Calling All Angels

03.19.14

Rocker Lenny Kravitz’s Namesake Receives Medal of Honor

The musician and actor isn’t the only celebrated member of his family—and an old Brooklyn pal made it his mission to see the original Lenny, who served in the Korean War, honored for the brave soldier and good friend that he was.

Among the 24 Jewish and Hispanic soldiers who received a belated Medal of Honor at the White House on Tuesday was the uncle and namesake of rock musician turned actor Lenny Kravitz.

The two dozen awards were the result of a tireless investigation that spanned half a century led by a childhood pal of Army private first class Leonard M. Kravitz to have him posthumously honored.

This superhumanly determined friend is 83 year-old Mitch Libman and his quest demonstrated what friendship meant in a Brooklyn long before hipsters and Girls.

Libman and Kravitz grew up on President Street off Franklin Avenue in the Crown Heights neighborhood. Libman remembers that they would hang out by Rae’s candy store and write their names in chalk in the schoolyard to be in the next softball game, and play stickball and basketball while they waited. They often went to Coney Island, where their usual hangout was Bay 4.

But more than anything, Libman recalled simply how good it was just to be around his pal. 

“Lenny was the kind of guy that everybody likes,” Libman told the Daily Beast. “He was a neighborhood guy.”

Kravitz was too young for World War II, but his older brother, Seymour, future dad of the musician, served in the Marines and returned home to neighborhood glory.

“He was a hero and everybody was very proud of him,” Libman said.

A new war then broke out in Korea. The younger Kravitz was now turning 21 and of an age to enlist. His parents begged him not to go.

“His mother and dad fought with him and fought with him and fought with him,” Libman said. “Finally, they had no choice.”

Libman remembered that the last time he saw his friend Lenny they were standing on the corner and that their mothers were playing mahjong. Kravitz said he was heading off to the war and that he was having a going away party that night. Libman said he would be there, but for reasons he cannot recall he was unable to attend.

Regret, and maybe a little guilt, was joined by grief on the day Libman walked into Rae’s candy store and learned that Kravitz had been killed in action. Grief was joined by amazement when Libman subsequently heard not long after Kravitz’s death that he’d been awarded the nation’s second highest medal, the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation that accompanied this earlier award described what being a good neighborhood guy can translate into under other circumstances:

“Pfc. Leonard M. Kravitz, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy of the United Nations, while serving with Company M, 3d Battalion, 5th Regimental Combat Team, attached to the 24th Infantry Division.

“Kravitz distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action against enemy aggressor forces in the Republic of Korea near Yangpyong, Korea, March 6-7, 1951. On that date, Kravitz, an assistant machine-gunner attached to Company L, was in a defensive position on strategic key terrain.

“After the friendly elements had repulsed two earlier probing attacks, the enemy launched a fanatical banzai charge with heavy supporting fire and, despite staggering losses, pressed the assault with ruthless determination. When the machine-gunner was wounded in the initial phase of action, Kravitz immediately seized the weapon and poured devastating fire into the ranks of the onrushing assailants. The enemy effected and exploited a breach on the left flank, rendering the friendly positions untenable. Upon order to withdraw, Kravitz voluntarily remained to provide protective fire for the retiring elements. Traversing the gun to the left to cover the infiltrating enemy and ignoring the pleadings of his comrades to fall back, he fearlessly maintained his position. Detecting a column of Communist troops moving toward friendly positions, he swept the hostile soldiers with deadly, accurate fire, killing the entire group. His destructive retaliation caused the enemy to concentrate vicious fire on his position and enabled the friendly elements to effect a withdrawal.

“After the strong point was re-secured, Kravitz’ body was found lying beside the gun he had so heroically manned, and numerous enemy dead lay in and around his emplacement. Kravitz’ incredible display of valor set an inspiring example for his comrades. His unflinching courage and consummate devotion to duty reflect the highest credit on himself and uphold the finest traditions of the military service.”

Libman also learned that as the enemy attacked, his pal had called out to his vastly outnumbered comrades, “Get the hell out of here while you can!” Kravitz had stayed and the men he saved returned later to find him slumped over the machine gun with only six bullets left, surrounded by dead enemy soldiers, including two in his foxhole.

“Afterwards, I always wondered what made him do something like that,” Libman later told a reporter.

One detail in the citation for the Distinguished Service Cross that had particular meaning for Libman was where the battle had taken place. Libman realized he had been very near there during his own service in Korea two years after his friend’s death.

“I came to the conclusion that they don’t give Jews the Medal of Honor.”

“I didn’t realize when I was in Korea I was right near where he was killed,” Libman said. “It was one of these things I just couldn’t let go of.”

Libman was also unable to shake the thought that his friend’s actions really merited the nation’s highest medal. Libman felt this way when he read several other Medal of Honor citations that described similar actions. One Medal of Honor citation that was for another army machine gunner in Korea during the same time period was almost identical to the one for which Kravitz received the Distinguished Service Cross.

In comparing the two, Libman discerned what he suspected was the determining difference for why Kravitz had not been awarded the Medal of Honor, and others in similar cases had.

“I came to the conclusion that they don’t give Jews the Medal of Honor,” Libman said. “And it was pretty accurate.”

While he allowed that “you don’t usually argue” about somebody receiving the second highest medal, Libman was still convinced that Kravitz should have received the highest one. He did every thing that he could imagine to make it happen.

“Every time I got a little more information it kept me going,” he says.

For decades, Libman contacted veterans groups and Korean War newsletters and told everything he learned to anybody of influence who would listen. He lobbied congress and managed to convince then-Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) to introduce legislation calling for the Defense Department to initiate an investigation.

“I talked about nothing for 50 years other than that,” Libman said of his quest.

In May of 2012, Libman answered his phone in Florida to hear President Obama on the line. Obama informed Libman that Lenny Kravitz would finally be getting the Medal of Honor. So would 23 other Jewish and Hispanic service members who had been identified by the investigation that was commenced at Libman’s urging.

“How long have you been pursuing this?” Obama asked.

Libman’s answer equaled up to longer than Obama had been alive.

“Boy, that’s some time you put into that,” Obama said.

Libman explained it as best he could: “He was really very good,” Libman said of Kravitz.

“You know, this is not something we can do overnight,” Obama cautioned him. “We can’t do it next week.”

Libman had by then retired to Florida after a post-Korea career as a schoolteacher, but his response proved he remained pure and classic Brooklyn.

“That’s fine, the week after would be great,” Libman said.

Of Obama’s response, Libman recalled, “He totally cracked up.”

Last month, the White House announced that Kravitz and the 23 other Jewish and Hispanic soldiers would be receiving the Medal of Honor on March 18.

On Tuesday, Libman was at the White House for the ceremony, along with his friend’s nephew of the same name. Libman afterwards spoke to the assembled press about his pal.

“He was not the hero type, he was not the great athlete, but he was a good guy, and I made sure he was always involved in everything that I did,” Libman said of Kravitz. “We grew up together. We all hung out in the candy store in Brooklyn.”

Libman then said, “He got the Medal of Honor, and quite a few others got it, too. So it made my life worth something.”

In a quieter moment, Libman added, “He’s the type of guy who would have done the same thing for me.”

He summed it all up in Brooklyn terms: “He was a good friend,” Libman said. “I am a good friend.”