By Rabbi Shalom Lamm and Mr. Stephen Lamar
When the dreaded telegram arrived, Harry Cordova knew exactly what it meant and what he had to do. His older brother – Corporal Sam Cordova – was stationed in the Philippines and, shortly after the Japanese attacks on American territories during December 1941, the war news was bleak. Neither of his parents was able to read English so it was up to Harry to translate the terrible news that Sam had been killed during the recent Japanese bombardment of Corregidor Island.
Both saddened by and proud of his brother’s sacrifice and motivated by the same passion and sense of service that led several of his other brothers to enlist, Harry joined the effort to defeat tyranny. Harry also served in the Philippines during World War II and even had the chance to visit his brother’s temporary grave – marked by a cross even though Sam, Harry, and their entire family were Jews.
For decades, Harry wondered why his brother was not buried under a Magen David, and it was not until December 29, 2020 – 79 years to the day after Corporate Cordova was killed – that Harry was finally able to see his brother’s grave marked with the proper emblem of their faith. In an emotional ceremony that Harry attended virtually a few months before he himself died just before his 100th birthday, Operation Benjamin and the American Battle Monuments Commission changed the headstone from a Latin Cross to a Star of David.
During World War II, fallen US servicemen and servicewomen who were buried overseas were interred under a Latin Cross or a Star of David. A Latin Cross – reflecting a soldier’s preference or simply acting as a default when there was insufficient information – was the grave marker in most cases. Many fallen US Jewish soldiers were buried under Stars of David but a significant number – either because those soldiers were shielding their faith from anti-Semitic forces or because of mistakes through the fog of war – were buried under the Latin Cross.
Operation Benjamin was created to find those Jews who were mistakenly buried under a Latin Cross and see that they are buried under a Star of David, reflecting the faith under which these heroes lived, fought, and died. What began as a curiosity has now grown into a labor of love with global reach and the power to honor the memories of those individuals to whom we owe incredible debts.
Almost 10 years ago, Rabbi JJ Schacter from Yeshiva University made a stunning observation during a history tour, trying to understand why there were fewer Stars of David than he expected scattered among the sea of Latin Crosses at the majestic American cemetery in Normandy. A quick search revealed many individuals who might be buried under the wrong marker.
We soon reached out to the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) – the US government agency whose sacred mission is to care for the final resting places of our nation’s fallen who are buried overseas – to determine if it was possible to change incorrect headstones. Our first interactions with the ABMC were awkward as they did now know us or understand our motivation, and we did not understand the very high research standards they required for a marker change. But we soon engaged in meaningful dialogue and understanding. Over the years we have forged an incredibly close relationship with these stewards of our nations honored dead. We are, by tradition and temperament, storytellers of these soldiers’ histories and deeds. And the ABMC has come to appreciate and embrace our mission, even while maintaining their very strict standards (which we applaud).
Through exacting research conducted by our staff genealogist – Rachel Silverman – who combs through extensive government files and other public resources, which is supplemented by deep family recollections, we thoroughly document that the soldiers lived, fought, and died as Jews, and that the living family members wish to see the historical mistake corrected.
Since 2018, Operation Benjamin has secured approval from the ABMC to change the headstones of 19 US Jewish servicemen. By our conservative estimates, there are hundreds more, and while our work has so far focused on soldiers who died during World War II, we have started to work on several cases involving Jews who served during World War I. To date, we have conducted emotional headstone replacement ceremonies – in solemn partnership with the ABMC – for 16 of these brave souls. All of these have been held with members of the family – siblings, children, nieces, nephews, cousins, and grandchildren – representatives from the US and Israeli governments, and local community members. Before the service for Corporal Cordova, we conducted five other ceremonies at the Manila American Cemetery honoring 1st Lieutenant Robert Fink, Sergeant Jack Gilbert, Private Alan Franken, Private Louis Wolf, and Private Arthur Waldman in February 2020.
During these past four years, we’ve also conducted 10 services across five cemeteries in three countries in Europe. These include the following in Normandy: Private Benjamin Garadetsky (for whom Operation Benjamin is named) and Sergeant Charles Solomon. At the Ardennes, we replaced the headstones of three aviators—1st Lieutenant Frank Solomon (brother of Sergeant Solomon), 1st Lieutenant Joseph M. Sugarman, Jr, and 2nd Lieutenant Kenneth Robinson. At Epinal, we replaced the headstone of Private Marvin Ashkenas. In Luxembourg we replaced the headstone of Technician 5th Grade Everett Seixas, Jr., who was killed in action in the Battle of the Bulge. At Lorraine, we replaced the headstones of Private Albert Belmont (in the presence of his daughter, who was three years old when her father was killed), 2nd Lieutenant Howard Feldman, and Major Max Papurt.
Three more US Jewish service members have been approved, but we’ve not yet been able to conduct ceremonies for these individuals due to pandemic-induced travel restrictions: they include 1st Lieutenant Harvey Hoffman at the Rhone, Private Simon Goodman at Brittany, and Private Ralph Greenstein in Manila.
These individuals are not only united by their Jewish faith, but they also share a common bond of service to their country and family they left behind. At a time when we mark the Three Weeks – a period of intense sadness and reflection of the baseless hatred that led to a dark time in our people’s history – it is appropriate to reflect upon the sacrifices these individuals made as they too fought a war against baseless hatred.
While united by faith, family, and service, they are all deeply different. Private Garadetsky was an immigrant, while Tech5 Seixas, whose headstone was just recently changed, hails from one of the oldest American families, having arrived on these shores five years before George Washington was born. Some were killed in accidents; some in enemy attacks. Several were murdered in prison camps. They served in all branches and held a variety of ranks. Taken together, these individuals reflect the beautiful mosaic that is the American experience, reflecting and enabling the diversity of the other soldiers with whom they served.
We owe an incredible debt to this greatest generation – a debt that is sometimes hard to see and remember 80 years after World War II was fought. At Operation Benjamin, even though our work is predicated on correcting mistakes, we find we are engaged in a holier endeavor – keeping the memories of these heroes fresh and accessible to the generations that are alive and free due to their sacrifices. In much the same way that our work to remember the generation of the Shoah is now starting to emphasize the descendants of survivors, our work cherishes the families of these soldiers – the descendants of honor – who we are fortunate to support.
You can learn more about Operation Benjamin and our incredible partnership with the ABMC at www. operationbenjamin.org. At the site, you can find links to learn more about each of those soldiers and watch videos of the headstone change ceremonies. In the meantime, let us all be inspired by the words of Harry Cordova as he recorded a video to petition for his brother’s headstone to be changed, “Let’s get this done.”
Together with Rabbi JJ Schacter, Rabbi Shalom Lamm and Mr. Stephen Lamar founded Operation Benjamin. Rabbi Lamm serves as the organization’s CEO. Mr. Lamar is Vice President and also serves on the organization’s Board of Directors
Originally published in the Three Weeks 5782 Jewish-American Warrior