For years, Stacey Port Ahlvers and Rachel Erlichman had no idea that the other existed. And if not for the wartime sacrifice of CPL Sol Port, USAAC, these two cousins—and their broader family as well—might never have met.
It was May 10, 1945. Two days earlier, the Germans had surrendered. World War II was ending soon and everyone knew it. In the meantime, intense battles were still being waged in the Pacific Theater. The May 10th mission was supposed to be routine, albeit a dangerous one. Corporal Sol Port flew as an engineer with the 77th Bombardment Squadron, 28th Bombardment Group. His plane took off from Attu Island, Alaska around 5:30 pm with seven other B-25s. Their mission was to attack Japanese ships at Kataoka Harbor in the Kuril Islands (present-day Russia).
The eight bombers were split into two groups, with Cpl Port’s plane assigned to fly with the second group. They flew into Japanese territory over the Sea of Okhotsk, where they encountered fierce anti-aircraft fire from the ground and six Japanese fighter planes around them in the sky.
Around 9:25 pm, after descending to an altitude of 500-700 feet to attack a Japanese freighter, Corporal Port’s plane was hit by antiaircraft fire, which ignited the left engine and wounded the co-pilot. A minute later, another B-25 observed the left landing gear of Port’s plane drop down. The pilot, Lt Larsen, announced over the radio that his plane was in flames and going down into the water.
Seconds later, the bomber crashed into the water and instantly broke up. One witness said that the plane exploded just before it hit the water and all he could see was “a few burning pieces of metal and some oil” in the ocean. A gunner from another bomber said he did not think anyone could have survived the crash.
Tragically, the crew’s remains were not recovered and they were soon declared dead. Cpl Port—and his flightmates—may not have been a well-known hero in the massive World War II story, but his quiet sacrifice for freedom remains one of courage and selflessness. He was posthumously awarded the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Purple Heart.
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Needless to say, Cpl Port’s mother, Sophie Port, was devastated by the loss of her son. In 1911, she had fled anti-semitic atrocities in Ukraine at age 20 to make her way to the freedom of the United States. Some time later, her brother, Abraham, introduced her to her future husband, Jacob Port, and they got married in 1913. Alas, life was not smooth for Sophie and Jack. They had four children, two of whom died in childhood. Their remaining sons were Sol and Yosel, whom they raised in New York, until moving to California.
Although he was young when his family moved to California, Sol retained his New York accent. His friends humorously nicknamed him “Toity,” because that’s how he said the number thirty in his thick, ever-present New York accent.
When he turned 18, Sol registered for military service and was called up for active duty three years later, in June 1943. An excerpt from a letter that Sol wrote to his mother and brother during military training reads:
This week we have all kinds of lectures and movies and next week we start school. I understand that the school here is pretty rough. I have a slight idea of what we will have to do in the next 3 months and it’s by far easy. Some weeks in the morning we fly again and during the afternoon we go to engineering school, while other weeks we go to school during the morning and fly all afternoon, come back and eat and fly again during the evening until 12 midnight. It sure is a rough training program but there really isn’t a thing I could do about it. All this I heard from the boys who are here for a while. Now I’ll get myself a schedule and I’ll know exactly what’s cooking. This is the last schooling I’ll get I think, of course you can never tell what they will do with me next, so we just have to wait and see what happens.
He ended by saying:
Well Ma, I just about covered everything from the past couple of days and I haven’t anything else to say so take care of yourself and Yosel, and my best regards to all back home. So long for now and don’t worry about me.
After the war, Sophie didn’t talk about her third son very much to her family. She’d had the tough life of an immigrant and suffered the loss of all her children except one. Sophie received a film from the military of what happened to Sol, but because the information wasn’t clear and she struggled to comprehend English, she didn’t fully understand what had happened to him. For years afterward, Sophie would send letters to Congress members and military officials, asking for information and assistance regarding her missing son. She even wrote to Eddie Cantor, a well known Jewish entertainer in the 30s and 40s who had helped Jews get out of Europe and was well known within the Jewish community. He wrote back, but unfortunately was unable to help her. Sophie remained in Los Angeles until her passing in 1974.
