Grave mission

World War II veteran Ralph Shower (left) and Vietnam veteran Ron Waxman look through cemetery records  at Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery, working to identify graves of veterans that  are not yet marked with a Jewish War Veterans  flag holder.   Photo: Mike Sherwin

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

In 1947, just two years after the end of World War II, Ralph Shower began a quest he continues to this day.

Still alert and capable at age 97, Shower is an Army veteran on a mission while he’s able: to locate the grave of every Jewish veteran buried in the St. Louis area. 

A member of the 517 Signal Company in the 17th Airborne during WWII, Shower was severely injured during a low-altitude parachute jump while stateside. The drop location was miscalculated and Shower and two others came down hard into trees — Shower didn’t wake up until three days later. During his months of recuperation he saw many mortally wounded men in hospital wards. 

That experience made such an impression that he wanted to find a way to pay lasting tribute to Jewish men and women who had served in uniform. So he began his effort that continues today, with the help of a handful of other Jewish veterans and their friends and family.

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“In 1947, right after the war, we went door to door, with volunteers, in neighborhoods that were predominantly Jewish. We knocked on doors and asked if there was a Jewish veteran in the home,” said Shower.

That early canvass netted about 4,500 names, Shower said.

Then each one had to be verified with military discharge records. Getting the names, substantiating military records and then locating where each veteran was buried has been the heart of the efforts of Shower and several other men and women over the years.

Today, Shower’s main partner in the effort is Ron Waxman, 68, a former Navy electrician who served during the Vietnam War on the U.S.S. Charles R. Ware, a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam.

These two men, separated in age by nearly three decades, believe every Jewish veteran—man or woman—should be honored for having served his or her country, whether overseas or on the home front.

Men on a mission

Their motives are basic. Even though he never went overseas and faced the enemy, Shower witnessed much pain and loss when he was bedridden at Ft. Bragg, N.C. 

“I was in a throw-away ward,” he said, meaning the men there were expected to die. “It’s payback time.”

He added: “When people have been through extreme circumstances, they are more compassionate.”

Waxman is answering different impulses. After retiring from a career with the U.S. Postal Service, he was looking for something to do.

“The reason I called Ralph was I needed to do more,” Waxman said. “I served my time in the Navy as an electrician. It was a dangerous job…I’ve always had it in my heart to help.”

So today, after five years of working as a team, they put in about eight hours a week together on this vets project. Waxman said he spends another eight hours a week entering data into his computer.

He and Shower seem inseparable these days. Waxman drives Shower where he needs to go and brings him food regularly. He watches over Shower like a dutiful son.

In a way, Shower is the father Waxman didn’t have growing up in University City in the 1950s and early 1960s, before he enlisted for four years in the Navy.

When asked if Shower has become like a father to him, Waxman nodded as tears filled his eyes.

Shower lives alone in Olivette. His wife, Ethel Furman Shower, died in 2009, after 70 years of marriage. Son Michael Steven Shower died in 1995. Two daughters, Michelle Shower Proctor, and Suzanne Walch, live in Columbia, Mo.

So far, Shower and Waxman and volunteers over the years have found about 8,000 graves of deceased vets in eight Jewish cemeteries in the St. Louis area. They know of another 200 in national cemeteries.

“These guys come to me with a list of names they got from the federal government,” said Robert Aronberg, funeral director at Rindskopf-Roth Funeral Chapel. “They want to know the date of birth, the date of death, the rank and what cemetery the person is buried in.”

Aronberg, a Vietnam-era vet who served in South Korea, thinks that when the World War II generation is gone, “there won’t be any Jewish war veterans groups left.”

But he has nothing but praise for Shower and his volunteers.

“I would not do it,” he said, though he helps by locating graves his funeral chapel has handled. “It’s a full-time job. They work at this seven days a week.”

Sometimes, Shower said, he gets calls from other cities or even countries from people who are trying to find a relative’s grave.

“I get 20 to 30 calls a month, some from outside the United States,” said Shower. “They’d like to see Grandpa’s grave.”

Dispelling a myth

These days, Waxman spends a lot of time at his home computer, converting 3-by-5 index cards bearing the names and details of Jewish vets into a database.

When Shower and Waxman find a grave, they and other volunteers mark it with a Star of David on a narrow aluminum tube that can hold a small American flag. Around Memorial Day, Boy Scouts put flags in markers, and the graves are marked again on Veterans Day.

However, at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in south St. Louis County, such markers aren’t allowed, Shower said. But the stones of Jewish veterans in national cemeteries are marked with the Star of David.

Today Shower and Waxman believe they have finally got most of the records, located the graves and placed markers at those graves, thanks to the work of key people who have spent endless hours poring over paperwork to create a computer database that can be passed on.

They know there are more Jewish graves out there, in such possibly unlikely resting places as Bellefontaine and Cavalry cemeteries.

For example, Ben Fliesher, 86, of University City, another World War II veteran who served in the Army Air Corps, also has been doing his own research. He and Shower worked together for years, too.

Fliesher is motivated, in part, by his experience in basic training. 

“I was the only Jew in the barracks,” he said. “The other guys played a lot of tricks on me.”

He wants to dispel what he has often heard: “A lot of vets don’t believe Jews served in the war.”

In his effort to find Jewish vets’ graves, Fliesher said he has come up with some surprises.

“I have the enlistment of a Civil War man in 1863, but I couldn’t find where he was buried,” Fliesher said. “In New Mt. Sinai Cemetery, I found a Confederate colonel.”

Such efforts to locate names and graves are what keep volunteers like Shower, Waxman and Fliesher going.

Shower’s biggest challenge today?

Aronberg alluded to it: the indifference of a younger generation of Americans toward military service in this no-draft era of all-volunteer men and women in uniform.

Uncertain future 

Shower wonders who will continue his work and the tedious record-sifting efforts of others in the Jewish community, vets and non-vets, when he and the others are no longer here.

Who will keep up with the burials of World War II, Korean and Vietnam vets and mark their graves?

Who will pay tribute to those Jews who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan when they eventually die?

For that matter, even Greg Byrne of the Jewish War Veterans in Washington, D.C., says he doesn’t know how many Jewish veterans there are in the United States.

He uses a rule of thumb that it is probably something like 2 percent of the men and women who have served in the armed forces, just as the Jewish population in the United States is about 2 percent, year in and year out.

The Jewish War Veterans – the country’s oldest vets group—was founded in 1896 to counter the misconception that Jews don’t serve in the military of the United States, a notion that persisted in the late 19th century and continues today. 

Shower and Waxman, both members of Memorial Post No. 346, want to let the greater St. Louis community know that Jews have always served in uniform: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and even the Merchant Marine.

Go to any Jewish cemetery today, and you are apt to find these markers, some with flags and some without. One hazard, or at least an annoyance, they say, is when grounds crews mow the grass and sometimes knock the markers away from the graves. So they have to be replaced.

Shower is somewhat pessimistic about how much work in locating graves will continue after he is gone. He sees profound changes in American society as one cause.

“We have intermarriage,” he said. “Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. There are so many two-wage-earner families. Things are tight. Families used to be much closer, and they were extended families.”

All of these factors, in Shower’s mind, may mean people like him and Waxman and Fliesher have less time to pay attention to such things as caring about veterans, especially if they are not a direct relative. 

“When these old guys die, there will be no Jewish war vets to do what they have been doing,” said Aronberg of Rindskopf-Roth. “The younger guys don’t care.”