AB: “I kept thinking that if the German, whoever had shot the mortar shell off, had twisted that little machine launcher just a quarter of an inch more, it would’ve landed right on my back…”

What is your birth year?

1925. 

How old does that make you today?

[93]. 

Where were you born?

In New York City. 

Can you tell me any specific memories you have from your childhood? 

I remember going on the subway for 5¢, 10¢. I remember buying a pound of butter that came out of a tub- it didn’t come prepackaged. All things were a little more natural, and I’d assume organic, hopefully. I remember policemen walking on the beaches, I remember that very well. We were playing stickball in the middle of the street, and the policemen came along, or police car came along- they would take the stick and drop it down into the sewer. {Laughs} There were marbles, which were very valuable at that time; there were shiny ones, and less shiny ones- like diamonds now. We were in elementary school, and I remember the library teacher, Miss Deutsch, a very nice lady. I remember penmanship- they wanted us to write in a certain style and certain way, which I don’t know if I conquered or not. I don’t think that I did. {Laughs} 

What was the technology available during your upbringing? Did your family have an automobile or telephone?

We never had a car. I was the first car driver in my family. For electronics, a radio, which was staticky very often when listening to the Lone Ranger. He was my favorite, but I grew a little cynical- [there] were chapters that we would listen to, and I found out that the hero, at the end of the 15-minute program, was about to fall off a cliff. I had to wait a whole day, 24 hours actually, for the next day, to find out if he fell. I wondered, “How did he stay on that cliff?” I became very cynical after that. It really informed my personal opinion, and [when] I found out that it’s not really happening, [that] it was false and phony- it was real disappointing. I found that also happened when I went to the movies for 10¢ and sat in the children’s section. The theatre was the Mount Eden theatre; I used to walk across a big lot, which now has buildings on it, every Saturday afternoon and stay for a few hours, just watching the movies. That’s where I saw the hero at the edge of the cliff; when I came the week after that, there was still a cliff and the hero miraculously saved himself! How he did it is amazing, but I became very cynical about all these supposed heroes and such. 

How did WW1 affect your family? Did any family members serve?

No. It was over in Europe. 

Do you remember much of President Roosevelt?

Well, I heard about him, I knew who he was- when I was young, of course, I couldn’t vote, but my parents were Democrats, and everybody in the neighborhood loved FDR. My parents were immigrants who came over from Europe. We got a little lecture from Mrs. O’Leary, one of our high school teachers, telling us to pull our bootstraps up. I don’t know what bootstraps are, but pull them up and get with it! We sat there and listened very studiously, because Mrs. O’Leary said so. That was a certain feeling we had, but FDR was really the hero, because we elected him four times. 

Do you recall hearing about Pearl Harbor? Do you remember your reaction?

Oh, yes. I was in high school, I believe. December 7th, 1941- that’s right, I was still in high school. We heard about it there, and I forget the reaction, really- I didn’t enlist immediately, because I got into the Army in ’43. They were drafting people, so in ’41, if my arithmetic is correct, I was in high school. I just remember the headlines, and people volunteering. That was about it, really. 

How did you get into the military? Were you drafted?

Yes, I was drafted. 

Do you remember how you felt about your being drafted? 

I’m leaving home, and of course I’m going to get three meals, but I’m going to be separated for quite a while. I’d never left home at all for any length of time. We didn’t discuss it much in my family. 

I know that in the early war, despite the fact that the United States was Isolationist, many of the prejudices from Europe impacted minorities in America. Did you ever notice any anti-Semitism? 

Definitely. It didn’t hit me personally, because I was just going to school with people just like myself- I went to a boy’s high school- but my parents discussed the quota system used for Jewish doctors. That I remember very distinctly. They were discussing how the medical schools only had a certain quota system for doctors, and I just listened and had no opinion on it. I didn’t think it’s fair, of course, it’s changed now dramatically, but at that time, it was a reality. 

On his basic training experience: 

They took us to Fort Dix, in New Jersey. There, they separated us into different units, and I was in the Army!

There was a special program, and I went up to the University of Connecticut, for people who were supposedly smarter. At that time, I’d done one term of college- I went to Brooklyn College for one term. 

