A Memorial Day Vow: We Will Never Leave Them Behind

May 7, 2021Rabbi David Ellenson and Shalom Lamm


“When the telegram arrived, we all knew what that meant.  But my parents  didn’t speak English, so I went inside and read it to them. You can imagine, it was a very tough day.” That’s 99-year-old Harry Cordova’s recollection of an event that happened 79 years ago -- when he had to tell his parents, immigrants from Turkey, that his older brother, Sam, was one of the first U.S. soldiers killed fighting Japanese forces in the Pacific during WWII. View his entire speech here

Corporal Sam Cordova was 23 years old when he was killed in action at Corregidor on December 29, 1941. Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright surrendered the Philippine island 5 months later, making it the largest capitulation of U.S. forces in American history. Corregidor was recaptured by victorious U.S. troops in February 1945.

One can only imagine the increasingly desperate condition of the U.S. soldiers, without any resupply, as the wrenching decision was made in Washington, DC to focus on the war in Europe at that stage, essentially sacrificing the US soldiers in the Pacific theater. Soldiers killed in action were hastily buried, as survival became the paramount concern. 

Following the war, the U.S. government undertook the enormous and costly task of gathering all her war dead for burial in magnificent national cemeteries around the world. Unfortunately, despite the extraordinary lengths our government went to ensure accuracy, mistakes were made. Hundreds of Jewish soldiers were buried in error under Latin Crosses. We estimate that 400-500 Jews remain interred under incorrect markers.

Operation Benjamin was founded in 2019 to replace with a Star of David the headstones of Jews buried under a cross. Seventy-five years after these soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of democracy and freedom, it was time to give them menuchah n’chonah --a proper resting spot in keeping with whom they were in life, Jews, and reuniting them with their ancestral faith.  

We have seen over and over again how erecting the Star of David provides comfort to families of the fallen. Our work  also enables the millions of visitors to the American military cemeteries to see and appreciate the shared sacrifice Jewish soldiers like Corporal Sam Cordova have made in the defense of liberty and freedom for all humankind.

Sam was not the only member of his Sephardic family to die in action. His nephew, Marine Corps Captain Sam Gary Cordova, named in his memory, was killed in action when his Phantom F-4 jet was shot down over Laos in August 1972.

When Operation Benjamin researchers contacted the Cordova family to tell them that we had discovered that Corporal Sam Cordova buried under a Cross, Harry Cordova, the only one of eight brothers still living, and aware in the 1940s of his brother’s burial under the Christian symbol, said, “We didn’t know why he was buried under a Cross, and we didn’t know we could do anything to correct the mistake.”

Despite the pandemic, the American Battle Monuments Commission and Operation Benjamin worked together tirelessly to have the ceremony take place in Manila, Philippines on December 29, 2020 – 79 years to the day after Sam was killed in action. Harry told the assembled dignitaries and members of the local Jewish community via video: “We are a proud Sephardic Jewish family. Some of us have lived for this country, and some of us have died for it.” 

Members of the Manila Jewish community along with the highest ranking diplomats of the U.S. and Israeli embassies attended the ceremony to honor Corporal Cordova. Lee Blumenthal, a U.S. Army Vietnam veteran (101st Airborne) and long-time Manila resident represented Operation Benjamin. After the ceremony, the traditional Mourners Kaddish was recited at the grave of private Ralph Greenstein, another Jewish soldier who had been mistakenly interred under a cross after the war. His  headstone  will be replaced when international travel to the Philippines resumes. 

Operation Benjamin is grateful for the opportunity to perform the mitzvahmitzvahמִצְוָהLiterally, “commandment." A sacred obligation. Jewish tradition says the Torah contains 613 mitzvot Mitzvot refer to both religious and ethical obligations. of setting the historical record straight by honoring these soldiers with an appropriate burial. We are equally appreciative of the support of the ABMC in partnering with us in the performance of this act of “genuine lovingkindness – hesed shel emet.”

May Corporal Sam Cordova’s memory be for a blessing. 

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