This great story was forwarded to us by one of our regular readers. It was originally published in Midstream Magazine in 1996. It is shared with permission from the author, Mike Lipstock. While it is a work of fiction, it is still a fine tale. Apologies for the slurs, but it was the vernacular of the time period.
Today is Yom Kippur, the holiest day of our Jewish year. Our day of atonement, the day we try to have our sins forgiven. In your seventies you take it all a little more seriously. As I walked home from the synagogue, a flood of memories going back to the fall of 1943, filled my mind.
It started in central Burma in the midst of a raging inferno at the height of a devastating war. I was a young infantry sergeant, a platoon leader, and we were being torn to pieces by the Japanese 16th Imperial division. We were dug into the mud on the edge of the Irrawaddy River, which we were going to cross. We were ready to go, when at that instant, the hand of destiny pulled me out.
I was having a private conference with God about survival when the Top Kick himself came sliding into my dugout. The Top Kick is the guy who has the power and glue to weld the whole outfit together.
“We ready to go Top?” I asked.
“Not yet, I gotta ask you something. Are you Jewish?” “What do you wanna know that for?”
“If you are, I got some good news. Are you?”
“Listen to this, I’m gonna read it to you, you’re getting a three-day pass!! All Jewish personnel are granted a three-day pass, effective immediately, for their holy holidays. They are to proceed to the closest place of worship. Transportation will be provided for.”
“Ya mean, with a whole regiment of Japs in front of me, I’m getting out of here? Where do I find this magic synagogue?”
“Go up to Imbong and visit your old pal, Mel, in K company. He’s Jewish, ain’t he?”
“Come on, sarge. They’re taking a worse shellacking than we are.”
“Look, you wanna go, or not?”
“I’m going, but how do I get to Imbong?”
“I’m giving you cut orders, you’re legit. Try the ambulance pilots. Any trouble, look for me. I’ll be waiting for you on the other side of the river. Get going.”
The ambulance planes were tiny two-seaters that were converted to accommodate the wounded. A couple of hinges on the fuselage, and a litter case could fit in. The pilots were all sergeants who were too old to fly fighters or bombers, but at 45 or so, not too old to get shot down.
I hitched a ride in a jeep and found their air force parked under two trees. Freddy Leblanc was running their outfit, and I explained my situation.
“You Jewish?” he asked.
“Imbong is the safe place you’re going for your holy holidays?”
“I gotta find my pal Mel.”
He gave me the best pilot he had, and he also gave the pilot a three-day pass. I had drawn a living legend. He was Master Sgt. Kenny Blackmer. At 45, a real live Ace from World War I. Kenny and I were old friends, and I knew I was in good hands. We squeezed into his two-seater and flew off, following the old Rangoon-Mandalay railroad tracks.
So now we are in Imbong, and Kenny gets a jeep, and we go off looking for Mel and his commanding officer. I find Mel dug into the roots of a fallen tree. When I approach, he challenges me with an automatic rifle. He’s in shock when I give him the news.
“I got a three-day pass!!!”
“I think it’s Roshashona.”
“Na, it’s Yom Kippur.”
“Didn’t they tell you about services?”
“Services? Nick, I’m a PFC, you’re a Tech/Sgt They don’t know I’m alive.”
Kenny and I got him out of the hole, and the three of us drove over to his C.O.
“You have a copy of our orders, sir?” I asked.
“Yes, and my orders are to get you both to the nearest temple where you can celebrate your holy holiday.”
“And where would the nearest temple be, sir?”
“I have no idea, but I’m a serious Baptist, and you will have my utmost cooperation in finding that temple.”
“Thank you, sir, but we also need a minyan in order to have a service.
“Sorta like a quorum, you need ten Jews to make it legal.”
“You only have two. Is Sergeant Blackmer Jewish?” “No.”
“Look,” he says, “the limeys have a Catholic chaplain back at their battalion headquarters. Find him, he might have an idea.”
So we thanked the commanding officer and drove off through thick jungle, looking for an English Catholic chaplain who could help a couple of wandering Jews and an old pilot in search of eight others. In a little clearing with a few tents, we finally tracked him down. Lt. Bill Brennan, the battalion priest, a very savvy guy about our religious problems.
“So you’re the Americans, knew you were on your way, got it from the radio. Seven of your kinsmen are waiting for you in that tent. But of course that will still leave you one short, unless …”
“Unless what?” Mel shot back.
“I think it would be better if you met with your minyan and let them explain the situation to you.”
We entered a tent where seven English Jews were gathered. Two tall officers immediately shook our hands and introduced us to the group.
“I’m Captain Arthur Schatzberg, and this is Captain Murray Ostacher. We’re both Chindits under the personal command of General Orde Wingate.” He went down the line, smiling and making introductions.
