In October 1942, 20-year-old Jacob Henry (Hank) Goldman, the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants, walked into a Navy recruiting center in Philadelphia, hoping to enlist. It was 10 months since the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.
Goldman was attending the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School at the time, studying to become an accountant. But as far as he was concerned, that could wait. There was a country to help defend.
For reasons that were forever a mystery, the Navy turned him down. So, Hank Goldman shrugged and walked down the street to the Army Air Corps office, where he asked to enlist in that branch, which would later become the United States Air Force. “There was no question in his mind that he wanted to fight for his country,” says Nancy Taicher, Goldman’s daughter.
The Army Air Corps accepted Goldman, which proved a smart move and a lucky one for the country. After ranking No. 2 out of 150 students in navigators’ school, Lt. Goldman was assigned to a bomb group in the South Pacific. He and the other young men from every corner of the country, strangers at first then bonded for life, were tasked with eliminating Japanese fortifications on islands whose names once gripped the nation’s attention as it anxiously waited to see which way the war would go. The names are now obscure to Americans, whose knowledge of the bravery and grit of those that preceded them has also largely evaporated with time.
Goldman’s job was to guide bomber pilots to their target while reducing the likelihood that they would be blown out of the sky, helping them hit their targets and then, somehow, getting them back to their base. His skill and judgment kept American crews alive and their planes in one piece during 25 bombing missions, leading to a series of promotions: first to flight leader, then squadron leader and then bomb group leader by the time the Japanese surrendered. He received two presidential citations: for the role his group played cutting Japanese supply lines and for leading a successful attack on a key Japanese position in the Philippines.
This, however, doesn’t capture the overarching fact for Hank Goldman and approximately one million others who saw active combat in World War II and came back home alive: Their survival was often by the sheer grace of God. Goldman’s plane was hit by enemy fire twice and forced down. He survived crash landings and near misses, when only quick thinking and serendipity enabled his crew to avoid being taken prisoner or shot to pieces. It is small wonder that when he was 88 and published a short memoir of his time at war, he called it “Lucky Hank.” It’s his story, but it’s more broadly the story of a country able to summon the patriotism of its finest young people to fend off the global designs of fascists.
Turns out, that isn’t all Hank left behind. Shortly before he died last summer six weeks before his 100th birthday, his nurse at the Vitas Hospice in Delray Beach, Florida, telephoned his daughter Nancy. The nurse, a Ukrainian immigrant named Elena Leo, who was watching as her own homeland resisted totalitarianism, said excitedly, “I didn’t know your father was a war hero!”
Taicher asked how she knew. “I googled Jacob H. Goldman last night,” she replied, informing Goldman’s daughter that, unbeknownst to his family, there were 23 YouTube interviews with Goldman about his time in the South Pacific.
Seems the Central Florida World War II Museum had interviewed Goldman late in his life and posted the interviews online. “Without Elena,” says Nancy Taicher, “we never would have known they existed.”
As of this year, only 167,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still alive. Each month their number shrinks. In their absence, accounts like that of Hank Goldman will have to suffice to remind us of how much their country owes them.