Camp-Campbell-Barracks-postcard
Barracks at Camp Campbell, Kentucky, circa 1940-1945, retrieved from http://www.linfield.edu/waitingforpeace/prelude/

I went through basic training for a month or two- sloshing around at Camp Campbell. I remember basic training was just muddy. {Laughs} That’s all that I can remember. I remember one little incident, something I created; we were always playing war games. They weren’t games, and we didn’t have real bullets, but I was thirsty. I saw somebody’s house, and I walked in; it was the house of a black family. They looked at me, and I looked at them, and I asked them for some water and they gave it to me. I said thank you, and I walked out. They believed I was a real good soldier- they were teaching us how to kill people, actually, if you really get down to it. We had bayonets- they told us how we should use bayonets- and I got a good slice of life. Suddenly, I met people not from New York City, from the East Coast. They put me with a unit that was from Massechutes. Basic training- that’s just how it was. What happened next? They put me in a unit, put me on a cruise ship- I’m not going on a cruise!- and they took me overseas. At that time, I was in the 26th division. What I remember on the ship was that I got seasick. We were supposed to sleep in the hold, way down at the bottom of the ship, and I just couldn’t take it, so I came up on deck; they had a library of sorts, so I found something small enough, or large enough, to hold me, and I slept there. I went overseas that way. 

Where did you land?

In Le Havre. I don’t know the geography of France too well, but I seem to remember a big sign saying, in French, “No Smoking.” I didn’t have to worry, because to my advantage, I didn’t smoke. They didn’t ration them in the Army- they gave them out like bullets during wartime. I used to trade the cigarettes they gave me for Hershey bars; I could’ve gotten into a competition with Hershey- I always had candies with me. 

carchives-municipales-francis_fernez_le_port_detruit_vu_depuis_l_eglise_notre-dame
The City of Le Havre, circa 1940-1945, retrieved from http://unesco.lehavre.fr/en/understand/world-war-ii

What was the weather like?

It was a little exciting- I’d never been overseas before, and here I was, overseas in France, with a helmet on my head and a gun in my hand, and expected to go out and kill people, which I really don’t enjoy. All I remember, really, is that I was in that division for a while, and then I was in a headquarters company because I was one of the few people that could really read and write. I was considered the brain, which was a big mistake. {Laughs} I was in headquarters company, and the lieutenant came in and asked me a question or two, and I answered it, and he walked out. Outside of the tent was a big garbage dump, and he fell into it, and blamed me, of course! Next day, I was in company E, and I was in a frontline company, which I wasn’t too happy about. This was an infantry division. 

How long were you overseas for?

Two and a half years. 

Did you have any experiences or interactions with the enemy forces?

I didn’t see the German troops- at the end of the war, the enemy was giving up, but they weren’t Germans anymore; they became Yugoslavians, they took on other country’s names. The Americans treated them so well that I was a little bit jealous. Being a prisoner of war was really a pleasure for some of them, because they were given food and clothing and meals. Many of them were very hungry, and this was the only way they could eat. They were giving up in droves; one soldier walked in with 15, 20 soldiers. I remember, once; the war was practically at a standstill, at the end, and I was walking back from someplace, and there was this poor German soldier that was I guess left over from his battalion. 5 soldiers were around him with their guns pointed at him, and he was so scared, it was pitiful. I’m sure he wanted to be home also. Looking back, he was our age, younger at 18, 19 years old. 

Tell me about any specific memories or experiences that stand out.

I was wounded in action. Dylan was from one of the Carolinas, and he wasn’t the smartest man. They asked him once during training to take down the flag, which they do every evening; they play Reveille or something on the bugle, and the flag comes down. Well, Dylan not only took the flag down, but he took it all apart- took the whole contraption that put the flag up apart. He was just doing what he was told- he took the flag down! He was walking behind me- we were walking down a dirt road, looking for the enemy, and they were looking for us. A shell went off nearby, and we both hit the dirt. The dirt really was dirt, and it was like a rain. On the side of the road, we both [lay] down, and he was behind me. A shell went off right near me, and I got wounded, and Dylan did also- I don’t know how badly he was hit. The medics- who were wonderful people, really braver than anyone around- they came up, took both of us into a farmhouse nearby, and put us inside. After a while, I heard some sobbing; Dylan was crying. I guess he missed home, and maybe he was badly hurt. I don’t know how he was, but I know how I was. I started sobbing with him also. I guess we both missed home, missed our mommies. We stayed there overnight, and then the medics came and put us back to the appropriate field hospital. We were worked on, and that’s the last I saw of Dylan. I was transported back to Great Britain for rehabilitation, and it was the best part of my Army career! What was the hospital like? I honestly don’t remember much about it. All I remember is that we had white sheets- everything was clean and neat. I’d been sleeping the middle of a field; I remember sleeping in a hayloft at one time. I was sleeping in a barn one time, and I woke up and saw that one of the Hershey bars was eaten away by some animal. 

