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When you feel like the floor keeps dropping out, remember how we rose to the fight in difficult times.
As we navigate these new waters together, maybe all those lessons from our past can help bring us the inspiration we need to see us through these troubling times.
Remember the Holocaust survivors who pushed to get through one more day. Remember the World War II soldiers and their stories of combat and survival; I’m offering one below. Free.
I’m doing okay up here on my hill in northern New York State. I was planning on stepping on an airplane in a few weeks to Germany, to record the monument being unveiled in honor of American soldier liberators in front of dozens of Holocaust survivors and 2nd Generation survivors and liberators, but we will get to that in due time… I miss my wife of 30 years right now, who is looking after her dad in Texas at the moment, but two of my college age children are at home with me riding it out… I write, work in my woodshop, take care of the 64 acres and animals we have.

I think a key for all of us is to take things day-by-day, to keep the mind and body active, and to look after others. But also remember to take time for yourself if you find yourself overwhelmed or getting anxious.
Turn off the TV and social media feeds.
Go for a walk.
Be open to new sights and sounds, ones that perhaps were always there.
Make a list of your blessings.
Call a loved one.
Write a letter.
Create some art.
Try to notice the simpler things and how they keep keeping on.
Listen to the birds.
Appreciate the quiet.
Talk to a neighbor.
Open a new book.

I’m offering my second book in The Things Our Fathers Saw series for FREE from March 25 thru March 29. Be uplifted by a generation of Americans whose young lives were forged in the skies over war-torn Europe, and truly saved the world. Maybe they can inspire you, or someone you know.


75 Years: “The sky was black with flak…
You’ve got to go right through it.”

The Radar Man

Martin ‘Hap’ Bezon was from Port Henry, New York on Lake Champlain in northern New York. Near here is a statue to Samuel De Champlain, who navigated down the lake from New France (Canada) in 1609, literally in uncharted waters. Martin himself became a navigator, a radar man, in a B-24 Liberator. Martin’s grandparents emigrated from Poland; little did he know that he would find himself unexpectedly there during the war, trying to convince advancing Red Army soldiers not to shoot him after he bailed out of his crippled bomber 75 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK. This interview was given at his home in 2012 when he was ninety years old.

We were assigned to the 466th Bomb Group in the 8th Air Force. I went up to headquarters the next day after I got settled down and asked if I could get on a plane and start flying my missions as quick as possible. I said that I’m a qualified navigator and qualified bombardier. I’m a qualified air-to-air gunner and I said that I would sure like to start ’em up. They said that they can’t do it, that there was ‘too much money spent on you radar guys’—that there was a lot of expense to train one of us. Then the officer said, ‘Are you that anxious to start your missions?’
I said, ‘Yes, I am.’
He said, ‘The next group to us—the 467th—has a crew that is waiting for a radar man. Do you want to transfer?’
I said, ‘Yes, I do.’
That was the first time Broadway and I split. I went over to the 467th and got on with [pilot] Bill Chapman and his crew and flew my missions with Chapman. We flew together until our 18th or 19th mission, when we got shot down.

