Jewish veterans dedicate memorial to fallen comrades

Bert Sugarman flew 29 combat missions over Europe, but, like Rodney Dangerfield, he got no respect.

A gunner and radio operator on a B-24 Liberator (aka “The Pregnant Whale”), Sugarman and his crewmates developed a good-natured disdain for the more lauded and well-known B-17 Flying Fortress.

“The B-17 got all the glory and the write-ups. But we were the bigger plane until the B-29 came along,” recalled the San Francisco resident, who also served in Korea. “The B-24 couldn’t take the damage a B-17 could and still fly. That’s why they got all the glamour. We flew more missions, carried more armaments and had greater range, but, you know, we got beat up pretty good.”

After the war, Sugarman found that not only had the plane he’d flown failed to receive its historical due, but so had he and thousands of soldiers like him — Jewish soldiers.

“I hear so much that Jews never fought and never did this and never did that,” said Sugarman, 79, who just began his seventh term as commander of the Bill Bauer Post 688 of the Jewish War Veterans. “I know that to be a damn lie. I was in the military; there were very many Jews in the military and percentagewise we were right up there and gave our lives accordingly. I don’t carry my Judaism on my shoulder, but, damn it, it’s there and I want everyone to know it too.”

With this in mind, the JWV post has erected a monument honoring Jewish veterans — which Sugarman believes to be the Bay Area’s first — on land at Colma’s Salem Memorial Park donated by San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Israel-Judea. In a ceremony open to the public, the monument will be officially dedicated Sunday.

The impetus for Sugarman’s drive to create a monument is not hard to trace. While he was heading back from a trip to Los Angeles for the dedication of a similar monument last year, it occurred to the past JWV state commander that it would be nice to have such a monument in the northern half of the state.

“I’m not trying to be original here,” he quipped. “I’m stealing their idea.”

Outgoing post commander Richard Brown was immediately taken with the idea, and successfully pitched it to the board of Beth Israel-Judea (which houses the post). He then submitted the plan to the post’s 100-odd members, who voted to fund the monument.

“We have very little funds, and this cost us about $3,000, which just about emptied our coffers,” recalled Brown, a Daly City resident. “But we thought it was well worth the expense.”

A “dual rated” helicopter and airplane pilot in Korea, who also logged two tours of Vietnam and several campaigns “I’m sworn to keep my mouth shut about until they’re made public,” Brown takes particular offense when it’s implied that Jews don’t participate in the military.

“People feel that Jews did not fight for their country, that Jews rely on personal wealth to buy their way out of the military,” said the 64-year-old Brown, who served in the Army from 1953 to 1973. “We need to let the public know that Jews did, in fact, fight in every conflict that this country has had. There are Jews who do every single job from forming the infantry on the ground, to clerks, to commanding generals, to flying airplanes and helicopters.”

Sugarman said he hopes that in addition to serving as a memorial to the legacy of Jewish soldiers, the monument will provide visitors with emotional relief.

“If people want to say a couple of words in memory of their loved ones, that’s fine,” he said. “I thought it’d be nice to have something like this in Northern California, so people could see it.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.