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The remarkable true-life adventures of Samuel Dreben, the fighting Jew - Part 3

By Gerard Meister

We pick up Sam's story when he gets back to Texas after his discharge from the Army in 1919. At first, things do not go smoothly for the Doughboy. His young wife, hurt by his leaving her to go "Over There," does not welcome him back into her arms.

Initially saddened by his being spurned, Sam's spirit is lifted when General Pershing asks that he come to Washington to help with the entombment of the Unknown Soldier. But Sam learns that before he gets there he has an important undercover job to do for the police chiefs of El Paso and Los Angeles.

Sam moves to California where his last battle is destined to be fought.


When Dreben finally got back to El Paso he hoped his wife would forgive him, that they would share in the grief of losing a child. But she seemed strangely aloof, almost disconnected from him. Perhaps, he thought, a woman once scorned, as she must have felt when he left her with a three week-old infant, would never be the same. Then he began to hear whispers that she had been unfaithful while he was overseas. When Sam confronted Helen with the rumors, her silence confirmed his suspicions. He filed for and was granted a divorce on June 19, 1919. Sam had been home in Texas just sixty days.

Faced with the age-old dilemma of the cuckold: whether to stay put and suffer the knowing smirks or to start fresh in some other place, brought the curse of sleepless nights to Sam for the first time in his life. Once he realized it was not in him to run, that he had to stay, had to hang tough, his self-esteem returned on the same wings as his sleep. He knew things would somehow, someway work out. They always did.

As 1919 drew to a close, Sam met life more than halfway by keeping busy. He dabbled in oil and insurance and joined the Kiwanis Club and all the veterans' organizations. El Paso could not get enough of First Sergeant Dreben, its hometown hero. Seizing the moment the citizen-soldier opened an insurance office and success came quickly. By 1921, he was making - as the saying goes - a comfortable living.

In May of that year, yet another honor arrived: an invitation from General Pershing to serve as honorary pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier being entombed in Arlington National Cemetery in November. Glowing with pride, the veteran trooper checked his boots first -- it was a long march down Pennsylvania Avenue to Arlington -- then took out all his medals, arranged and rearranged the way he would wear them a dozen times before he tried on his old uniform. He'd go on a diet, lose a few pounds and spit-shine his boots. He was going to look spiffy for the trip to Washington, ready for anything.

But instead of a cause or a battle, the anything this time came in the form of Louis D. Oaks, Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and the most improbable posse ever assembled, even for Texas. Indeed, the old newspaper accounts of this incident read as if the fate of Dreben and the L.A.P.D. were in the hands of an accomplished novelist as the protagonists are drawn together by some immutable force, linking up at the critical juncture, thickening the plot, making it work.

To read what happened, click on Kosher Kidnapping

Sam's stint in jail and all the publicity made him a hero all over again. He couldn't walk from one block to another in El Paso without someone stopping to applaud or salute him. Sam felt reborn and for the first time in the three years since his divorce, began dating. Serious dating. In 1923, he met and married Meada Andrews a beautiful young widow from Dallas. His new wife, sensing the baggage that came along with life in El Paso, urged Sam to forget Texas and get a fresh start in California. Sam reluctantly agreed, Texas had been his only home since he had left Russia. With his new wife at his side he closed his main street office by year's end, packed his bags, shook hands with all the boys and was on a train heading west, ready to start a new life in California.


Sam hit the ground running when he got to the coast. Somehow he sensed that L.A. was his last chance to lead a 'normal' life. In double-quick time the affable war hero became a special agent for the West Coast Life Insurance Company, joined the usual assortment of Veterans' groups and made a score of new friends. By 1925, he was so totally immersed in the here and now lifestyle of California that the memory of past battles and roads not taken soon dimmed. Samuel Dreben was finally just a regular, every day kind of guy.

On March 14th when the sweet scent of spring was already in the air, Sammy had an appointment for a routine visit to his doctor, who was a personal friend. Doctor, nurse and patient were all making smalltalk, when the nurse, possibly distracted by the banter, accidentally filled a hypodermic with a toxic substance in place of the prescribed medicine and gently eased the needle into Sammy's vein. Mortally stricken, he was rushed to the Good Samaritan Hospital, where he expired quietly the next morning when his brave heart finally stopped beating.


The Coroner's Office decreed that an autopsy must be performed and took charge of Dreben's remains. The war veterans argued that their hero should be interred in The National Cemetery at Arlington under a full panoply of military honors. El Paso clamored for Sam's body to be brought home. (Captain Burges, Sam's comrade-in-arms, asked the Dreben family for permission to bury his former First Sergeant in the Burges family plot in El Paso.) Sam's widow along with the rest of his family felt besieged. The sacrilege of an autopsy on an observant Jew was bad enough, but not to be buried in consecrated ground was unthinkable.

By the next afternoon, the Coroner ruled the accident in the doctor's office to be the cause of death. The American Legion sprung into action, whisking Sam's remains to the Grand View Memorial Park in Glendale, where they kept a number of grave sites, and which, they felt, was a livable compromise to Arlington or El Paso. Final services and the still contested interment were scheduled for 3:30 P.M. the following day, even though the family, still confused by Sam's status as military hero, Texan and observant Jew, had not agreed to the Legionnaires' terms.

Nevertheless, the casket was wheeled into the cemetery chapel at the appointed hour. The assemblage parted along the lines of its opposing burial rites, stoking the acrimony that had flared up between the American Legion chaplain and the family's rabbi, who began to rail at one another across the aisle. Being pushed to the wall seemed to stiffen the family's resolve: in these circumstances you cannot serve God and country at the same time. The impasse filled the room, choking off any hope of a compromise, until the rabbi, Meyer Winkler of Temple Sinai, proposed a Solomon-like solution. Carl De Mott, the Legion's chaplain, would preside over full military honors in the chapel, then lead the Legionnaires' cortege to the graveside where a bugler's Taps would sound its plaintive farewell. At this point, with the Corps standing at parade rest and in silence, the family would come forward to chant the Mourner's Prayer as the rabbi would lead them through the final service, consecrating the burial in accordance with the laws of Moses and of Zion.

His last battle had been fought. Now Samuel Dreben, the fighting Jew, could rest in peace.

* * * * * *


Samuel Dreben fought in more of our nation's wars than General Douglas MacArthur. Newspapers from coast to coast - including The New York Times - carried his obituary. Nationally syndicated columnist Damon Runyon, eulogized him with a poem, The New Yorker magazine with a two-page profile. The Texas State Legislature passed a resolution honoring Sam Dreben, lowered the Lone Star flag to half staff and recessed for the day - a unique tribute to that remarkable man, the fighting Jew from Texas.

In what has to be a tribute without parallel, General Pershing, commander of over a million American fighting men in World War I, wrote to Sam's widow:

"Your husband was the finest soldier and one of the bravest men I ever met."

As the sands of time shift into the new millenium, it is rare to find a living soul who ever heard of Samuel Dreben, America's "Forgotten Hero."

Until now.

Formal portrait of Sam wearing his American and French medals shortly before his final days in the Army, April 1919. Sometime later, the Belgian and Italian governments decorated him, too. (see below)


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