Kenny, Mel, and I were impressed, very impressed. Chindits!! They were legends who fought with the Ghurkas as ambushers and night fighters. Very deadly people! They made the first drop behind Jap lines and were the first Allied troops to engage the enemy in Burma. They and their General created the Burma offensive. General who? General Orde Wingate, who, with Shatzberg and Ostacher, protected the British Mandate in Palestine years ago. He married a pioneering Jewish Sabra and secretly trained a new fighting force called the Palmach. These fighters became the nucleus of the infant Israeli army. Two Chindits, indeed; very, very tough soldiers.
“Look here, chaps,” Shatzberg said, “while we’re here, no rank, only first names. OK with you, Nick, Mel, Kenny?”
We nodded yes. Kenny asked if it was okay for him to stick around.
“Certainly,” Murray said, “but of course try to stick in the background.”
“Let me fill you in, lads,” Artie said. “We have already done that with our own chaps. It’s about the tenth man. You see, his name is Captain Nakamouri Yamagouchi, and he is a Japanese Jew. He’s also going to conduct the services.”
“A Jewish Jap! Impossible!” we both yelled.
Arthur waited until we quieted down and then continued. Mel and I were dumfounded and angry. Who needed explanations?
“A Japanese Jew? This is our tenth man? A Japanese captain is going to conduct services?”
“Come on, laddybucks,” Murray said. “I know you’re surprised. We all felt that way at first, but damn, it’s the bloody truth. Let me tell you how I found him.” His eyes gleamed as he related the story.
“I was down at the cages where they keep the PWs. Like you, we take very few. I didn’t look in, but I heard what sounded like prayers. Someone in there was making a brucha in Hebrew. A guard, perhaps. I went in and could hear the words a little louder now. I stopped in my tracks and listened. The words were coming from a figure lying on the ground in tatters. From the red cloth on his shoulders I could see a few gold pips; the fellow was an officer. My Hebrew is a bit limited, but I used every word I could muster. He responded in a torrent of Hebrew, but an even bigger surprise was his follow-up in English. I was overwhelmed! I went for my friend Arthur.
The provost marshal released him into our custody but not before filling us in on our Jewish-Jap prisoner.
–You know who that bloke is?’ he said. ‘That’s Captain Yamagouchi, the SOB who leads the night fighting jitter parties.’
“Who the hell are they?’ I asked.
Those are the bloody bastards that blow us up as we sleep. He speaks every damn Burmese dialect and intimidates them. He wears no uniform. For that alone he should be shot.’
“Where did they pick him up?’
“Down at the Irrawaddy. They worked him over for information, and he’s scheduled to be shot in a couple of days.’
“So you see, lads, we took Yamagouchi with us. Could he possibly be the tenth man? We gave him a bucket of water when we got him to the tent. He tore off the rages that he wore, and we could see the result of the interrogation. His body was a mass of bruises, welts, and sores that had festered in the open wounds.”
Mel and I had little sympathy for this atypical Jew. He was still a Jap, an extremely dangerous Jap. Mel and I weren’t devout Jews, but we kept in touch with our heritage by going to synagogue a couple of times a year. This unconventional Japanese Jew wasn’t the issue that bothered us. We were Americans and were being asked to celebrate Yom Kippur with a sworn enemy. The idea was just too much for a couple of kids to handle. The Army had done a great job of brainwashing, not only on us, but the American public as well. We had no compunction about killing japs or taking prisoners. But now to accept a Japanese Jewish cap- min was too much for us.
Murray continued, “Captain Yamagouchi is an officer in the Japanese 16th, a graduate engineer from Tokyo University, a cantor, and a Jew from birth, not through conversion.”
“How did he become Jewish?”
“Let’s go over to the big tent. He’ll tell you the story himself. You know, Nick,” Murray said, “it was Captain Yamagouchi who brought up Yom Kippur; we never mentioned it.”
We parted the tent flaps, and there stood our cantor, immersed in conversation with the other six Jews. He was taller than most of his countrymen and greatly undernourished. Everything about him was gaunt! The sharp angles of his jaw almost pierced the skin. Painfully thin shoulders jutted out from his borrowed clothes. His very pores reeked of war. He turned his head as we entered and smiled, a wonderful smile for one just released from a wire cage. He held out his hand, and the three of us refused it.
“The American Jews, how wonderful,” he said. “Now we have our ten for the minyan. Can we start? It’s getting late.”
Mel interrupted. “We were curious about your background. Would you mind —”
“After the service, please. It’s important that we start. With your permission, I’ve been asked to conduct the service. Do I have your approval?”
Both Mel and I nodded, and Kenny asked for permission to remain. It was granted. Here in a tent in the middle of the Burmese jungle we were about to be moved to tears by an enemy soldier who had a voice like a fine instrument.
We had no prayer books, talleisim, or any of the religious items for a Yom Kippur service. But we had Yamagouchi, who sang the prayers from memory. In 50 years, I’ve never heard his equal. Mel and I forgot he was our enemy the moment he began singing.
