This story first appeared on 15th Wing, an official website of the U.S. Air Force.
HONOLULU—Seventy years ago, a young man was killed in World War II, just days before the surrender of Japan. Since then, he has been interred with the wrong emblem on his headstone—that is, until recently.
On Feb. 28, 1st Lt. Levy Pekar, a rabbi and chaplain assigned to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, led the headstone replacement ceremony in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, to honor Staff Sgt. Jack Weiner of the U.S. Army Air Force.
“While I was in New York, I found out about Sgt. Weiner’s story from his cousin,” said Pekar, a graduate of Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical seminaries. “At first, it sounded like miscommunication because we couldn’t find anything about him. But after some digging, we were able to find the Quarter Master General’s form that confirmed Sgt. Weiner’s wishes to have the Star of David on his headstone.”
When he first heard about Sgt. Weiner’s story, Pekar said he felt a connection with the young man who died more than 70 years ago.
“Sgt. Weiner’s story resonated with me on so many different levels,” added Pekar. “With both of us being Jewish and airmen, I felt like his story could have easily been mine. His story affected me on a spiritual level, and as my duty as chaplain, I knew we had to correct this mistake.”
In 1945, Sgt. Weiner was a navigator assigned to the 345th Bombardment Group, which was stationed in Japan. During an air raid on Aug. 10, Sgt. Weiner died in action when his aircraft was shot down.
“What we’re doing here is known as the Chesed Shel Emes, or truest form of kindness,” explained Pekar. “One of the best things you can do in your life is something for the dead because it is something that can never be repaid.”
The new headstone for Sgt. Weiner, with an engraved Star of David
‘A Sacred Duty’
Sgt. Weiner made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, but his story would be incomplete without his family’s influence.
According to family records, his mother, Eve, was born and raised in the Jewish faith in Russia in the early 1900s. During that time, pogroms—organized persecutions of Jewish people—were rampant as growing tensions began spreading before and during World War I. Fleeing persecution, Eve migrated away from her homeland and found refuge in the United States. Soon after settling in Brooklyn, N.Y., she gave birth to her only son, Jack, on July 22, 1922.
With the increase of anti-Semitism throughout Europe at the time, Eve was glad that she and her son were safe from persecution in Europe. As Jack grew up and tensions turned into World War II, Eve celebrated the fact that she only had one son and that he would be exempt from the draft. But Jack had other plans.
Despite being deferred from the draft for being an only child, Jack Weiner defied his mother’s wishes and joined the military.
In the center is Sgt. Brian Field (Ret.); Pekar is at the far right. The airman holding the flag, far left, is fusion analyst A1C Anton Shevchenko; next to him is Master Sgt. Steve Kim, superintendent of chapel operations.
Enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Force, Weiner was eventually stationed in Japan and assigned to the 345th Bombardment Group, 501st Bombardment Squadron. Just days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and mere weeks before Japanese government officially surrendered—Weiner’s plane was shot down.
Originally buried at Yokohama Cemetery in Japan, Sgt. Weiner’s remains were moved to Hawaii, where he was laid to rest at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in March 1949. During this transition, a mistake was made, and Weiner ended up with a Christian cross on his headstone instead of the Star of David.
Rabbi Itchel Krasnjansky, director of Chabad of Hawaii in Honolulu
“We have a sacred duty to protect our service members, and we will do so in all cases, in life and in death,” said Pekar. “I’m just glad we are able to correct mistakes when we become aware of them, even 70 years later.”
More than 30 members of the community, both military and civilian, attended Sgt. Weiner’s headstone replacement ceremony. Although Sgt. Weiner’s family members were unable to attend the ceremony, Jewish community members came together to recite Psalms and the Kaddish, and to honor and celebrate Weiner’s life and sacrifice.
“It speaks to this man’s incredible merit that so many years after his death, he and his religion are being recognized,” said Rabbi Itchel Krasnjansky, director of Chabad of Hawaii in Honolulu. “He consecrated his life by making the ultimate sacrifice for his country. It’s appropriate that we are able to witness the occasion of him receiving his correct headstone and recognize his contributions to our nation.”
Front and center with airmen after a pennant test for marching in formation
For trainee and therapist Rabbi Levy Pekar, it’s an opportunity to serve.