Berlin

Our last mission was on March 18, 1945. It seems like our worst mission was on a Sunday. They gave fresh eggs, so we knew it was going to be a rough one. If it wasn’t going to be a rough mission, you usually get powdered eggs for breakfast.
We went outside after the briefing. There was a Catholic priest there. He’s there at every briefing—not at the briefing but outside waiting. We would come out, and a lot of us Catholic boys would kneel down and some received communion. He gave us the blessing, then we all jumped in the wagons and went out to our planes. The target was Berlin. By the looks on their faces, a couple of guys kind of almost knew it was going to be a bad one.
Going over was good; navigation was super—we were leading the squadron at that time. We were coming up on the bomb run. We had a little plane that attacked us for a while and then the flak started greeting us; up ahead we could see it. The sky was black with flak. You can’t swerve [or take evasive action]. You’ve got to go right through it.
We got right into it. I had my bomb bay doors open. I was ready to turn it over and get the bombs off. We got an explosion; I thought it was inside the plane, it was so loud. Directly underneath the plane we had taken a direct hit. We had fires in the bomb bays. Up where the pilot was, there was some kind of white-hot metal that landed. The co-pilot stamped on it. It burned right down through the ship, and a hole was left behind.
The pilot and co-pilot had bucket seats made out of heavy steel. The rest of us had safety vests that sometimes stop the flak. There was fire where I was, around my legs. I turned around and grabbed the extinguisher; the plane went into a dive, and of course, it was hard to maneuver. It forced me down on the deck. I finally got the fire extinguisher and stood up and started to put the fire out. I got the fire pretty well out and looked around; my navigator wasn’t helping me. I noticed he was lying down and his eyes were very grey. His brains were hanging down the side of his head. All I could think of is that they looked like frog eggs. I went over and picked up the brains with my hands. They were warm yet. I didn’t know what to do. Hell, he’s dead. So, I spread some sulfa on it and went up to the pilot. [The engineer was supposed to be] in the bomb bay just below me where I could [normally] tap him on the head. I looked down. He was gone. I could see a piece of his clothes and stuff on the side of the plane; he was shot off when it hit. He just dropped out of the plane without a parachute.
The nose was burning pretty good. They got that fire out with the wind that was coming through the nose; it put that fire out. The waist wasn’t hurt too much. Nobody got hurt back there. The steel seat the pilot was sitting in was hit so hard that [he had a minor injury on] his backside, but nothing serious at all.

‘Thanks, Van’

We were blown into a dive, and to this day, I don’t know how we could have managed to pull out of that dive, because the number one and number two engines were shot out altogether. The number three engine was only pulling half power and was running at around twenty; number four was the only good engine, and he was pushing it to the limit, about sixty-two, sixty-three. If we had flown another hour, that engine would have blown up. There must have been terrific pressure. They pulled it out of the dive.
We were also still carrying a full load of bombs in to the target. Because the explosion tangled up the releases and everything so bad, they asked me to go back in the waist into the bomb bays. I took my parachute off. It was only a six-inch walkway; there was nothing underneath me but a six-inch catwalk. I had a big screwdriver and I put all the weight that I dared to put on it to try to open the releases and drop the bombs.
I unhooked the arming wire. The arming wire goes from the nose of the plane up to the little place you hook on, and down to the point where it’s going to the arming pin. When the bombs hit with the nose, the arming pin drives it in and makes the explosion. I unhooked that wire so they wouldn’t go off when they dropped. I fixed the ignition and all of that so they wouldn’t explode, and shut a cotter key in it so there’s no way they could slip forward. So if the plane did land, [hopefully] none of the bombs would explode.
We were over the middle of Berlin. I remember when we pulled out of the dive, I put my parachute on. Of course, the navigator [who had been killed], his parachute was okay. Mine had a hole in it; it was just burnt a little bit but I knew I couldn’t use it. So, I took his and remember saying, ‘Thanks, pal. Thanks, Van.’
I’m up talking to the other navigator and the bombardier. I was kneeling right between them. I tell the pilot that Van [DR navigator] is gone and George Fuller [engineer] is gone. I contacted the waist. The waist was okay. I said, ‘The waists are all okay.’ So I said that we had two killed in action. I told him where we were, and I gave him a heading to pull and said, ‘Take it 90 degrees for the time being.’

