I was honored to be asked to participate in WLRN’s documentary A Call to Serve: Florida Jews and the U.S. Military, which will air at 9 p.m. Tuesday. I got to tell about some of my experiences. I served 20 years in the Air Force and flew the F-4 Phantom jet fighter and the Mach II jet fighter.
After graduating from New York University, I entered the Air Force and was smart enough and physically qualified to be a pilot. At my graduation from pilot training in 1966, my uncle, a World War II B-17 pilot pinned his wings on me. His experiences as a Jewish officer in a German POW camp were not good. But when the Nazis tried to separate the Jewish prisoners out, the entire camp of more than 10,000 POWs stepped forward and said they were all Jewish. That stopped the Nazis.
My experience as a Jew in our Air Force was quite smooth. There were a few instances early on of having to face down a bigot, but, overall, it was much easier than I had anticipated.
In 1967, I am at Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam flying combat missions. On July 6, on my 78th combat mission deep in North Vietnam near the Chinese border, I was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and taken prisoner. This isn’t what I had planned and now a whole new chapter of my life began for the next five years and eight months. Our dog tags listed our religion. I wasn’t in favor of this, but didn’t have a choice.
The Vietnamese Communists were atheists, and only once during my captivity brought up my being Jewish. After much back and forth, they asked me if I supported Israel against the Arabs, and I said Yes. Religion was never mentioned again.
During my career I met a number of other Jewish officers and enlisted folks. My contemporaries seemed to have the same opportunities that I had, and that is a strong testament to our Air Force. While going through my F-4 training in 1966 in Tucson, Ariz., the base chaplain (who was not Jewish) was even able to get us High Holy Day tickets at a local synagogue. In my time, we had all the opportunities as everyone else. I hope that’s still true. Today there are many more Jews in the Air Force in all ranks up to, and including, generals. One of my Jewish prison mates retired as a general.
America is still the land of opportunity. More Americans need to understand what we have in America and make it even better.
Melvin Pollack, lieutenant colonel (ret.), USAF, West Palm Beach
Editor’s note: Check your cable provider’s listings for A Call to Serve.