OCTOBER 5, 2017 – The images of napalm, ambushes, heroic battles, and death returned to TV last week, when millions of Americans sat down to watch “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part, 18-hour PBS documentary that many consider the most comprehensive look at our country’s most unpopular and misunderstood war.
Of the 3.4 million Americans who were deployed in Southeast Asia, tens of thousands were Jews who proudly served their country. According to the US National Archives and Records Administration, 58,220 died in the war, including 270 Jews. Several Jews from Greater Boston perished in the war, including Gerald E. Isaacson of Marblehead, Sheldon R. Cohen of Chelsea, Gary M. Cohen of Dartmouth, and Jack Rabinovitz of Dorchester.
Across the region, the documentary has brought back a flood of memories to Jewish Vietnam veterans such as Jack Romo of North Reading, Robert Finger of Brockton, and Rabbi Mark Golub of Melrose.
“I’m watching every bit of it,” said Romo, who grew up in Peabody and enrolled in the Army after earning his master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania. Romo, who served as a captain, was in the 25th Medical Battalion in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 and oversaw a group of social workers who helped counsel soldiers.
“The documentary has elicited a lot of memories and emotions,” said Romo, who is 81, and a former state commander of the Jewish War Veterans of Massachusetts. “I’m finding it very informative but it also brings back negative and troubling memories for me, because we had so many American soldiers that were killed and were brought to our medical battalion for treatment.”
Romo stayed in the Army after the war and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1978, he was assigned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and then to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, where he was the deputy director for military psychiatric research until he retired in 1981.
While he’s keenly interested in the documentary’s interviews with former North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers who discuss experiences similar to those Americans faced during the war, Romo – whose father called him “Yankl” – said Vietnam is never far from his thoughts. Over the years, he recognized he had symptoms of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m over-vigilant and can’t go to sleep at night without making sure that all of the doors in my house are locked,” he said. “There was a period of time that if I went to a restaurant, I’d sit with my back to the wall so I could look at most of what was going on in the restaurant. I had reoccurring dreams of Vietnam. What the [TV] program has done has made me aware of the dreams I used to have but don’t have anymore.”
Robert Finger, who grew up in Swampscott, is now 71 and didn’t talk about his service in Vietnam until after 9/11. He has not seen the series yet, but expects to view it at some point.
Finger was a business student at Suffolk University when he felt the urge to enlist in the Army. He was assigned to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, and arrived in Vietnam on Dec. 17, 1966.
“We were in the heart of what was called the Iron Triangle. Nothing was good there. We were next to Cambodia,” said Finger, who works in the energy industry.
“I’d be in the bush for long periods of time. We’d get a lift on a helicopter and be taken out to the jungle, and dropped off. Maybe a week or 10 days later they’d come and pick us up. We did sweeps in the jungle, looking for Viet Cong or North Vietnamese. Sometimes we found them; sometimes they found us.
“Anybody who said they weren’t scared was one of two things: a liar or a fool. And I was neither. You’d just walk for several days and there would be nothing and then all hell would break loose and it could go on for two or 10 minutes or an hour. There were times when battle periods lasted for days.”
While Finger was carrying an M60 machine gun and slogging through rice paddies, his late mother, Thelma, wrote him a letter telling him she planned to join other mothers to protest the war in Boston. The bus left from the former Temple Israel in Swampscott. He wrote back and told her he was proud of her.
“I told her that’s what we were here for, for people to freely protest against their government,” he said.
Finger spent 365 days, 14 hours, and 30 minutes in Vietnam before returning to the US. The only time he faced anti-Semitism was when a fellow soldier told him that Jews killed Christian children and smeared their blood on their doors before Passover. That ended in a fight, he said. In 1967, he joined hundreds of other Jewish soldiers for a 10-day leave to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “It was almost like a USY enclave. During that 10 days, it was like family,” he said.
Finger, who returned to the US in 1967, was shocked when he heard fellow Americans refer to Vietnam vets as baby killers. “That’s the part that hurts the most,” said Finger, who, like others, just hoped he would survive the war and return home. “It was a horror on both sides. It wasn’t just our anguish; it was theirs, too. I looked at myself as a victim and over time I saw that we were all victims.”
Mark Golub, who was raised in Newton, received his rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College in 1967, and was one of four rabbis assigned to serve as chaplains in Vietnam in 1968. Now 79, Golub is finding the documentary hard to watch.
“The smell of the war – it is one which every war-time chaplain never forgets – is that of blood,” said Golub.
Golub was based in Nha Trang on the coast of then South Vietnam, and spent several days a week flying in to counsel Jewish and gentile soldiers in Pleiku, Qui Nhon Air Base, Ban Me Tuit, Phan Rang Air Base, and Cam Ranh Bay. Golub conducted services – such as a Passover seder in 1969 – but mostly listened to men who wanted to talk about being homesick, their fear of death, lost relationships, and lost religious faith.
“I witnessed countless deaths by both Americans as well as Vietnamese soldiers. I saw body bags lined up in long rows before they were shipped home to grieving families,” Golub said. “I was shot at many times and once nearly killed by an incoming bomb but was saved by my Jewish lay leader.
“When I completed my tour of duty, I arrived at Logan Airport, where I experienced boos and insults. That was mid-1969, at the height of the outrage of the war.”