by Annette van de Kamp-Wright, Editor of the Jewish Press
Editor’s note: This is part one in the story of Jacob Besser and his remarkable journey from Russia to Omaha, and a few other places in between. Rather than compress it, it needs to be told in its entirety. Parts two and three will be published in future editions of the Jewish Press.
Originally from Stalingrad, Russia, Jacob (Jake) Besser has called Omaha home for many years. It’s a famous place to be from: often seen as the stage for a turning point in World War II, it’s where the Battle of Stalingrad occurred. The battle took place between August 23, 1942, and February 2, 1943, and was marked by constant close-quarters combat and lack of regard for military and civilian life, resulting in combined casualties amounting to nearly two million. German leadership trouble, difficulty with supply lines, constant and extremely bloody hand-to-hand combat and a terrible winter eventually broke the German armed forces.
Stalingrad goes by a different name nowadays; it’s known as Volgograd, and to complicate matters further, Jake’s parents (who married in 1939) were originally from Poland. “At the onset of World War II,” Jake said, “they all moved east. My father and his brothers were arrested, accused of being spies, and sent to Siberia. My mother ended up in various German camps, but eventually escaped and ended up in Uzbekistan. Miraculously, they found each other again after the war ended.”
Jake was born in 1945. He has a sister, Ellen Rausman, who nowadays lives in Woodmere, New York. He came to the United States in March of 1962, when he was 17 years old.
“I came alone, because of the immigration quotas. Not many were allowed to leave Russia in those days. However, my parents and sister were able to follow me in September of that same year.” To put it in historical perspective: that was just in time for the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. It was the year of Fidel Castro’s excommunication by Pope John XXIII and frequent nuclear testing in the Nevada desert. John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth, the Beatles came on the scene, and Egyptian President Nasser declared that Gaza belonged to the Palestinians. The Besser family settled in Brooklyn. Jake finished High School, and in the background, the Vietnam War continued to heat up.
“In 1965, the draft was closing in,” he said, “and I didn’t want to wait until they decided to draft me into the army. And so, it seemed to me, the best option was to volunteer for the Air Force.”
It’s something he felt good about: “America was good to us, and I was happy to, in a way, pay something back. Enlisting allowed me to do my part for the United States.”
He received his basic training at Lackland Air Force base, outside San Antonio, Texas. It was August when he arrived; to this day, he remembers the extreme heat. The hours spent outside were limited, as well as the exertion, because of that temperature.
By late September, Jake found himself at Chanute base, near Champagne, Illinois, where he received further technical training. He became an aircraft technician and trained on a B52 bomber simulator. He graduated on January 31, 1966. From Chanute, he went to Tinker base, Oklahoma, for his first assignment.
“I worked on many different aircraft. There were probably about 3,000 servicemen there, as well as quite a few civilians,” he said. “However, we didn’t have much contact with the civilian side of things.”
He lived on the base, and didn’t leave that base very often: “I didn’t have my own car, and besides, the small town that was there didn’t have much to offer,” he said. “And Oklahoma City was too far away; it was difficult to get there on your own.”
However, transportation was provided every Friday night to the synagogue in Oklahoma City. Jake and five or six others would go together whenever they were able. In the meantime, the Vietnam War continued to escalate. Jake knew what was waiting for him and many others.
“We had people in the shop who had already gone and come back, and they would talk about what it was like,” he remembers. “And then in September of 1966, I received my orders. I was to report later that year; I was going to Vietnam.”
An added unpleasant surprise: that was the moment the military changed the time for deployment from five or six months to a year.
“I wasn’t happy, but I knew it was coming,” he said. “I accepted it. There were seven of us in the shop at the Tinker Air Force base; I was the last one, and closed the door behind me.”
To be continued…