It’s July 4th, and that always puts me in mind of my relatives who fought and died for our country. I was named after my mother’s favorite cousin, Melvin Levine, a captain in the Army Air Corps (no Air Force then). He was a devastatingly handsome bandleader in college, but became the co-pilot of a B-25 bomber, downed in a lightning storm in a training exercise in 1943. On the wall I can see, from here at my desk, a certificate of land bought in his memory by our grandparents—a fifth of a dunam (about 200 square meters) in “Soldiers Village,” a war veterans’ settlement in what was then Palestine.
My much older uncles Dave Pechenik and Herman Adelstein (photo) were heroes of a different war. They were about as old as the century, and not yet eighteen when they fought for the country they loved; as they aged they only loved it more. Dave used to tell how his commanding officer called the men together and asked, “Which one of you knows anything about chemistry?” No hands. “Okay, Pechenik, you’re the Gas NCO.”
“Gas NCO!” Dave exclaimed to me six decades later. “I didn’t even know what a chemistry set was! But I had a Yiddishe kup…”—a Jewish head. He’d been brought to the States as an immigrant babe-in-arms, and now he was back in Europe fighting for his new country. Poison gas was used in that war, and for the rest of his time in France it was his job to investigate unexploded shells for mustard gas. Once he was crawling through a tunnel to find one and a regular shell hit, giving Dave’s Yiddishe kup a heck of a zetz, and Dave a Purple Heart.
Herman, his brother-in-law, brother-in-arms, and best friend didn’t like to talk about the war. He was a huge man with fingers as big as most thumbs, and he was as gentle and good-humored as he was big. I’d ask for a war story and he’d tell me the old one about yelling across no-man’s land, “Menschen, kommn-zi hir, mir darfn a minyan!”—“People, come on over, we need a minyan!”—a quorum for a prayer service. (British and German troops actually celebrated together during the Christmas Truce of 1914, so I’ve never been a hundred percent sure that the minyan story was just a joke. There were plenty of Jews on both sides.)
But here’s the real story. Herman was a plumber’s apprentice in 1915, when he lied about his age (he was an outsize 15) to join up. He went with “Blackjack” Pershing to chase Pancho Villa, who was raiding into the U.S. along the Mexican border. By the time America entered the Great War, he was already an artillery sergeant and an Expert Gunner, and he led an artillery unit in the Fourth Division as it hammered its way across France. The war over, he and Dave came home more or less intact, and both became active in the Jewish War Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
One day in the ‘70s, his wife, my Aunt Anne, found this battlefield citation as she organized old papers in their condo in Lauderhill, Florida:
“Sergeant Herman D. Adelstein distinguished himself in October 1918 while serving with Battery C, 16th Field Artillery, Bois de Breuilles, France. Although enemy machine gun bullets were flying around his gun constantly and shells were landing in the immediate vicinity he bravely volunteered to help straighten out the ammunition. When the barrage started he served the piece as gunner and although several men of the platoon were wounded during firing, he continued to perform his duties so effectively and laid on all data so correctly that several direct hits were made on the enemy. His gallantry in this instance was very conspicuous, and helped the battery to destroy the enemy machine gun nest and artillery.” It was signed by General John Hershey.
Now, machine guns were the great weapon of World War I. The reason whole armies sat in trenches facing each other for years was that if troops tried to advance they were mowed down by machine-gun fire. So the name of the game was knocking out machine-gun nests, usually with artillery. Herman helped enable an American infantry advance.
“Herman,” said my aunt, holding the yellowed piece of paper, “You should’ve got a medal for this!” I can almost hear his laconic voice in the answer I learned of later: “Yeah, I was supposed to, but they never got around to it.”
Anne decided they would get around to it now. She wrote to her Congressman, who duly forwarded her request to someone at the Pentagon, who duly passed it on to someone else, and so on. I read the correspondence in their scrapbook. Nobody said, Hey lady, you’re asking about a medal for something that happened sixty years ago! They just answered her in polite bureaucratese, and passed it on.
Herman was still active in the JWV and VFW until he died, and just then he and Dave were working toward getting a new VA hospital built in that part of Florida. So it didn’t seem strange that they were expected at an event where Senator Richard Stone of Florida was going to speak about the proposed hospital. Herman, an active member, was seated in the front row when the Senator took the podium.
“The wheels of the bureaucracy sometimes turn slowly,” he intoned, “but they keep on turning. Sergeant Herman Adelstein, front and center!” Herman made his slow way up the stage and the Senator pinned to his chest America’s second highest combat medal, the Silver Star, for gallantry in action in a French wood fifty-eight years earlier.
I was reminded of all this recently when my wife and I visited with Herman’s son and daughter-in-law, Stan and Elaine, after don’t-ask-me-how-many years. (“Too long,” Elaine said when she welcomed us.) Stan had been a Navy man trained to repair ships under water at the end of the World War II, but he revered his father and keeps a kind of shrine to him in his den. He sent me copies of the photo, the citation, and the correspondence. The Silver Star is on their wall, and will be passed to their children and grandchildren. I hope they understand as we do what their great-grandfather did.
It’s because Herman Adelstein stayed with his artillery piece among exploding shells and wounded friends, and Dave Pechenik crawled, shell-shocked, through tunnels to sniff out mustard gas, and Melvin Levine took his seat in a doomed B-25, and all the Americans like them yesterday and today serve in sad, bad places all over the world, that I am able to sit here in a comfortable house in Atlanta and write this story.
And don’t think for a minute that I am not grateful.