The New York Opera Star at the Saigon Seder

Tex Blair and Seymour Samuels share their Passover experiences while serving in Vietnam. The two helped prepare for the arrival of star tenor Richard Tucker, who served as cantor for the 1967 Seder. With a celebrity coming, a large number of soldiers were sure to arrive to celebrate the holiday. There had been virtually no preparation before Blair and Samuels became involved.

Arnold Gans Blair, Jr. (Tex)

I was born in Houston, Texas and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. My home congregation was Temple Israel. I went to College at the University of Pennsylvania where I took Army ROTC. Before I went to Vietnam, I served in the U.S. Army Europe where I was assigned as Assistant S-4 (Supply Officer) of the 504th S&T Battalion. After that I was the Quartermaster of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. While in Vietnam I served as the major food supplier for the Open Mess division for the headquarters in Saigon.

Seymour Samuels, III

I was born and raised in Nashville, TN. My home temple was a reform synagogue first named The Vine Street Temple and, later after moving to the suburbs, The Temple. After I graduated from The Virginia Military Institute (VMI) I went immediately on active duty as an Infantry Officer. Due to extreme nearsightedness I was transferred after two years to the Quartermaster Corps. I was reassigned to Vietnam. I went to Parachute Rigger school. I became the 1st Logistical Command’s Aerial Resupply (parachute resupply) Officer. I was then recruited into Special Forces and became a logistics officer at several levels of command.

Seymour Samuels

In about February 1967, I was transferred from Headquarters, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) (5SFGA) in Nha Trang, Vietnam to Company A, 5SFGA located in Bien Hoa, Vietnam. Bien Hoa was near Saigon, so I rejoined the small Jewish Congregation that met in the Rex Hotel in Saigon. The Rex was part of the U.S. Army Headquarters Area Command (USAHAC) responsible for non-combat support within the Saigon area.  USAHAC was destined to play a key role in supporting the 1967 Seder through its division responsible for feeding us personnel stationed in Saigon.

Seymour Samuels presenting a Torah to Chaplain Alan Greenspan, 1966.

Before I joined Special Forces, I was stationed in Saigon where I was active in the congregation. The Rabbi was a great guy named Alan Greenspan. He spent most of his time in the field finding Jews where he could and worked with non-Jews when there were no Jews. He believed in taking religion to where the soldiers were instead of staying in Saigon. He put a wonderful Seder together in 1966.

In that small congregation, I met my best friend, Arnold Blair who was also from Tennessee. He came from Memphis but got his nickname because he was born in Texas. After Vietnam, Tex and his wife Linda introduced me to my future wife. He is still my best friend to this day.

Unfortunately for our congregation, Rabbi Greenspan rotated back to the U.S. early in the year and his replacement was not due into Vietnam UNTIL AFTER THE 1967 SEDER. That left the Jewish Chaplain’s Assistant (an enlisted man 4th grade called a Specialist 4 or, in slang a Spec4 , who had no clout within the military chaplains organization) to cover all things Jewish in the country.

One Sabbath, Tex and I arrived for services to find a very distraught Chaplain’s Assistant. He had just been informed that Richard Tucker, the leading tenor of the New York Metropolitan Opera was coming to Saigon to conduct the Seder service. He would be accompanied by a rabbi from Temple Emanu-El in New York.

Suddenly, the Seder had grown in importance from a very small affair to a major command-sponsored event with lots of high ranking interest. In other words – a VERY big deal. As the Chaplain’s Assistant had no ranking officers to help him, Tex and I volunteered to help.

I went to the Chaplain’s offices in U.S. Army Vietnam and found that the Jewish Welfare Board was sending kosher canned chicken and other canned and dried non-perishables for the Seder. Other than the food support and the attendance of the probably most famous cantor in the United States, there was no further support from Jewish organizations outside of our miniscule Army Saigon congregation.

Tex and I put the Chaplain’s Assistant to work finding a place that we could use for the anticipated crowd. We knew to expect little help from the military religious hierarchy in preparing for the Seder. We also knew they would probably flock to see Richard Tucker. We weren’t wrong.

The next morning the Chaplain’s Assistant got an agreement from the Saigon USO to use its facility from 5:00 PM to 8:00 AM. This would provide a large facility for the Seder which would start about 6:30. It had to end by 9:00 to avoid violation of Saigon’s curfew. Lots of meal preparation, set-up and tear-down in just a little time.

Tex had been assigned to the USAHAC division with responsibility for feeding us personnel in Saigon, known as the USAHAC open mess division (USAHAC OMD).  He drew on USAHAC senior U.S. Army personnel responsible for OMD’s food preparation and delivery operations in Saigon to supervise the seasoning and cooking of a kosher meal for over 100 attendees at the USO facility. Tex’s OMD Army culinary experts produced over 100 meals that were served at the Seder.

At exactly 5 PM on the day of the Seder, two trucks loaded with ethnic Chinese and Cambodians arrived at the Saigon USO. Some of these men, under the supervision of Tex’s people, cleaned the kitchen and cooking implements and prepared the meal. Others transformed the social hall into a banquet hall.

Opera Singer Richard Tucker at 1967 Seder

By 6 PM, when we had Seder plates set up and on the tables and the canned kosher chickens cooking, Jewish soldiers began to appear. I remember one person remarking that the cooks did not look Jewish. I told him that they were Chinese – Oriental Jews. He wandered away with a quizzical look on his face.

I remember little about the actual service itself except to know that I had never had eaten better food nor had I heard such beautiful music in my life. Richard Tucker was fantastic.