What were the most trying and difficult moments of service?

Well, getting wounded was pretty scary, because I kept thinking that if the German, whoever had shot the mortar shell off, had just twisted that little machine launcher just a quarter of an inch more, it would’ve landed right on my back, and we wouldn’t be having this interview. 

What were the best memories of service?

When I went to Great Britian, I felt like a bigshot. I had a lot of freedom, I played in a band, and I was there about five weeks towards the end of the war. That I enjoyed, the interaction with the British people. In fact, I even met an old school chum of mine that I knew as a kid. He was a sailor, and he was stationed someplace in Great Britain. I have a picture of myself somewhere feeding pigeons in London. I remember the town of Torquay, which is now a resort town; I went there once for something, wearing very nice boots that the Army issued. Getting out of the subway there, the Tube, and not realizing that it’s not really a New York City subway. The whole essence of being overseas was really sinking in. 

Did you ever interact with the French people?

Not that I recall. I personally was not a hero in the Army, I’ll confess to that, but the unit that I was in received the Croix de Guerre. I don’t know why, I didn’t participate in the Battle of the Bulge, but they still gave it to the unit. 

Were you kept updated on the status of the war abroad?

We knew things about it. A lot of it was hearsay; they had a newspaper that came out that was circulated. 

What was the food like?

It was all American made- I was eating the three meals at camp. 

Do you remember hearing of President Roosevelt’s death? 

Oh, yes. We were a little sad about it.

What was your reaction when you heard that Hitler had died, and that the war was over in Europe- VE day?

The war was ending, we could tell, and there was no resistance anymore. Somebody just said it, and it became common talk. We didn’t get the New York Times delivered, but everyone knew about it, it seemed.

What was your reaction when you heard about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki- VJ day?

We found out right away; it was in the newspapers.

How did you get home? 

I’m sure they took me home by ship. The only time I flew in an airplane was when I was wounded, they took me from France to Great Britain. 

 When did you first learn about the Jewish Holocaust in Europe?

In my family, we really didn’t discuss this often, at all, for some reason. My father had two sisters, I found out, later on, who stayed in Europe, and obviously were killed. I never heard any discussion about them, or who they were, or their relationships at all. I’m a little disappointed; I would’ve liked to find out more information about them. 

What was your job or career after the war?

I went to college. I ended up with New York University. I became a school teacher- music, instrumental music. Did you have an instrument you played? String base. 

How did your military service affect how you think about wars today?

I think war shouldn’t be. If we ever have another war, it won’t be like the old wars. We have too many big bombs that have killed too many people. 

Did you ever return to France?

Yes, as a tourist. It was totally different. 

Do you think the world has any misinterpretations WWII?

They portrayed it as a necessary war, and I guess you look at the history books, and maybe it was necessary- I honestly don’t know how to classify any war. It’s still political- people made money off the war, and Truman, fortunately enough, was smart enough to keep these people from making tremendous amounts of money. Seems he kept a lid on many of the manufacturers. When they did things, he made sure they didn’t become billionaires over the war.  

How did your service affect your life as a whole?

I wonder what it would’ve been. Actually, it gave me an education. That’s how it really ended up. I went to 5 years of free school; I didn’t walk away with any debt at all. In fact, they were sending me money since I was a wounded veteran; I’m still getting a pension check for being wounded. 

Author’s Note: AB was not able to provide any personal photographs from his service in the Army during WWII. The photos included are provided for the reader’s reference, but do not describe AB’s exact experience or his surroundings. The images are cited to their respective owners. 

litters_beds
“France, 1945, another view of patients at the 8th Field Hospital, awaiting air evacuation.” Retrieved from https://www.med-dept.com/unit-histories/8th-field-hospital/

Author’s Note: This project was recently featured in Portland’s Street Roots Newspaper. Read the article here: http://news.streetroots.org/2017/11/10/these-veterans-have-lived-something-extraordinary-portland-student-listens-shares

This interview has been lightly edited for readability. However, to maintain integrity, and to respect the stories of the veteran, content has not been altered from the original transcription. This interview was originally recorded and later transcribed. Questions partially retrieved from:

“Guidelines.” Veterans History Project. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <www.loc.gov/vets/guidelines.html>.

 

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