Benjamin Kaufman was a Jewish World War I hero who received the Medal of Honor for his exceptional bravery on the battlefield.
Born in 1894 to Russian parents, Ben grew up in Brooklyn, the youngest of nine. He lived in a tough neighborhood, and had to learn to fight. “Unless you could fight in East New York in Brooklyn at that time, you just didn’t have a chance,” Ben later said.
Ben became a talented boxer. He was kicked out of high school for breaking the football captain’s nose, but enrolled in a different high school and excelled, earning a scholarship to Syracuse University. In college, he couldn’t stop fighting and finally left to become a professional baseball player.
In 1917, Ben joined the army and and was assigned to the 77th Division, 308th Infantry, Company K. The 77th had the largest number of Jewish soldiers, and still holds the record for the most number of languages spoken in any military division in modern history. Ben quickly became a sergeant, but refused officer training because he didn’t want to leave Company K. He was so popular with his men that he became known as “best top kick” – slang for First Sergeant – in the U.S. Army.
When Ben faced anti-semitism, he would go out of his way to do something nice for the offender, often winning over his enemy with kindness.
Ben’s unit was sent to France in March 1918. It didn’t take long for Ben to show his heroic mettle. In one of his first battles, his unit was being attacked with toxic gas. The men were hiding in small dugouts. When one dugout collapsed under heavy fire, a soldier was trapped underneath the rubble. Ben took off his bulky gas mask so he could save his comrade. At this point, a shell exploded right in front of him, partially blinding him. Ben refused medical help but was taken against his will to a hospital. As soon as he could, Ben borrowed a uniform and headed back to his unit. Ben was threatened with court-martial for leaving the hospital without authorization but ultimately was allowed to return to the front.
On October 4, 1918, while serving in an advance detail in the Argonne, Ben and his men came under heavy attack. Two of his men were wounded by German machine gun fire but were unreachable. Ben’s right arm was shattered when he was struck by a bullet. Despite his injury, Ben continued advancing on the enemy, throwing hand grenades with his left hand. He reached the German position and captured an enemy soldier. Ben managed to transport the German prisoner to the American line. He revealed the location of the German army before fainting from loss of blood. The information Ben relayed enabled the American army to continue moving forward.
In recognition of his bravery in battle, Ben was awarded the Medal of Honor – the country’s highest military decoration – on April 8, 1919. The citation said, “He took out a patrol for the purpose of attacking an enemy machinegun which had checked the advance of his company. Before reaching the gun he became separated from his patrol and a machinegun bullet shattered his right arm. Without hesitation he advanced on the gun alone, throwing grenades with his left hand and charging with an empty pistol, taking one prisoner and scattering the crew, bringing the gun and prisoner back to the first-aid station.”
In addition to the Medal of Honor, Ben received nine international awards for bravery, including the prestigious Croix de Guerre.
After the war, Ben became an active civic leader in Trenton, NJ. He directed many organizations including Disabled American Veterans, Jewish War Veterans, and the National Legion of Valor. At age 48, he tried to enlist to fight in World War II, but was rejected due to his age. He died at age 86 in 1981.
For serving his country with great distinction, we honor First Sergeant Benjamin Kaufman as this week’s Thursday Hero.
With thanks to Ben’s distant cousin Matthew Pearl, who shared his illustrious relative’s story.
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