Rabbi Harold H. Gordon (Chaplain, Major, USAAC). Excerpted from “Chaplain on Wings: The Wartime Memoirs of Rabbi Harold H Gordon.”
One day in January, 1944…I was called into the office of the post chaplain, a Col. Morrison. There, I found LTC Bennett from the Chief of Chaplain’s Office in Washington. He asked me whether I was averse to traveling by air. I told Bennett that my only flying experience had been a flight from Chicago to Washington, but I recalled that it had given me a great thrill at the time. He then asked me whether I would accept an overseas assignment that involved air travel. When I said I that I would have no objection, I was told that I could expect my orders for overseas duty very soon. Neither of the two chaplains was ready to tell me the precise nature of my assignments, but they explained that my duties would entail flying from one base to another. Chaplain Morrison added that one essential qualification for the position to which I had been appointed was immense tact and “a good reserve of common sense.”
By the first week in April, I was in Manchester, NH, headquarters of the North Atlantic Division of the Air Transport Command. There I reported to Wing Chaplain William V. Morgan, who gave me my assignment. I was to proceed by plane to Presque Isle, Maine, which was to be my immediate headquarters because of its proximity to the Division’s bases overseas…
A few days later, just before Passover, I was on my way to the Army air base at Presque Isle, 400 miles to the north of Manchester. From there, as I learned from the Wing Chaplain, I was to fly a 21,000 mile circuit covering almost a score of bases. In the north, there was Mingan, just above Canada’s St Lawrence River and midway between Presque Isle and Goose Bay, Labrador; Crystal I and Crystal II (two bases on Baffin Island near Hudson Bay); Harmon and Gander Fields in Newfoundland; Greenland (with headquarters at Narsarssuak, BW-1; additional Greenland Field at Bangor, and finally home to headquarters at Presque Isle. Later, when our Division took over the national airport at Gravelly Point, near Washington DC, the capital became part of my circuit.
Since there were no Scrolls of the Law on most of the bases I visited, I inquired about the possibility of my obtaining a Torah to take with me as I traveled around the circuit. The Beth Israel Synagogue in Bangor, Maine agreed to lend me one of its Torah scrolls for the duration of the war.
On my next visit to Dow Field, as I got off the big C-46 cargo plane, I was met by the president of the synagogue and two members of the synagogue’s board of directors, who wanted to do their patriotic duty by placing the Torah in my hands. The PR officer at Dow Field had the base photographer and the local press on hand to mark the occasion and decided then and there to designate my newly acquired Scroll as “The Flying Torah.” From then on, wherever I went, mention of the Flying Torah would be made in the base newspapers. Some post engineers very kindly constructed a portable chest into which I placed not only the Torah but also some prayer books, a bottle of wine, a kiddush cup, talleisim, yarmulkas, mezuzot and smaller religious articles. Painted blue and gold (the colors of the Air Force), and marked with the words “Flying Torah” and a Star of David in the center and the emblem of ATC in the center, the chest was usually the first object to emerge from my plane and soon became well known throughout the North Atlantic region.
I recall stopping over at Bermuda and being met at the plane by the priorities and traffic officer, who pointed at the chest I was carrying and exclaimed, “Is that the Flying Torah?” Soon the commanding officers at the various bases I visited knew the words “Flying Torah” as readily as they knew their own serial numbers; not infrequently, CO’s would ask me to show them the Scroll inside the chest and explain its contents “while standing on one leg”, as it were. WACs, Black troops and native Eskimo workmen would be encouraged by the officers to take a peek at the Holy Scroll on which the Jewish Holy Words were written.
As time went on, the baggage I carried with me on my tours became quite burdensome. In addition to the large, heavy Torah scroll in its chest, there were the latest issues of a variety of Yiddish and Anglo-Jewish periodicals and the Hadoar Hebrew weekly, as well as supplies of kosher salami and canned foods. Besides, there was my personal clothing: I had to take with me both summer and winter clothes because I might be in Arctic Iceland one day and in subtropical Bermuda the next. Clearly, something had to be done to lighten the load.
I looked around for a Torah scroll smaller and lighter than the one lent me by the Bangor congregation. Dr. Louis Finkelstein, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary (where I had studied from 1929 until 1931), was kind enough to offer me the small Torah scroll which he kept in the Seminary’s chapel for his personal use. I sent the Bangor Scroll back to its home synagogue and immediately had a new chest made for Prof. Finkelstein’s Torah in the form of a portable miniature Ark. When closed, this chest looked like an ordinary suitcase, but when it was set up on end, a pair of doors, marked with the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet to symbolize the Ten Commandments, opened from the center like the doors of a standard Ark of the Law. Inside, there was an electric “Eternal Light” with a cord which could be connected to any electric outlet. There was even a small parokhet. This was how I carried the Torah around most of my circuits in the North Atlantic region, from Greenland’s icy mountains to Bermuda’s coral strands.
Wherever this portable Torah in its miniature Ark appeared with me, it was a source of inspiration to Jewish servicemen who cherished it as a link with their own hometown synagogues and as a symbol of Israel’s power to survive and blossom under all conditions and in all climates. It is safe to say that this Flying Torah saw a greater variety of weather and temperature than any other Torah in existence at the time. It is also reasonable to assume that in some parts of the world this was the first Scroll of the Law ever to have made its appearance there. I could not help remembering the story of the martyred Hanina Ben Teradyon who was wrapped into a Scroll of the Law and burned at the stake by the Romans. According to tradition, his last words to his disciples were, “The parchment of this scroll may be burning, but the letters upon it are soaring heavenward.” In those dark days, flames were devouring Scrolls of the Law in many parts of Nazi dominated Europe. Simultaneously, in symbolic defiance, in my hands there was a Torah soaring over oceans and icecaps to carry the Word of G-d fighting for the preservation of freedom and justice.
The Flying Torah was originally written for the Bar Mitzvah of Dr. Louis Finkelstein’s son Ezra, in 1940. Dr. Finkelstein later gifted the Torah to Dr. Chaim Weizman to be presented to President Harry S Truman on the occasion of the first official meeting between the President of the United States and the President of the nascent State of Israel. The Torah remained on display at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, until February 2019, when it was moved for temporary exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Chaplain Gordon passed away in 1977.