He raised his eyes and arms toward heaven as he stood at the makeshift altar. He begged God for forgiveness and asked the Almighty for good health and lack of want. He rocked back and forth as he prayed, and the congregants followed him. We were very moved. So moved that we cried, especially the Chindits. Go figure the strange ways human beings are brought together.
Just a few days ago, this man, our bitter enemy, was locked in a wire cage, and now he was leading us in prayer. He begged God for forgiveness and prayed for all of us in the canvas tent. How do you justify war?
His words rang out “God, who will be in the temple next year? Who shall live? Who shall die? Give us a good life. Surely our prayers, repentance, and charity will avert the severe decree.”
Our prayers continued throughout the morning, and at noon break, Kenny, I, and Mel went up to shake the cantor’s hand. Our previous hatred for him had somehow vanished.
The Yukor service, the ancient Hebrew memorial service for the dead, would soon begin. Words poured forth from my mouth, words that had never before meant anything to me: Yizkor Elohim Nishmas … —”May God remember my dead mother and father who have departed.” I prayed for my fallen comrades, Monty, Jerry, Johnny G. “Remember them where they fell. I offer charity for these martyrs.”
We fasted on that day, but on the next two we feasted on foods we only dreamed of. Chindits had secret ways of getting such things. On the last evening, we sat down with Captain Yamagouchi, and he traced his Jewish heritage for us.
“You see,” he began, “back in 1872 the Emperor’s brother, Tamagoucho Yamato, discovered a new philosophy, a new religion Judaism. He was an aesthete, an intellectual, who had been studying the great religions of the world. Judaism fascinated him. He immersed himself in Jewish history, the study of the Torah, and was astounded when he learned about the bitter history of the Jews’ persecution.
It was an enigma to him why a people so learned in the arts, sciences, and professions should be so persecuted. He pondered this awesome problem and found it unfathomable. Then a strange thing happened. As he discussed Judaism with others, he attracted a following, and a movement toward Judaism began. Tamagoucho never did make the conversion to Judaism, because of his royal lineage. But his adherents grew, and converted, and in ten years we had a colony of 500 Japanese Jews in Tokyo.”
“Nicko, boyo,” Artie said. “Wait until the General hears this story. A lost tribe of ours living in Japan. That old fox Wingate married a beautiful girl back in Palestine. They live on a small kibbutz in Beersheba. Murray and I can hardly wait to tell him this news.”
I leaned closer to the cantor and asked, “Is that where you’re from, Tokyo?”
“Yes, I’m the third generation to live and be barmitzvahed there.”
Mel was dazed. “You were barmitzvahed?”
“Barmitzvahed, studied Torah, and trained as a cantor there. I became the cantor for a group of Jews that grew to over twelve hundred souls.”
“Were you ordained?”
“As a cantor, yes, not as a rabbi. That will have to wait until I get home.”
“Murray tells us that you are an engineer.”
“I finished electrical engineering years ago and also studied languages. I pick them up quickly. I speak a number of them fluently,” he said, modestly.
“Nakamouri, you’re one hell of a guy,” I said: “How did you wind up in the army?”
“I was drafted back in 1939. God above only knows if I’ll ever make it back to Tokyo.”
After listening to him, I was more confused than ever. We had prayed together, and now we had to go back and shoot his buddies. We talked until morning. Maybe we had accomplished something. At least, we hugged each other goodbye.
Mel and I? We’re still around, two old geezers with damn good long-term memories. We see each other at times. He’s
still my oldest and dearest friend. Captain Yamagouchi?
Leave it to those Chindits, the son of a gun survived. With the help of the General they took him back to India as a prisoner, and he even filled in at an Indian Jewish temple. The General’s end was tragic. On a routine flight over Burma, his plane crashed. There were no survivors, and his death was mourned in southeast Asia and Palestine.
Those two fighting Chindits, Artie and Murray? They disappeared from our lives as quickly as they entered it. I still see them in their combat boots, .45s clipped to their hips, and an automatic Sten gun slung from their shoulders. That’s the picture I always conjure up when I think of them.
And Kenny? Now, there’s a guy that still excites Mel and me. Every few years we see his picture in the paper. That three-day pass gave him a whole new direction in life. Back in ’47, all the papers carried his picture. Same old Ken with his head leaning out of a DC-3 and big print telling the world that the the old Ace from World War I was still at it. The old bastard was running the blocking and flying in DPs to the emerging State of Israel. His wars never stopped. In ’48 he flew beat up old fighters in the Israeli War of Independence. Years later, the old Ace was in Life magazine; he must have been about 70 by then. He was flying jets out of North Africa with a valuable cargo of Ethiopian Jews. That was one hell of a Piper Cub pilot I drew that day back in the jungle.
Turned out to be a damn good three-day pass, after all. I still don’t go to temple that often. Maybe I should, at my age, but when will I ever hear a Japanese cantor with a great voice like that, and the acoustics of a canvas tent?
MIKE LIPSTOCK is in his seventies. He took up writing fiction in his retirement, and his work has appeared thus far in 80 magazines and five anthologies.