The Russian Lines

I went and set up and used my drift meter and all of that, and I gave him a corrected heading more south because that’s the closest the Russians were to us, to the German boundary line, or rather the frontlines. As we were heading there, the plane stayed level but she kept losing altitude. So, it was only a matter of time before we would have to bail out, and there was no way we could land it because everything was shot up on the flight deck—the controls and everything. How he kept it level, I don’t know.
We got over the lines and we started getting strafed by a German plane; he had one landing gear down, I remember, the other one was up. He made a pass and turned around to get another pass at us. Then, three Russian Yaks came in. The German flew away and they circled us a couple of times, and then they came in and started strafing us to knock us down!
The emblem was American on the plane, but I don’t think they could tell [from the angle]. After years went by, I think they must have seen the bomb bay doors open and saw the bombs in it, so probably figured maybe we were on a bombing mission. However, that day we were bombing Berlin, three American ships were knocked down by Russians. So, the Russians did it every once in a while. Of course, a couple of Americans knocked down a couple of theirs, too.
They started strafing us, and Chapman asked me to give the waist gunners the signal to bail because the radio system between the waist and the flight deck was out. So, I had some object there that I heaved at the doors, so they opened up the door going into the waist and I patted my parachute and said, ‘Go!’ He nodded okay.
We got ready. I went over and touched my dead navigator again and went out and sat down by the bomb bay. I climbed down the bomb bay and sat on the walkway there—that six-inch beam. I sat with my feet dangling out. I never jumped out of a plane before. I waited for the co-pilot to come close to me, that way we’d be close enough that when we landed, we’d find each other quick.
The waist gunner, Twyford, jumped first. I bailed out and put my head between my legs and rolled out and fell far enough to make sure that I wouldn’t be around the plane. I pulled the rip cord and nothing happened, and I started clawing at the thing and then finally it popped open—there’s an auxiliary parachute in there. It’s under spring tension and that popped a little parachute out; that auxiliary chute is fitted into your main chute, and it pops out first and drives the main chute out. All I remember was an awful jar.
As I was going down, I see the three Russian planes come down again. One picked on the pilot. One picked me, one was on the waist gunner. He started strafing me while I was falling, and I waved my hands at him and everything, and he’s coming right at me. I saw him and thought, ‘Lord, what am I going to do?’ What you should do if you are far enough from the ground, you pull the cord on one side and it collapses the chute right away, and you freefall and just let it go and you get away before you hit the ground.
I chose to play dead. I waited until he went around, and he came back around and he’s heading square at me. I see the guns going off. I slumped down, put my hands along my side, and hung my head down to my chest. He circled me two or three times then flew off.
Then I heard popping and looked on the ground, and I could see it looked like a hundred people on the ground shooting at us! I heard the bullets, maybe two or three went through the canopy. I [later] cut that piece out to take it home, but somebody on the ship coming home stole it from me. I was not hit.
We were dropping down, and as I looked down there was a sharp-peaked house coming up right in front of me. I moved over a little bit with the shroud line. Down along the side of the house, there’s a little cavity in the ground, like some kind of excavation, I would say maybe three feet deep. I landed right in there, and, of course, it cut the wind, so my chute collapsed there and didn’t have to be dragged along or anything.
I see the emblem on their hats and uniform that they’re Russians, so I started yelling. My mother and father came from Krakow, Poland, back in 1911, so as we were growing up we had to learn Polish, because that’s the only way we spoke. I knew enough of Polish to say, ‘I beg you, do not shoot, I am an American.’ I said, ‘I have some papers, easy, easy!’ [Speaks in Polish]
I reached in. We had these papers. They were small—you fold it, you take them out and open it, it’s a big poster. It had a picture of Stalin and a picture of Roosevelt on it, and underneath them it says ‘Komrades,’ then it had a lot of Russian writing underneath it saying that we’re American and all of that.
A couple of Russians started saying, ‘Americans, Americans!’ Then a big, black ‘Cadillac’ lookalike limo came along and had three officers in it. I could see that they were high-ranking officers, and they were told we’re Americans. One reached down, took my hand, and pulled me up out of there. That was the first time I had a sigh of relief.
They found Wallace almost immediately. I told the Russians that the guys falling out of the sky, they’re all Americans. So, they sent word around to make sure that they’re all right. They were able to find my navigator. His body was burned up but they found he was all in one piece.
Chapman collapsed his chute, then free-fell and opened it up again. When he hit the ground, they put him in a truck, and some Russian on a horse came up to him with a pistol and put it to his head and pulled the trigger three times, but the gun wouldn’t go off. Then the truck pulled away; he could see the guy working on his pistol. He finally fixed it, but the truck was too far away so he didn’t chase it.
So, Wallace and me and Twyford, they brought us to this building. They had some interrogators there. They asked me first; I told them I spoke some Polish. They brought a woman over to act as an interpreter, but I couldn’t understand her and she couldn’t understand me. They then brought in a fella by the name of Walter. He was a big, gangly guy and the type of guy that you see that you like him. We spoke to each other just like talking to my mother or father. He told the Russians that he knows what he is seeing.
They asked through the interpreter what were we bombing. Of course, generally you don’t give information to the enemies except the name and serial number. But in this case, the newspapers would be blasting that, I think it was, 2,000 planes would hit Berlin that day in an all-out effort.
I told him we were bombing Berlin. He said, ‘Good, good. How many planes?’
Again, I knew the newspapers would give the amount of planes. I said, ‘2,000.’
They were pleased with that. He said, ‘How come you didn’t shoot us down when the Russians were strafing you?’
I didn’t tell him all our guns were all knocked out and that we couldn’t shoot any of the guns. I said, ‘We knew you were Russians so we didn’t want to shoot back.’ I had to lie a little bit.
Then they brought out a bottle of some kind of white liquor. He said, ‘Have a drink.’
I said, ‘Yeah, I need one.’ So, they gave me a little shot. Then some woman there said to put some water in it.
The Russian said, ‘No, he can drink it.’ I drank it and, boy, was it strong! It went down and I felt better after I warmed up. The waist gunner [drank his] and almost went down to his knees. They put us up, and the next day got the rest of the crew together. There were two more missing but we were going to meet them at the end of the day. They said we were going to bury the navigator. They found him and they found my log. I was hoping that they’d give it to me. It was partially burnt but you could still read it.
They picked us up in two trucks. One of these flat-bottom trucks with green cloth or something over the bottom had a casket on the front. There were two Russians in the front and two in the back with rifles riding with them. The other truck had three seat benches. We sat on that and rode backwards.
We went up to a cemetery in Landsberg and they had a ceremony there. They said something in Russian. They asked me through my interpreter if one of us wanted to say something. I told Chapman they wanted to know if anyone wanted to say the last few words. Chapman said, ‘Yeah, I would.’ He gave a nice talk about Van Tress being a good navigator. He had been just married for one month; he married an English girl. He was a wonderful man, not only a great navigator.
He ended up having a great big tombstone there. They came to see me and asked me what I wanted on it. I put ‘Harold B. Van Tress, born 1923/Killed in action today March 18, 1945/bombing mission Berlin’—they had that all inscribed overnight, they had it on there. That was a big stone that stood up there at least four or five feet. I asked the girl taking the photograph of everything if she would send me or give me a photograph. She said she’d try, but I never got it.

