Operation Benjamin

Ensuring the appropriate resting place for Jewish American soldiers

The logo of Operation Benjamin (Photo: Operation Benjamin)
The logo of Operation Benjamin
(Photo: Operation Benjamin)

You may remember our earlier article about the participation of World War II veteran, Mr. Jack Appel on one of our Band of Brothers Tours last year (Read our earlier article – WW2 veteran on our tour). In that article, we mentioned that Mr. Appel visited the grave of Private First Class Benjamin Garadetsky in the Normandy American Cemetery who was the namesake of the non-profit organization called Operation Benjamin. It is crucial for the family members and loved ones to find an appropriate final resting place for the soldiers who paid the ultimate price in the service of their country. It is in this spirit that Operation Benjamin aims to find Jewish soldiers at American military cemeteries who were buried under markers incorrectly representing their religion. Today’s newsletter is about this organization.

Mr. Appel at the grave of Benjamin Garadetsky in the Normandy American Cemetery (Photo: Author’s own)
Mr. Appel at the grave of Benjamin Garadetsky in the Normandy American Cemetery
(Photo: Author’s own)

In the Normandy American Cemetery, Mr. Appel wanted to pay his respects to Garadetsky due to the likeness of their stories. When preparing for his military service, Mr. Appel was advised by several people not to put Jewish as his religion because he would be shot if taken prisoner by the Germans. Thus, he put Catholic as his religion. He survived the war and still enjoys a peaceful and prosperous life. But who was the soldier whose grave he wanted to visit in Normandy?
 
Benjamin Barney Garadetsky was born Boruch Reigorodeczki on April 14, 1914, in the city of Zhitomir in the Russian Empire (now part of Ukraine). His parents had decided long before their son’s birth that they would leave Russia to start a new life in America. In 1913, his father arrived in New York alone to work as a tailor to finance his family’s trip to join him. They were separated for years when violent pogroms left over 330 of Zhitomir’s Jews dead in 1919. It was time for the rest of the family to bid farewell to Russia and to move to safety in America with the funds sent by the husband. They arrived at New York’s Ellis Island on October 21, 1921, aboard the RMS Aquitania. Shedding their Yiddish names, it was here that Boruch became Benjamin Barney Garadetsky. Finally reunited, the family settled in the heavily-Jewish area of the Bronx.
 
On February 17, 1941, nearly twenty years after he arrived in America with his mother and sister, 26-year-old Benjamin enlisted in the U.S. Army in the fight against Nazi barbarity. He was trained as a medic and assigned to a medical detachment with the 66th Armored Regiment, 2nd “Hell on Wheels” Armored Division where he served for over three years. The 66th Armored Regiment was primarily equipped with Sherman medium
(Read our earlier article – The M4 Sherman) and Stuart light tanks. PFC Garadetsky was with them in their amphibious invasion of Morocco in December 1942, and during the invasion of Sicily.

Benjamin Garadetsky, the namesake of the organization (Photo: Operation Benjamin)
Benjamin Garadetsky, the namesake of the organization
(Photo: Operation Benjamin)

He landed with the regiment on Omaha Beach at Normandy on June 10, 1944 (D+4), and fought through German paratrooper and tank forces in a grueling crawl from town to town. By July 31, the 66th was down to only 24 tanks, but they were soon outfitted with reinforcements and headed east, with the larger objective of crossing the Seine River at Elbeuf, into German-occupied Belgium. As they fought their way through Nazi-occupied Europe, U.S. soldiers met stiff enemy resistance. On August 23, 1944, Benjamin was killed instantly during a Luftwaffe bombing. Traveling in the dark of night and arrayed in a double column on the road to the Seine crossing, the large convoy was spotted by a single German JU88 aircraft, which strafed the slow-moving vehicles and dropped a bomb directly on the road. PFC Garadetsky was struck and killed by bomb fragments, and his ID tags were lost. His remains were identified by a major in the Medical Corps, and he was temporarily interred at the American military cemetery in St. André de l'Eure.
 
He died a Jewish American hero and was later laid to rest at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, along with thousands of heroes of the war. At the same time, he was mistakenly buried under a Latin Cross instead of a Magen David (Star of David). In 2016, the mistake was discovered by a member of the initiative, well known historian, Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, of Yeshiva University. It remained uncorrected until the summer of 2018 when his marker was changed eventually in a ceremony. It turned out that correcting the mistake was not a simple matter.

