At the gym one day a few years back, Howard Leavitt started chatting with a Korean War veteran at a nearby locker. Leavitt told the man that he too had served in Korea, as a Marine, and he was aghast to hear the man respond, “I didn’t even know there were Jews in the Marine Corps.”
Leavitt decided that the time had come for him to serve his country (and his people) once again, this time by shedding light on the contributions Jews — Art Buchwald, Leon Uris and Hannah Senesh among them — have made to military history.
“There is little literature on Jews serving in the military,” he said. “I thought I could do it well enough to change people’s conceptions.”
“Tales of Valor,” set to come out this month from Xlibris, is Leavitt’s third book focused on the experiences of Jewish veterans.
“There’s a pride in being not just an American veteran, but a Jewish-American veteran,” said Leavitt, a retired high school teacher.
The book tells the stories of more than 40 Jews in the military through oral histories, interviews and the retelling of events by Leavitt. Along with its mainly American subjects are some Israeli, European and Canadian veterans.
“Most of the veterans in ‘Tales of Valor’ are cited because of their bravery and their decorations,” he said.
Take Ed Feldman, a doctor from Thousand Oaks, Calif. Feldman succeeded in “beating back the enemy” when his Army unit in Vietnam was endangered, Leavitt said. He is being considered for a Medal of Honor for his bravery and courage.
Also profiled in “Tales of Valor” is Major Sidney Goldstein, who described his surprise at being awarded a military medal. “There were so many casualties and confusion,” he said, “the matter of which medal was never discussed. In February 1945…. General George Marshall arrived in Italy and pinned three of us with the DSC. Then, I knew what a DSC was: the Distinguished Service Cross.” As a Jew, he said, he “was honored to receive the second-highest medal awarded in the United States.”
Now 74, Leavitt, who lives with his wife in Riverside, Calif., has always been interested in military history. As a boy, he would eagerly await the artifacts his uncle — Joe Shurdut, who served in the Army on the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1918 and 1919 — would send from overseas. These included “huge shell casings,” he said. As a youth, Leavitt read military books and delighted in the company of Marines, his brother among them.
Following the locker-room incident, Leavitt began work on what would become “Footsteps of David” (1st Books, 2001), which tells the stories of Jewish veterans in all services, focusing on how “Jews have played their part, at times with distinction, in the defense of their country.”
After news of the project caught wind, Leavitt’s phone kept ringing. Veterans from all of the American military’s branches wanted to share their stories. Although the first project took a lot of work, he said, he decided that the “overall experience was… meaningful.” And so he began working on “Semper Chai” (Xlibris, 2002), dedicated to some 200 Marines, medical personnel and chaplains who served mainly during World War II. It also touches upon Leavitt’s own wartime experiences .
“The title is a play on words of the Marine Corps motto, ‘Semper Fi,’” short for semper fidelis, which means “always faithful,” Leavitt said. “It just came to me like a bolt out of the blue.”
“There’s a nexus between all three books, a loose connection. The books are all about individuals,” Leavitt said, adding that the forthcoming book also looks to historic war heroes such as “Lou” Diamond and Harrold Weinberger.
Leavitt hopes word of his books will spread, not for his own glory but for that of his subjects’ contributions. “The purpose is to fill a void, a vacuum, and make as many people aware that Jews served their country,” he said. “We’ve made a contribution to the military, and it’s proportional.”
“People should know about it,” Leavitt said. “Hopefully it will spark an interest in some of our young people. We should be participating in the Armed Forces as we have in the past.”
Leavitt is kicking around the idea of a fourth book, about American Jews now in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I have a few great stories,” he said, about a few good men.
Deborah Gopstein is a freelance writer living in Binghamton, N.Y.
During quiet moments as the photographic officer of the Italy-based 485th Bomb Group of the Army Air Force, Sy Weinstein took what were to him snapshots. Today, however, these images serve as a visual record of World War II. His photographs— from bird’s-eye views to on-the-ground shots of wartime peasantry — are on view through mid-December at Manhattan’s Bnai Zion House, at 136 E. 39th St., in “Reconnaissance and Recollection: Military and Civilian Photographs From World War II.” Above: “Three different B-24 squadrons almost colliding during formation practice.”