‘They’re All Gone’

Van Tress had a son born. He was married for a month. Chapman and I tried to talk him out of it, to wait until the war was over. He married this girl he was wild about. Then he died.
After we got shot down and then came back to base, there were a couple of guys who came over from some other base and wanted to talk to me about Van. His mother asked them to go see me because Van slept right next to me. I gave them a whole bunch of pictures of Van and his new wife and all of that. So, they took them with them. The last time I talked to Twyford, he said he heard from Mrs. Van Tress. Her son’s wife and his son are coming over. So, he would be her grandchild.
I could never find the co-pilot, Wallace. He sent me a letter in 1947. He was taking engineering up in college. He let me know that he and his wife Betty are good and he hoped that I go to college too. I wrote him a letter back and then we kind of let time slip by a little bit. One time heading out to Las Vegas I landed in St. Louis, where I last knew he lived. We had about a three-hour layover and I called up his home. The people who were living there then never remembered him. My son found around ten Wallaces around the area. I called three but none of them were there. The next night I called three more, so I gave it up. I even put an inquiry in American Legion Magazine and the VFW Magazine to see if anybody knew his whereabouts; called the 2nd Air Division Association, which I belonged to, and they tried to find him and they couldn’t.
All the rest of the men are gone. Chapman was the last one. I used to call Chapman several times. We talked to each other quite a bit. I know the first time I sent him a Christmas card, he sent one back. He wrote, ‘Please, if you ever come down and see me, don’t ever talk to my wife about what we did in the service.’ [Laughs] He lived in Alabama. He became quite wealthy. He had a crew of men out—carpentry work, anything. He worked the whole of Alabama and even part of Florida doing construction or anything he’d want or excavating or whatever. He owned a local Howard Johnson franchise and he owned a big share of the local bank. He had a loan company and a motel. He said, ‘If you ever come down, I don’t want you paying for any meals or rooms. You come here; I’ve got a place, and I am looking forward to seeing you.’ We tried a couple of times, but something happened. He wasn’t feeling good or I wasn’t feeling good or something.
I called him up. Every Christmas Day I’d call him up after twelve noon; I’d just call him up and have a talk. The last time I called just a few years ago—it can’t be over five years ago—his wife answered. Of course, down there they don’t use your first name. They just go by your last name.
She said, ‘Who is this?’
I said, ‘That Polish Yankee from upstate New York.’
She said, ‘Oh, Bezon! Just a minute. I’ll see if Bill can get on the phone.’ I said to myself, ‘Oh, sounds like he is not good.’
He got on and he said, ‘Martin, you don’t know what this means to me when you call.’ I think it bothered him what happened the time that I was [reprimanded] and got chewed out, and I think it might have bothered him quite a bit later in life.
I said, ‘What’s the matter with you, Bill?’
He said, ‘I just had open-heart surgery and I’m recuperating.’ And then he had something wrong with his leg.
I said, ‘Geez, Bill, we’ve got to get together at least once.’
He said, ‘Boy, we’ve got to!’
I got worried about him. A few days later I called up again.
I said, ‘I just want to know how Bill’s doing.’
His wife said, ‘I am sorry to tell you, he died last night.’
So then Twyford died, and that was the last of them.
Anderson was on the police force and died from a heart attack. Yarcusko was out in California laying rugs and he died. So they’re all gone, and I stay here.
Marty Bezon passed away at the age of 90 in April 2012, only three weeks after this interview took place.
Get the full book here.– it’s Vol. II. Don’t forget it is FREE Wed thru Sunday. AND FEEL FREE TO DROP ME A LINE at Matthew AT TeachingHistoryMatters.com or in the comments about anything you might want to talk about! We’ll get through this!