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Benjamin Garadetsky’s marker at the Normandy American Cemetery
(Photo: ABMC)
The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), the U.S. government agency (Read our earlier article - "Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”) that serves as the “pre-eminent guardian of America’s overseas commemorative cemeteries and memorials,” understandably guarded about the burials under its custodianship. Over the years, Operation Benjamin has developed an excellent working relationship with the ABMC. For those seeking to effect a change in a grave marker’s religious identification, it is first necessary to create a substantial brief on the deceased, proving the case. The next step is to identify and contact living descendants of the soldier, encouraging them to advocate to the relevant authorities on behalf of the deceased.
 
The organization worked for weeks to recreate the life of the Garadetsky family through painstaking research in documents, historical records, and even field trips to various archives and cemeteries. Volunteers paid a visit to the graves of Garadetsky's parents and sister, confirming that theirs were Jewish burials with Jewish grave markers. Once the historical record was absolutely certain, no change of marker could be made to Benjamin’s grave without a relative/descendant making the request. The next challenge was to find a living Garadetsky descendant.
 
An advertisement in New York City’s Jewish Week taken out by the group caught the eye of someone who knew the name Garadetsky from research they had conducted years ago. One of the leads from this individual led to success: the organization contacted every Conservative synagogue in St. Louis until they found the right one. The Rabbi did not provide them with the family’s contact information, but he did pass along the message. Benjamin’s family in St. Louis reached out to the organization. The team shared the massive amount of research they had conducted on Benjamin and his family, which in turn proved the authenticity of the mission. They then assisted the family in writing and submitting the requisite letters to the ABMC.
The advertisement in the Jewish Week newspaper (Photo: Operation Benjamin)
The advertisement in the Jewish Week newspaper
(Photo: Operation Benjamin)

The ABMC was contacted by Operation Benjamin in January 2017. Just over two months after the receipt of the request, the ABMC agreed to correct the mistake and replace the marker. In the summer of 2018, a graveside ceremony was held with Benjamin’s extended family, members of Operation Benjamin, and the Superintendent of the Normandy American Cemetery. Benjamin Garadetsky was offered eternal rest under the symbol of his heritage, as his white marble grave marker was finally changed to a Star of David. The ABMC’s dedication to completing Benjamin’s headstone change in the most dignified manner was remarkable, and touched the hearts of all involved.  It was there, that Rabbi Schacter was inspired to utter the words, “PVT Garadetsky, in the name of the citizen’s of the United States, we thank you for your sacrifice. And Benjamin, in the name of the Jewish people, we welcome you home.” Each of the 23 headstone replacements since that very first one has been accompanied by the same iconic phrase.

The headstone change of First Lieutenant Robert S. Fink at the Manila American Cemetery in 2020 (Photo: Operation Benjamin)
The headstone change of First Lieutenant Robert S. Fink at the Manila American Cemetery in 2020
(Photo: Operation Benjamin)

As you could see in Benjamin Garadetsky’s case, a strict, formal process must be followed in every case when there is an intention to change a marker. First, it has to be established through impeccable documentary evidence that a service member buried under a non-Jewish grave marker is, without question, of Jewish heritage. The in-house professional genealogist conducts in-depth research, both independently and with the cooperation of the soldiers' families. Historical and genealogical research often involves field visits to cemeteries and archives, and of course, an immense amount of research is conducted online. Often, they unearth genealogical information that was previously unknown to the service members’ family. All the work is done free of charge. Surviving relatives and descendants also offer documentation, personal memories, or other evidence to support the research.
 
After requisite evidence is gathered, a dossier is presented to the federal government. The team also prepares a cover letter to be signed by a family member, requesting the change to the grave marker. Once the request is granted, the federal government changes the grave marker, free of charge, and maintains it in perpetuity. When a grave marker change is finally scheduled, the deceased's family members have the opportunity to be participate in a Jewish graveside marker change ceremony. The entire event is recorded on video so that the family receives a priceless momento for future generations, and the events are posted online on the Operation Benjamin website so that the public can be inspired by these soldiers, their stories, and sacrifice. Operation Benjamin members are also present to help ensure that the change of marker is conducted with the highest level of honor and dignity and fidelity to Jewish tradition.