“My father never really talked to us about his siblings,” Yosel Port’s daughter, Stacey Port Ahlvers, says. “My grandmother never talked about them either, unless she and my dad spoke about them in Yiddish.”
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And then Stacey saw a 60 Minutes episode about an organization called Defense POW/ MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) that searches for human remains from military plane crashes. The story reported about brand new technology that can potentially retrieve and identify remains. Stacey contacted the military organization that had been dealing with her uncle’s case and looped DPAA in. Upon their request, her older brother gave a DNA sample, and the family began to receive occasional email updates about DPAA’s work.
Years went by, and the family didn’t hear anything of note. Then one day Stacey got a private message on Facebook from someone named Natalie. “I didn’t answer it at first because I thought it was spam,” Stacey says. At the same time, her brother got a call from a man with a heavy Russian accent who identified himself as Yaakov Tzvik and said he’s related to them. Stacey initially thought this was also a spam message, due to the fact that they had just reopened the DNA case for her Uncle Sol. But eventually she talked to Tzvik and was delighted to learn that he was, in fact, part of her family. He had grown up in Russia, the grandson of Sophie’s sister, Rivka, who had been left behind. Yaakov had relocated to the US in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. Natalie turned out to be Yaakov’s niece.
Around that time, DPAA contacted Stacey to request a mitochondrial DNA sample from a direct female line. Since Stacey was a biological link to Sol through her father, they had to find a sample from a different side of the Braverman family. The DPAA hired a genealogist to do so; and that’s how Stacey discovered her cousins Rachel Erlichman and her sister, Sarah: Rachel’s grandmother, Bassie, was Sophie Port’s sister. “I knew my grandmother had a sister because I have a picture of them in my living room from about 100 years ago,” Stacey said. “But to find her grandchildren?! You could see G-d at work here!”
Rachel and her siblings had tragically lost their parents when they were young. Perhaps to fill that void, Rachel had always been drawn toward cultivating and exploring her family tree. “I received a call from someone with the Department of Defense asking for DNA,” Rachel Erlichman says. “She explained that my line was an excellent choice because mitochondrial DNA is from the female line and we would all be females from a line of women descended from Sophie’s mother.” The family was receptive to the idea, and Rachel’s sister, Sarah, was the one who ultimately gave a sample for DNA testing.
Soon, Rachel connected with Stacey. They were thrilled to find each other. Yaakov Tzvik called Rachel as soon as he heard she was his cousin too. She recalls him saying excitedly, “I couldn’t begin Shabbos without calling you!” Yaakov told her that after searching for family for almost 27 years, he felt that the successful resolution was like the biblical story of Jacob seeing Josef for the first time. “It was so surreal,” Rachel says.
The extended family now has an active Whatsapp chat with the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the four remaining Braverman siblings. They started sharing old photographs, and finally, the Braverman grandchildren were able to put names to faces. Rachel Erlichman and Stacey Port Ahlvers meet for the first time
“We often discussed on the chat our heartfelt hopes that the DNA would prove a match and we would finally have Sol’s remains repatriated to us for a proper Jewish burial,” said Rachel. But sadly, Stacey recently received a notice stating that it would not be possible to recover Sol Port’s remains. The family was devastated.
“It was crushing,” Rachel says. Despite the painful news, there was a silver lining: As a result of the desire to give CPL Port an eternal gravesite, the broader family was able to reunite—an even greater eternal reflection of the deep bonds of family.
In a haunting postscript to the saga, Rachel found herself looking through old pictures of her and her husband Marc’s 1988 honeymoon in Hawaii. As a military family, they had decided to take a picture at a monument commemorating fallen service members who fought in the Pacific Theater, located at the Honolulu Punchbowl memorial park. As she looked at the old picture, Rachel zoomed in… and found her great uncle’s name engraved right behind her.
A symbol of a public and personal memorial that stands the test of time.
Originally published in the Tishrei 5783 Jewish-American Warrior