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A Tale of Two Sergeants
By Gerard Meister
Prologue: First Sergeant Samuel Dreben a Russian Jewish immigrant to our shores in 1898 enlisted in the American army in 1899, and during three tours of duty fought in more wars to this day than any other American soldier! Upon Dreben's death in 1925, General Pershing, commander of over a million American fighting men in the Great War, wrote the citizen/soldier's widow: "Your husband was the finest soldier and one of the bravest men I ever met." Yet, in a stroke of bias without parallel, Sergeant Dreben, an observant, orthodox Jew, was skipped over for a Medal of Honor by the American army during an action on October 8, 1918, eerily similar to an action on the same day by the celebrated Sergeant York. Interestingly, for those comparable actions the French supreme commander, Marshal Foch, kissed Sergeant Dreben on both cheeks when he honored him with the Medaille Militaire, the French equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor and awarded Sergeant York the Croix de guerre, a far more common and much less prestigious medal
Making a comparison of Sgt. York to Sgt. Dreben is not meant in any way to denigrate the actions of York. He was and still is an American hero, a true patriot in finest sense of the word. But so was Sgt. Dreben, with some telling differences:
- York, initially a conscientious objector, was drafted
- Dreben, overage, married with child and not subject to the draft, enlisted
- October 8, 1918, York was ordered into action near Chatel-Chehery, France
- October 8, 1918, Dreben volunteered for an action near St. Etienne, France, then called for volunteers to follow him into battle (40 doughboys responded!)
- York had three other non commissioned officers with him, with Sgt. Bernard Early in command
- Dreben was the only non commissioned officer in the action
Moreover, his seven surviving comrades in the field roundly criticized York's description of his role in the action. For instance, in a reply to Liberty magazine's serialized publishing of York's war diary, Cpl. Otis B. Merrihew maintained it was he, not "Corporal York," who accepted the surrender of the 132 Germans. Feeling denied proper credit; he wanted to set the record straight, for he believed that each survivor deserved recognition for heroism.
In point of fact, during a radio address given by York in 1941, he said: "Although I was credited with wiping out the whole battalion of 35 machine guns, I was only one of the 17 who did the job. Anyone of the other boys could have done the same thing I did if fate had put them in my place, If any of my buddies are listening tonight I want the whole world to know that without their cool courage none of us would be alive today." (The army, seeking to redress the grievances of the survivors and particularly those of Cpl. Merrihew and the unit's commander, Sgt. Bernard Early, had belatedly awarded both men a Distinguished Service Cross in 1927.)
One might conclude that it was the 'fog of war' that was the precipitate cause of the brouhaha over York's Congressional Medal of Honor. And perhaps, that's what it was, but there was no fog surrounding Samuel Dreben not getting his Medal of Honor. It's just inconceivable that the American army saw a Distinguished Service Cross in Dreben's action, while at the same time the French army saw Dreben's conduct worthy of its highest military award, the Medaille Militaire.
Dear reader, it's never too late to right a wrong. What needs to be done is for you to forward this article to your Congressman and ask for his/her help. (Congress can order the Pentagon to review Dreben's record.) Also, if you are a veteran please get in touch with the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and forward this material. Silence in this matter is acquiescence to the injustice!
Epilogue: for further background:
- For Sam Dreben, please Google "Sam Dreben" and scroll down to: Sam Dreben: Fighting Jew Forgotten Hero, for my profile on this remarkable man
- For anti-Semitism in the American military, please see: Joseph W. Bendersky, The "Jewish Threat" Anti-Semitic Politics of the U.S. Army (New York: Basic Books 2000)
- For an in depth account of the controversy surrounding Sgt.York's Congressional Medal of Honor, please see Michael Birdwell, "Celluloid Soldiers" the Warner Bros. Campaign against Nazism (New York: New York University Press 1999)
For pertinent army citations:
BERNARD EARLY, Corporal (Acting Sergeant), U.S. Army
Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82d Division, A.E.F.
Date of Action: October 8, 1918
The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Bernard Early, Corporal (Acting Sergeant), U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near Chatel-Chehery, France, October 8, 1918. When in command of a party of 17 men Sergeant Early flanked a German battalion. Upon being suddenly confronted by about 200 of the enemy, Sergeant Early decided to attack despite the disparity of numbers. By his quick decision and excellent leadership Sergeant Early effected a successful surprise attack, which he led and commanded until severely wounded by enemy machine-gun fire. The conspicuous gallantry and outstanding leadership on the part of Sergeant Early so inspired the remainder of his small command that it continued the attack until the enemy battalion was either killed or taken prisoner.
General Orders No. No. 22, W.D., 1929
Home Town: New Haven, CT
YORK, ALVIN C., Rank and organization: Corporal, U.S. Army, Company G, 328th Infantry, 82d Division.
Place and date: Near Chatel-Chehery, France, 8 October 1918. Entered service at: Pall Mall, Tenn. Born: 13 December 1887, Fentress County, Tenn. G.O. No.: 59, W.D., 1919.
After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machinegun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machinegun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns.
DREBEN, SAM First Sergeant, U.S. Army Company A,
141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Division, A.E.F.
Date of Action: October 8, 1918
The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Sam Dreben, First Sergeant, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near St. Etienne, France, October 8, 1918. Sergeant Dreben discovered a party of German troops going to the support of a machine-gun nest situated in a pocket near where the French and American lines joined. Sergeant Dreben called for volunteers and, with the aid of about 30 men, rushed the German positions, captured four machine-guns, killed more than 40 of the enemy, captured two, and returned to our lines without the loss of a man.
General Orders No. 37, W.D., 1919
Home Town: El Paso, TX
from the June 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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