Let me share a story with you about three generations of military service and the changes experienced from each generation to the next—from a battlefield commission during World War I (which might not have happened had the general awarding the commission known that my father was Jewish) to a West Point graduation (when being Jewish was not an obstacle to earning a commission).
In 1918, the armistice ending World War I began on November 11th at 11:00 a.m. and, one year later, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11, 1919 as the first commemoration.
Armistice Day was always a very special holiday in the Black Hills and my father, Morris, who had won a battle field commission in World War I—thus making him a genuine “local hero”—usually made three speeches, each with a different tone.
The first speech was in the Rapid City Auditorium (located where the Dahl now stands) and, from a child’s point of view, it seemed similar to many other gatherings I had observed. It was the usual public address at the appropriate public time. The second speech was at a celebration in the Kadoka high school gym and somehow seemed a little more personal. This speech invited public participation which occurred with occasional applause and laughter. The last speech was in a little country church late in the afternoon (perhaps around 3:00 p.m. or 4:00 p.m.) and was the most different from the others. There was only enough room inside the church for the adults, so we children would wait outside. Through the closed door we would hear, and were impressed by, the occasional loud noise of everyone inside stamping their feet on the floor—this gave me the idea that it was probably the best speech of the day.
In his speeches my father would share his experiences serving during World War I, including how he was recommended for a field commission. During the St. Mihiel offensive in Germany all of his company’s officers were killed and my father assumed command. He rallied the men and the company built a bridge to transport waiting ambulances filled with wounded men to the rear lines—all while under heavy German fire. A general overlooking the battlefield saw the company building the bridge and said, “Make that sergeant a lieutenant.”
While the actions of my father and his company were described as heroic, he told me that it was not a sign of any real bravery, because what bothered him more than the German bullets were the screams of the wounded soldiers who would have been stranded without the bridge.
On November 11, 1918, at 11:00 am the armistice ending World War I began and, eventually, the troops returned home. On the ship taking him back to the United States a regular Army officer asked my father, “Well Lieutenant, how does it feel to be an officer?” He replied, “It’s just great, really wonderful.” The regular asked him what made it that way for him and he answered, “Having a stateroom.” The regular said, “Well that’s not very professional.” My father’s reply: “That’s because you did not come over in the hold.”
The field commission made my father one of a small minority of Jewish men who became officers at that time. In fact, the German Army had more Jewish officers, proportionally, than the United States Army. Would Morris Adelstein have been recommended for a field commission had the general known that his last name was Adelstein? We’ll never know, but years later his grandson would be accepted to and graduate from West Point with the name Adelstein.