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Jewish War Vets Say Thanks With Lunch : 100 Men and Women Are Honored for Their Sacrifice, Service to the Nation

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rabbi Michael Manson delivered his blessing to the crowd of graying war veterans seated in the dining room of the Sportsmen’s Lodge, some out of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in West Los Angeles for the first time in weeks.

“Let us thank God for keeping us alive and keeping people around us so we need not be lonely anymore,” the rabbi said.

And with that, about 100 veterans from World War I onward started digging in at a luncheon Sunday to honor the men and women for their service to this country. The event is held each year by the Jewish War Veterans post that serves the San Fernando Valley and the Westside.

Sunday was a day many veterans had marked on their calendars. “It gives them a chance to get out of the building,” said Ramona Spiller, a recreational therapist at the West L.A. hospital. “They’re being honored. They know they’re not forgotten.”

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James M. Caddell was savoring his afternoon on the town. “This is the big day out for me,” said the 96-year-old veteran of two world wars, breaking out in a toothless grin. Seated in his wheelchair, Caddell briefly recounted his military history as an Army quartermaster in World War I and an MP in World War II.

“You were in World War I, too?” asked Jessie Levey, herself 83 and a civilian veteran of World War II. “You haven’t got a damn wrinkle in your face!”

Caddell grinned again.

At another table, Howard Walker, 71, regaled table mates with tales of his time in a German prisoner-of-war camp. The German officer who interrogated Walker, a graduate of Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, was himself a USC alumnus and was thrilled to meet another Southern Californian.

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“He and I became very chummy,” Walker recalled. So chummy that the officer routed Walker to a relatively posh camp run by a crusty German veteran of World War I. Walker added: “That camp was fine. We had a good commander. We called him ‘Rigor Mortis’ "--a reference to the injuries that kept the commander from being able to raise his arm in salute.

A few months later--after the commander told his prisoners he was defying Hitler’s order to kill all POWs--Russian troops liberated Walker’s camp, and he joined them for six months. “There were some things I had to get done,” he said. “More Germans I had to kill.”

Across the table, John Davis, 49, of Inglewood, remembered a different war. He joined the Marines in the winter and complained about the chill, asking to go to the tropics. He was sent to Vietnam, where he served as a helicopter gunner.

When Davis came back to the United States, his life slowly unraveled. Only recently, Davis said, he kicked a longtime drug habit and now attends functions such as Sunday’s to keep older veterans company.

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“All my things I’d get up for in the morning were gone,” Davis said of the period after getting off drugs. “Now I get up in the morning for this,” he said of the day’s activity.

Sam Goldstein, 83, maneuvered through the maze of tables, clasping veterans on the shoulders. “You know why I do this?” asked Goldstein, a World War II veteran and an officer with the Jewish War Veterans post. “I came back in one piece. If something good happens to you, you do something good for someone else.”

He stopped at James Caddell’s table. “You enjoy yourself?” Goldstein asked Caddell. “We’ll see you next year?”

Caddell grinned another toothless grin. “Oh, yeah.”

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