A RABBI IS MISSING
DAMN MY MEMORY! As time passes, it seems filled with torn borders and holes where things, people and events are swallowed in part and in whole, leaving faint remembrances of things that were and things that might have been Ö.. I canít always tell because I canít remember. Sometimes itís like islands in the morning fog. You canít always see them, but there's a hint sometimes of something behind the curtain of fog. And sometimes, the view and the memories are crystal clear, fresh as yesterday. So it is with some of my memories from Viet Nam. The most frustrating are those faint remembrances that have partially fallen through one of the holes in my bag of memories, still leaving ephemeral traces of what was ~ or who. I struggle so hard to find them again but never win the struggle.
Damn my memory.
So it is with this memory. Parts are still crystal clear and other parts ~ well, I donít really know but I visit them in my dreams, always trying to recapture what was or reconstruct what I think happened.
The company was bloodied and battered. We had many losses from death and wounds. We were pulled out of the area where we had so many losses and given a much safer role until we could rebuild. I suspected that the rebuilding meant a lot more than just getting replacements for the men who we lost. The time was just before the Jewish High Holy Days in 1967. This was, incidentally, immediately before the Tet offensive (1968) launched by the North Vietnamese Army. Every day, we ran into "action" of some sort. My company had been pretty badly chewed up in some of these daily engagements. We were pulled out of the more active areas and given what was considered as an "easy assignment" for a few days to let us recover and regroup. The assignment was to guard a road-clearing operation, which was to eliminate anti-tank mines so that an outpost could be reinforced if attacked. We had a Navy SeaBee person attached to the company, complete with hand-held mine sweeper. Every day, we would walk along with the mine sweeper as he found and cleared the road of mines. It was boring but quiet. Every day, we walked 20 kilometers along the road. Every day, we found mines in the road.
One of the men from the Navy team wore a Star of David. Since I had never met another Jew out in the field, I guess I felt a little drawn to him. (Capt) Dave Collins later told me there was another in the company but, hard as I try, I cannot remember him. Today, Iíll call the Navy guy "Cohn" but I donít remember his real name and he had no name tag on his uniform. I walked with him each day as he swept the road with the minesweeper. We talked. I don't remember the circumstances, but he told me he had no living parents or other living relatives of which he knew. Cohn was very much alone in the world. I don't even remember his hometown. I do remember that he was Jewish and very proud of it.
Towards the end of this assignment, something horrible happened. Cohn stepped on a mine. Somehow, his minesweeper didn't detect a small antipersonnel mine. It was what we called a "Bouncing Betty" mine. The mine popped up out of the road - about 3 feet off the ground - and exploded. Cohn was standing about one foot away from the burst. The fragmentation tore into Cohn's chest and abdomen, shredding his flesh and exposing parts of his chest cavity. I was walking on the other side of Cohn and wasn't hit - his body shielded me. But Cohn wasn't dead as he hit the ground.
There was no chance Cohn could live long enough for a Medivac chopper to reach us. We tried anyway. Before he died, he only was able to say one thing. He said, "Who will say Kaddish for me?" Kaddish is a prayer we say for those who have died. I think he was gone before he could have heard my response. I said, "I will, Cohn."
When I laid him gently back on the ground and stood up, my uniform was soaked with Cohn's blood. I was in shock. But I knew that if I lived, every year, during the High Holy Days, I would say Kaddish for Cohn. He would not be forgotten. I would carry his memory with me, always. And I do. Others have joined me in remembering him.
I asked to attend High Holy Day services that year. I think the brigade had a chaplain who stopped by to talk to me about it. There were no Rabbis in I Corps Ė only in Saigon. In checking, it became clear that, if I went to Rosh Hashanah and to Yom Kippur services, I would be gone from my company for about 2 weeks. That was too much, especially considering the trouble we had each day. I could NOT be gone that long. Captain Collins and the battalion commander both told me that, if I wanted to go, they would support it. But it was just too long away from the company when so much bad stuff and so many losses were happening.
So I stayed and Iím glad I did. Things happened and the company needed me there. But I resented the fact that there was only one Rabbi and he was so very far away. I began writing letters to every Congressman I could think of about this situation and the dearth of Rabbis in I Corps.
I wrote eight letters. I got seventeen responses. The Congressperson would write back and also send me a copy of his letter to someone else, demanding an investigation or action or both. One of the letters was from a Major General who was Chief of Chaplains Corps. He stated that a Rabbi had been located, inducted, and sent to Da Nang where he would conduct High Holy Day services ~ in a location close enough to me that I could attend without undue risk to my infantry company.
It was too good to be true. I was excited! If I was destined to die out in the field, at least I would be able to be a part of the holiest of days, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. I had so much to atone for by then.
But I never made it. NVA were increasingly present and active. Leaving the company even for a day was too risky in terms of the exposure the men might have while I was gone. So I stayed with the company.
Years later, I was giving a presentation to about 3,000 people in California. Many Rabbis were there. One of them came up to me after my presentation and the Q&A were over. He introduced himself as the Rabbi who came to Viet Nam at my request and never got to see me. It was good that we finally met.
Yes...a Rabbi was "missing" and I finally found him!
Lt Bert Landau