This coming Monday is December 7, the date US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorably described as one "which will live in infamy" after the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a devastating surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941.
The outlines of the assault are well-known. The Japanese caused grave damage to the US Pacific Fleet, sinking four battleships, destroying 188 aircraft and killing 2,403 Americans, including 68 civilians. The following day, Congress declared war on Japan, and within a few days Nazi Germany and the US were officially at war too, marking a turning point in the global conflict.
But far less-known is the story of the numerous American Jewish soldiers who were stationed at Pearl Harbor, some of whom lost their lives in the brazen and pernicious assault while displaying great courage under fire.
This important chapter of 20th-century American Jewish history sheds light on the Jewish contribution to the defense of freedom and deserves to be rescued from obscurity.
Take, for example, the remarkable exploits of Commander Solomon Isquith, one of the highest-ranking Jewish servicemen on duty at Pearl Harbor. According to the National Museum of American Jewish Military History (NMAJMH), which is under the auspices of the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, Isquith was assigned as an engineering officer to the USS Utah, one of the first ships to come under attack by the Japanese.
Although orders had been issued to abandon ship, Isquith went to check that none of his fellow sailors were still on board. When the ship began to sink, he barely escaped with his life before going ashore. But then he and some of the other survivors "heard knocking sounds coming from within the sinking USS Utah," the NMAJMH website relates, adding, "Despite the Japanese planes still targeting the area, Isquith and other volunteers hurried back to the ship." They somehow succeeded in cutting through the Utah's steel, rescuing 10 American sailors from almost certain death. Incredibly, the vast majority of the ship's personnel, 460 out of 524 men, survived the attack.
As a result, Isquith received a Purple Heart and Navy Cross, the latter of which pays tribute to his "extraordinary courage and disregard of his own safety" while directing the abandonment of the damaged battleship "in such a cool and efficient manner that approximately 90% of the crew were saved." AND THEN there is the story of New Yorker Stanley Caplan, a young naval ensign who took command of the destroyer USS Aylwin. More than half of the crew happened to be on shore leave when the Japanese attack commenced, so Caplan was left to take charge, and that is exactly what he did.
Within minutes of the start of the assault, the Aylwin went into action, furiously firing at Japanese planes, downing four of them. Caplan then took the ship out to sea to hunt for Japanese submarines, dropping depth charges and destroying two of the enemy's underwater predators. Not surprisingly, Caplan received a commendation from the secretary of the Navy.
Sadly, there were also a number of Jews who died at Pearl Harbor, valiantly trying to stave off the Japanese.
One of them was a young private named Louis Schleifer, who hailed from Newark, New Jersey. According to the Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War Two, Schleifer was preparing to go to breakfast when he heard the attack begin. He put on his helmet, took his revolver and ran to the airfield to assist in moving some of the exposed American airplanes to safety inside hangars.
In the process of doing so, he saw Japanese aircraft strafing the runway, shooting at his comrades, so Schleifer drew his pistol and fired back at the planes until he was mortally wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for valor in the line of duty.
Another Jew who died that day was Sherman Levin, a young Chicagoan who loved sports and who volunteered to join the US Army right out of high school at the age of 17 in 1940. He was posted to Hickam Air Force Base on Oahu. He and four other US soldiers were caught out in the open as Japanese planes swirled overhead, one of which dropped an 800-pound bomb that killed them all as they were running back to their barracks.
His father, Meyer, a salesman, was seriously ill and tragically died the following year without ever learning what happened to his son.
At the time, many Americans paid tribute to the Jewish contribution to the war effort.
On June 30, 1942, US Sen. Charles L. McNary of Oregon attended a memorial service at the Jewish Center on New York's Upper West Side for Pvt. Louis Schleifer.
In his moving remarks, McNary said, "Jews have been fighting oppression and tyranny for centuries. They received their basic training in Egypt and became seasoned soldiers on the battlegrounds of Europe.
"Wherever tyranny threatens," he added, "wherever the rights of man are in danger of being destroyed, there you will find the Jew, joining forces with others willing to fight and die for freedom."
The attack on Pearl Harbor changed the course of history. It galvanized the American public into supporting the country's entry into World War Two, which turned the tide against Nazi expansionism and Japanese imperialism.
Among those who fought valiantly and gave their lives that day were a great many Jews. We owe it to them and to future generations to ensure that their memory and sacrifice are not forgotten.