A Jewish Army officer from Arkansas City, Kansas, a Baptist preacher from Kentucky, a single prayer book and a war-ravaged Pacific island: these are not the ingredients for most traditional Rosh Hashanah services. But in 1943, they came together to create an extraordinary experience. Captain Elliott Davis described the experience in a beautifully written “Dear Rabbi” letter.
Combat continued in and around the Solomon Islands in 1943 when Davis began planning a Rosh Hashanah service to be held on September 29th. The Battle of Munda Point had been won the month before. The Americans had captured the strategically important air field from the Japanese. Davis had seen plenty of action, but a high holiday service was a completely different challenge. Religious services often serve as a respite from the horrors of war. For Davis and the other soldiers, sailors and Marines who attended following months of brutal fighting, this New Year celebration had a meaning unlike others.
October 29, 1943
I am enclosing a description of our recent Rosh Hashanah service on Munda. I though it might be of interest to you purely from a unique standpoint. Rather ironical isn’t it — I spent Wednesday before Rosh Hashona plastering death on the Japs at Kalombangara and then on Thursday took a boat-ride to Munda for the holiday.
We’re through fighting for a while. Thank God. The Munda campaign made the Guadalcanal campaign look like a Sunday School picnic. I know– I attended both affairs and we’re more than ready for the U.S.O. soldiers to take over for a change.
With combat in the Pacific in the headlines of American newspapers, the names of once unheard of towns, islands, atolls, were on the tip of American’s tongues in 1943. The places seemed exotic, but Americans sought to understand where their boys were serving. Davis’ letter shows how service members were creating new types of experiences that combined their culture from home with the wartime conditions across the world. For Davis, a Rosh Hashanah service brought some joy to a place marked by war and death.
This is the story behind the most isolated Rosh Hashona service in all the world. It is the story of a service prepared and nurtured by two Jews who knew no Hebrew but were proud and aware of the of their Jewishness and a Baptist preacher from the hills of Kentucky who possessed an understanding heart and a will that knew no defeat. It is the story of inspiration and hope, of tolerance and understanding, of pride and patriotism.
Munda is an intriguing name. A name that has figured so prominently in war headlines cannot be too easily forgotten. And yet in this story our Rosh Hashona service seems a far cry from suffering and slaughter that is the history of Munda.
One of the reasons, military chaplains placed importance on holding religious services was exactly that separation from suffering and slaughtering. The spirit of the chaplaincy is to provide services to all service members. This frequently means a chaplain of one religion ministering to someone of a different faith. Non-Jewish chaplains were called upon to lead or organize Jewish services. Davis describes his relationship with Evans Moseley, field artillery chaplain. Neither Davis, with his lack of Jewish education, or Moseley, the Baptist preacher, seemed ideal for the task at hand. But Moseley was prepared and willing. Together they would work to ensure Rosh Hashanah could be observed by those stationed around the Solomon Islands even while a war was going on.
It was getting toward the middle of September and all of us Jews in the division knew that the holidays were approaching, but we were fighting a war- Japs still remained on Arundel and the job of removing them was proving difficult- and it appeared that the possibility of services was remote. At this point our division chaplain, Major Evans T. Moseley, the Baptist preacher approached me with the problem of Jewish High Holy Day services. He head received a communication from the Jewish Welfare Board stating the dates of the holiday services. They were sending a tallith, shofar, etc. to each chaplain of division headquarters not having a Jewish chaplain attached. Our division not having a sufficiently high percentage of Jews was not allotted one; however, it hadn’t proved too difficult since Chaplain Moseley had fostered our weekly services even while he was the division artillery chaplain. It was he who arranged for matzo on Passover and it was he who managed to gather a “minion” when one of our boys paid the supreme price.
So it was no surprise to me to have “Chappie” as he is affectionately know approach me on the subject. It was a surprise however when he asked me to take charge of the services. I had been reared in a small town in Kansas with no opportunities for a formal Hebrew education and I doubted my ability to organize a suitable service. However, the officer who had been conducting the services previously had been evacuated, and it was obvious that someone must carry on. Recognizing this and knowing I had another Jewish officer in the battalion from Pittsburgh who could help me I undertook the responsibility.
Davis knew there would be additional difficulties. Getting supplies in the Pacific was a challenge. Soldiers had to take advantage of every logistical opportunity to transport goods. Soldiers had to find things wherever they could, whether it was finding space on a transport boat or borrowing a single item from a “Jewish boy” at HQ. The first things Davis sought were prayer books for the service.