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A video about the relationship between Operation Benjamin and ABMC
(Video: ABMC, YouTube)
Every story is a priceless tale of service and sacrifice. But some of the events are so extraordinary, they could each be made into their own documentary.
 
Two brothers, Sergeant Charles and First Lieutenant Frank Solomon, were killed two months apart. The younger brother, tail gunner Charles (Chuck) Solomon, was killed in late 1943, when his bomber was shot down over St. Inglevert, France on his crew's 38th mission. Charles was buried at the Normandy American Cemetery. Older brother, Frank Solomon, was killed two months later, in early 1944, by anti-aircraft fire on his 26th mission during an air raid over Berlin. He was a pilot on loan to the Royal Air Force on a Lancaster heavy bomber. Frank was buried in the Ardennes American Cemetery. The ABMC and Operation Benjamin replaced both headstones one day after the other in 2019.
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The Solomon brothers
(Photo: Operation Benjamin)
Major Maxwell Papurt was a well-known psychologist before the war. He was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) after they attended his lectures on pshychological warfare delivered at the 92nd street Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA) in Manhattan. Notwithstanding that he failed his physical by a wide margin, Papurt was given a pass and assumed field command very successfully. He coined the phrase, “if they gotta, I gotta.” He was popular with the men under his command. Papurt eventually came to know some of the most sensitive military sectrets of the war. When he was captured, this was a worrying event for the OSS. Records strongly indicate that the Germans did not understand the high value prisoner they had. Tragically, Papurt was killed along with many other soldiers, when the POW camp in which he was held in Diez, Germany, was heavily damaged during an Allied bombing raid on November 29, 1944. He was laid to rest in the Lorraine American Cemetery in France. His marker was replaced in 2022.
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Maxwell Papurt and his grave in France
(Photo: Operation Benjamin)
Corporal Sam Cordova was one of seven rambunctious boys from a Sephardic Jewish background in Los Angeles. They were boys of the Great Depression. Five of the Cordova boys served during the war. One never returned. CPL Cordova was killed very early in the war on December 29, 1941 during the Japanese assult on Corregidor Island in the Philippines. It was from Corregidor that General McArthur escaped to Autralia when it became clear that U.S. forces were going to be overrun by the Japanese Imperial Army. Operation Benjamin discovered during their research that 99-year-old Harry Cordova (a WWII veteran and younger brother of Sam Cordova) was still alive. He paid beautiful tribute to his brother by video for the ceremony that took place at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial correcting the headstone by erecting a Star of David in 2020. Harry described when the “dreaded telegram arrived”: his parents, immigrants from Turkey, did not speak English, “so I went inside and read it to my mother. You can imagine that was a very difficult day.” A few years later, Harry’s brother had a son, and they named him after their brother Sam. Sam Gary Cordova grew up to become a U.S. Marine jet fighter pilot. He was killed in action, the second Sam Cordova giving his life in service of America, in the Vietnam War over Laos, in August of 1972. As Harry said, “Some of us have fought for this country, and some of us have died for it.”
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A photo of Sam Cordova and his grave in the Philippines
(Photo: Operation Benjamin)
Operation Benjamin expects the total number of soldiers they will find to have been buried incorrectly, and for which they will find both sufficient evidence and eager families, is north of 300 additional sodiers. It’s a painstaking process but very rewarding. The leadership of Operation Benjamin marvels that, “people forget that thousands of US GI’s were killed every month, and this was an age before computers. Soldiers were buried multiple times from the battlefield, collection stations, temporary cemeteries, and finally, the permanent national cemeteries. What’s remarkable is not that so many mistakes were made, but that so few were made. When we consider the circumstances under which the Graves Registration people were operating, we think their successes were remarkable. No other country had the will or resources to pull this off.”
 
On Memorial Day 2023, Operation Benjamin will be replacing three headstones. One ceremony will be at the Normandy American Cemetery in the morning, and that same afternoon another will be at the Brittany American Cemetery where two additional headstones will be replaced. It shoud prove to be a remarkable Memorial Day.
 
If you want to learn more about Operation Benjamin, feel free to look them up on their website:

https://www.operationbenjamin.org/
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Mariellen Miller, the half-sister of Second Lieutenant Kenneth Robinson (B-17 bombardier), with family members at new Star of David headstone at the Ardennes American Cemetery in 2022.
(Photo: Operation Benjamin)
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