In a time when Naval aviator Lt. Joe Goldstein and his fellow service members were in constant danger and wracked with survivor’s guilt, the men used their religion, humor and a bit of medically prescribed whiskey to hold it together. Goldstein, now 79 and a Chevy Chase resident, flew 106 missions during the Vietnam War. And there are parts of his war experience that never left him.
“You never forget the illumination of an [anti-aircraft] battery,” he says.
Goldstein practices law as a partner with Murphy and McGonigle in the District. He was a member of synagogues and joined Kesher Israel in Georgetown just before the pandemic began. COVID has kept him away from the services he loves. Goldstein recently published his memoir, “Not Guts, No Air Medals,” which focuses on his military service.
Born in Roosevelt, N.J., which he describes as “a town of farmers and blue collar factory workers,” Goldstein in his youth attended an Orthodox synagogue. And he worked many jobs — he dug ditches, worked at the notebook factory and delivered groceries, to name a few. When he graduated high school in 1960, he left all of that behind and attended Rutgers University, from which he graduated in 1964.
His goal was to fly. Even though his vision was not good enough to be a pilot, Goldstein still qualified to serve as a flight officer on an F4 Phantom, operating the radar and other onboard systems. Even though he met the physical requirements to perform those duties, he said he faced an uphill battle to become an officer in the Navy. Because he was Jewish, Goldstein also faced some unique obstacles.
Minutes before his final inspection to complete the first phase of Officer Candidate School, a more senior cadet officer showed up at Goldstein’s room for an “impromptu pre-inspection.” As he stood at attention, Goldstein watched in horror as the cadet tore apart his bed that he had made and dumped out his footlocker. Before he even had the opportunity to clean up, he was summoned to another room and forced to do push-ups for 15 minutes as punishment for his poorly put-together room.
When he was finished, he knew he was doomed to fail his inspection. Back in his room, he found another senior cadet putting the room in order. Goldstein was able to pass his inspection and continue his training in the Navy.
Weeks later, Goldstein asked the cadet why he had bailed him out. He told Goldstein that he heard the other cadet officer say he was going to make sure “the Jew” washed out of the program. Goldstein’s new friend was also a Jew, and was not going to let that happen.
Years later, deployed on an aircraft carrier, Goldstein ran into the man who attempted to sabotage him. The man, then an officer, had been shot down and picked up, and Goldstein went to see him, unsure what to say or do.
“Before I could do anything, he thrust his hand out and said, ‘I apologize — will you forgive me for what I did?’” Goldstein said. “I shook his hand, accepted his apology. I never saw him again. I do not understand the psychology behind
any of it.”
Because Goldstein performed well during OCS, he was given a say as to whether to go to the East Coast or West Coast. He knew that East Coast deployments usually landed squadrons on the Mediterranean coast and West Coast deployments landed them in the Gulf of Tonkin. “I pictured myself hanging out on the beach in Italy,” Goldstein said.
But days before his deployment to Naples, Goldstein was told that because he was a bachelor, he could either volunteer for duty on the West Coast or he would be volunteered anyway. “Without a wife, they figured no one would miss me,” Goldstein said. A couple of weeks later, Goldstein was on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam as a part of the Black Knights fighter squadron, call sign City Desk.
Goldstein made two tours to Vietnam — first on the U.S.S. Coral Sea and second on the U.S.S. Ranger. During his deployment, Goldstein cultivated a small but diligent community of Jewish sailors and marines — mostly enlisted men — who attended weekly services together.
Because neither of the ships he served on had a chaplain versed in Jewish tradition, Goldstein became the acting rabbi, regularly liaising with the chaplains on board.
Once he was back home, while working as an instructor at the University of Michigan, he was also given the task of informing families if their loved ones had been killed or wounded in battle. “I went from seeing people shot down to telling some mother that her sons were dead.
“It is very difficult to tell people to fight and die in a war that your country does not believe in,” he said. “I took the view after Vietnam that the U.S. should never fight a war the populace opposes.”
For a man who was able to make a minyan in a war zone, the pandemic has been a trial. “I miss it. I miss going to services and making a minyan.”
Correction, Oct. 20, 2021, 4 p.m. The name of Goldstein’s law firm has been corrected, as well as the fact that he joined Kesher Israel before the outbreak of the pandemic. He’s still waiting to attend services in person.