The chaplain was making a trip by air to the “Canal” and he agreed to take care of that item. Meanwhile we felt that something might happen to those prayerbooks so we managed to get one from a Jewish boy in division artillery headquarters. As it later proved out, the prayerbooks were delayed and we had only one.
Even more challenging than supplies, transportation would need to be made available for Jewish personnel who wanted to attend the service including Davis himself. On September 26th, Davis’ battalion had been moved to Zieta island, thirty miles from Munda point where the service would be held. The move had taken two days. Rosh Hashanah was tomorrow. There was no clear way to travel to the location of the service.
Communications were also limited. Davis hadn’t known how to let people know the service was happening. A religious service might have a lower priority than other needs when allocating who had access to communications channels. Fortunately, Chaplain Moseley was resourceful.
The chaplain pulled into our landing on a tank lighter on which he had hitched a ride… He told me that the corps headquarters… had publicized it to the other Army units as well as the Navy, Marines, and Seabees. He further told me that he was having a difficult time arranging transportation, but that he thought we could catch the mail boat early the next morning on its first stop after leaving Bombo Village on Arundel. I also learned that Chaplain Moseley had found a warrant officer in the division who had played an organ in Jewish temples in New Jersey and that he would be at Munda …
Early the next morning we were waiting at the landing when the mail boat pulled in. Leaving we traveled south through the reef-studded waters of Wana-Wana bay, stopping at Baanga to pick up the engineers and ordnance personnel, then on to the Southern tip of Arundel to pick up men from division headquarters units and from there on around to Munda Point to Lambeti landing. We loaded into trucks, were driven into corps headquarters and arrived there at 1300 that afternoon …
We set up the organ in the enlisted men’s mess hall and waited for the men to arrive. Including everyone we could think of our most optimistic guesses on attendance stayed in the neighborhood of fifty. But as the time approached our wildest hopes were exceeded.
Soldiers, sailors, marines, seabees, coming by boat from Bairoko Harbor, Piru Plantation, Viru Harbor, Rendova, Kokorona, Sasavel; places that are as common to the headline readers as New York, Chicago, St. Louis; places that are just as close to those whose sons and husbands and fathers and brother have fought and bled on their wild malarial shores. By truck and jeep they came from Munda Airfield, Olson landing, Zieta Village and Laiana Landing until at 1400 there were more than a hundred and twenty-five present.
Davis’ description of the service captures the remarkable spirit present and how it affected the attendants. Interestingly, he evokes the destruction of European Jewry. He addresses the combat the makeshift congregants had experienced in the Pacific just days before. The success of the American war effort in the area becomes joined with his connection to Jewish tradition. It also makes him think of those who sacrificed their lives in the war effort. The service proves a cathartic experience.
As the organ started the service playing the centuries-old hymn there was a sudden hush that spread throughout the mess hall, which now was no longer a mess hall. To some it became that beautiful temple or synagogue at home with a choir or cantor singing from the soul. To the few refugees in our midst it became the burned rubble of a Polish synagogue with its heart-breaking memories. To others of us that mess hall was on hallowed ground where God-fearing men of all faiths had fought and died that our way of life might survive. As the organ softly played on, I looked out of the building and in the distance was that serene blue Pacific separating us from all our loved ones. To my right I saw the Munda Airfield, the object of our recent operation in the South Pacific. Its white coral runways sparkled in the sun as plane after plane took off from its glass-like smoothness.· And as those planes soared into the heavens, I could not help but compare with our soaring hopes in this our New Year. For the first time in years the horizon was beginning to clear. One could begin to see the outline of the future. Each to his own thoughts but all confident in the eternal optimism of the Jew that the next year beckoned brightly.
Rosh Hashanah proved a unifying experience for Davis. His connection with his comrades was deep. The service transcended traditional categories. In a land far from home, the service Davis planned simultaneously gave him a respite from the war and reminded him of the importance of the cause.
The service we had wasn’t orthodox; it wasn’t even reform; it was sincere and Jewish. And the sermon on the New Year, by our beloved Chaplain Moseley would have done credit to any of our own respected rabbis.
Capt. Elliott Davis
As the memorial service concluded our Rosh Hashona service and everyone spoke up. “Le Shono Toivo”, we quickly loaded up to head for home before dark. At dusk we pulled into our landing and so ended Rosh Hashona at Munda – a place too wild even for the natives to inhabit.
At the same place where the destruction of war had been unavoidable shortly before, Elliott Davis helped create an extraordinary observance of Rosh Hashanah. The memories would last a lifetime. After the war, Elliott Davis lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he remained involved with Jewish causes. He died in 2000.