30 prisoners before him.”

Korean War

On July 23, 1950, Tibor Rubin was serving as a rifleman in Korea when his unit was forced to retreat and he was ordered to stay behind and keep the road open for the withdrawing unit. During the 24-hour battle he single-handedly fought off an overwhelming number of North Korean troops, inflicting severe casualties on the attacking unit and assisted in the capture of many prisoners. A few months later Chinese forces staged a night-time assault on his unit and Rubin manned a machine gun allowing the unit to retreat southward, again inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking unit. During the battle he was severely wounded and was eventually captured by Chinese forces. Although the Chinese offered to release him early and return him to his native Hungary, he refused, remaining a prisoner and risking his life repeatedly by sneaking out at night to get food and medical supplies for other wounded prisoners.

A 1993 study commissioned by the United States Army to investigate racial discrimination in the awarding of medals. During the investigation it was determined that one Veteran American Jew and Holocaust survivor, Tibor Rubin, had been the subject of discrimination due to his religion and should have received the Medal of Honor.

In 2005, 55 years later, President George W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Rubin in a ceremony at the White House, for his actions in 1950 during the Korean War.

Leonard M. Kravitz: Army Private First Class, Yangpyong, South Korea, Mar 6, 1951

“On March 6 and 7, 1951, Kravitz’ unit’s positions at Yangpyong were overrun by the enemy. Kravitz voluntarily manned a machine-gun position, forcing the enemy to direct its efforts against him and helping his comrades to retreat at the cost of his own life.”

Tibor Rubin: Army Corporal, Republic of Korea, Jul 23, 1950 – April 20, 1953

During a 24-hour battle he slowed the advance of an assault of Chinese troops allowing other personnel with the 8th Cavalry Regiment to complete its withdrawal successfully. Although he was severely wounded in the battle and subsequently captured by Chinese forces he chose to remain in Chinese prison despite offers of an early release. While detained he risked his own safety by sneaking out at night and breaking into enemy food stores and gardens to find food for other soldiers and providing medical care to the sick and wounded prisoners.

Vietnam War

Jack H. Jacobs: Army, First Lieutenant, Kien Phong Province, Republic of Vietnam, Mar 9, 1968

Although seriously wounded and bleeding profusely, he assumed command and ordered a withdrawal. He then repeatedly returned through heavy fire, to rescue other wounded including the company commander and treated their wounds. On three occasions he repelled Viet Cong squads who were also searching for wounded American soldiers in the same area, killing three and wounding several others.

John Levitow: Air Force Airman First Class, Long Binh Army post, Republic of Vietnam, Feb 24, 1969

Although severely wounded himself from a mortar round, he moved another wounded crew member to safety. He then used his own body to smother and move a smoking flare from within the cargo compartment of the aircraft and threw it from the back of the plane as it separated and ignited in the air as it cleared the aircraft.

Afghanistan: Operation Freedom Sentinel (Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF))

Christopher Andrew Celiz: Army Sergeant First Class, Paktia Province, Afghanistan, Jul 12, 2018

Celiz placed himself directly between the cockpit and the enemy, ensuring the aircraft was able to depart. Upon the helicopter’s liftoff, Celiz was hit by enemy fire. Fully aware of his injury, but understanding the peril to the aircraft, Celiz motioned to the pilots to depart rather than remain to load him. His selfless actions saved the life of the evacuated partnered force member and almost certainly prevented further casualties among other members of his team and the aircrew. Celiz died as a result of his actions.

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