Bronze Star, Beacon of Light

Morris Goldfield reassembled his portable bima.
Deahn Berrini Leblang
Morris Goldfield reassembled his portable bima.

By Deahn Berrini Leblang

Published September 17, 2014, issue of September 18, 2014.

Ninety-seven year old Morris Goldfield of Swampscott radiates a kindly, positive energy that hints at the role he played in the Pacific during World War II.

Drafted into the army in March 1941 at age 23 as a corporal, Goldfield finished the war as a chaplain’s assistant — he led services, visited the sick and wounded, counseled soldiers and buried the dead. For this meritorious conduct, Goldfield won the Bronze Star Medal, a combat honor given only to a few.

Goldfield spent almost four-and-a-half years in the vast Pacific Theatre campaign, the brutal island-by-island retaking of the Pacific from the Japanese. Guadalcanal, Bougainville, the Philippines — Goldfield’s battle resumé reads like a Wikipedia page of major battles.

But even more extraordinary is the fact that he became a chaplain’s assistant at all.

First stationed as part of the 182nd Infantry Americal Division in New Caledonia, Goldfield worked in the regimental message center. As second in command, he had access to a jeep, which he used to find other Jewish soldiers on the island. As there was no Jewish chaplain, he took it upon himself to conduct Shabbat and holiday services.

Corporal Morris Goldfield
Courtesy photo
Corporal Morris Goldfield

A graduate of Burdett College, Goldfield was studying accounting at Northeastern when he was drafted. He credits his time as a teen in B’nai B’rith youth groups for teaching him the leadership, oratory and organizational skills necessary to take on such a demanding role during the war. Although raised in a kosher home and descended from a “rabbinical family” from the Ukraine, Goldfield said that he had no special training in Hebrew.

Yet, his efforts caught the attention of Rabbi Jacob M. Rothchild, a chaplain in Island Command, who requested Goldfield be transferred out of Americal to assist him. The two were then sent to Guadalcanal, becoming the first Jewish chaplain and assistant to go into active combat. Of the extended battle, Goldfield said, “We lost a lot of men… Rabbis have training to protect themselves, harden themselves. I didn’t have any training. It was difficult.”

In Fiji, midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rothchild became ill and left. Goldfield stepped into his shoes, pulling together a non-sectarian choir to sing Kol Nidre. Later, he also organized a Passover service for over 1,000 men, with fish brought in from the Australian navy. Goldfield was also given an assistant, Danny Kaplan, who spoke fluent Hebrew.

Next came the Bougainville campaign, and Goldfield and Kaplan travelled with the front lines. In a letter home from this period, Goldfield worried about having no rabbi above him, and how he would handle visiting the wounded right at the battle. Like everything else he had been dealt, Goldfield stepped up. Again, he buried the dead, a lot of whom by this time he knew well. “I went all over. I was with them at [Camp] Edwards, I rode the ship with them. I knew them. When I buried one, I felt it.”

About halfway through the Bougainville campaign, Rabbi Martin Weitz came in as chaplain. Weitz, a Reform rabbi, had taught and lectured at black colleges before the war. He struck up a friendship with the black community there, who, as part of what were called service troops, were not allowed into combat. Weitz held discussion groups, which became very popular, and the black servicemen regularly attended services, adding to the celebration by singing spirituals. Goldfield has a photo of a Shabbat service from that time; most of the attendees are black. They also planted gardens together.

This posting ended with the onset of the campaign to take back the Philippines; Goldfield was sent to Cebu. It was his service there that received recognition from higher-ups, and he was nominated and received the Bronze Star Medal for Meritorious Service.

Morris Goldfield at his home in Swampscott
Deahn Berrini Leblang
Morris Goldfield at his home in Swampscott

When the war ended, Goldfield returned home and went into business. At 28, he felt he was “too old” to stay in school. For a time, he wrote “Service Snapshots” of the people he had met for a Jewish newspaper. He married his late wife, Frances, and together they raised three children in Marblehead. As a member of Temple Beth El in Swampscott, he held leadership positions and received the Fellowship’s “Man of Year Award” for outstanding service, as well as the “Everyday Community Hero Award” from Jewish Family Service, where he served as president for a time.

On September 20, Goldfield will be a guest of Honor Flight, traveling to Washington, D.C., with his son, Jonathan. He also received an award for his service from Representative John Tierney at a veterans’ event held by the Swampscott Democratic Town Committee this past August.

Goldfield has a trove of papers and objects from his time served, which are designated to go to the Jewish Historical Society. Of particular note is a traveling sanctuary that he carried from place to place — a box with the Sh’ma written in English and Hebrew that carries a Kiddush cup, prayers books and cloth coverings for a bima, all kept in a worn canvas bag. His papers include handwritten Kol Nidre music from the Yom Kippur service on Fiji in 1943, and notes taken while counseling other soldiers.

“They came to me,” he said of the distraught soldiers.

No, Mr. Goldfield. You went to them.

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