Art LaPorte, 2002.

Last year I lost one of my first World War II interviewees, Art LaPorte. He was a wiry, tough, battle-scarred 18-year-old boy-Marine veteran of Iwo Jima and Korea. He kept diaries and drawings of his time on Iwo and wrote poetry and narratives about his experiences. I remember lugging an early version of a video camera and my then 3-year-old daughter;  the interview went on for hours after school one day at his kitchen table. Almost two decades later, he came out to my first book signings and sat with me; he was happy to be in the book in a big way (see below).

I spent a lot of time interviewing the Marines who were on this tiny island—just eight square miles—of black volcanic sand for a month longer than the 3 days planned to take it.  My cousin, a Marine, led a tour there and brought me back some of that sand.

Iwo Jima, or ‘Sulfur Island,’ was eight square miles of sand, ash, and rock lying 660 miles southeast of Tokyo. It could serve as a refueling stop for the B–29s and B–24s that were now flying almost daily out of the fields in the Marianas to bomb the Japanese mainland. In late November 1944, aerial bombardment of Iwo Jima with high explosives began and continued for a record 74 straight days. The 21,000 Japanese defenders survived this with scores of underground fortresses connected by 16 miles of tunnels stocked with food, water, and ammunition. The surface was covered with concrete pillboxes and blockhouses housing some 800 gun positions. On February 19, 1945, the attack began as the landing ships brought the Marines towards the beaches of that blackened volcanic sand.

Arthur LaPorte was an eighteen–year-old Marine, trained on the light machine gun in the 4th Marine Division. His convoy left training at Pearl Harbor for the long journey across the Pacific. It would be his first time in combat, as an ammunition carrier for a gun squad.

 

Art LaPorte

We went aboard ships right to Pearl [Harbor] and stayed at Pearl for a couple weeks until they got supplies and got the convoy together, and then we headed out, not knowing where we were going, across the Pacific on a huge convoy. We did not have any Japanese resistance; we were very lucky, no torpedoes or anything. We got out to Saipan and stayed offshore. After that, when we got going again, they brought out an easel, and they told us about how the Japanese had gun emplacements and what we would meet there. And that was our first knowledge that we were going to Iwo Jima.

We approached Iwo at night, and we could hear the gunfire from the ships. We could see the flashes and the firing, but we could not see Iwo at that time. Us new guys were too nervous to sleep, and we played poker all night. And even some of the old-timers, who were shaken up going into another battle, would be there with us.

Early in the morning, they fed us a steak dinner. Then we went up on deck, and we watched the ‘goings-on’ over Iwo. We looked out the stern of the ship, and there was Iwo standing right in front of us—Mount Suribachi to the left and a long stretch of beach, and to the right, some higher ground. The first outfit [went in] at 9:00. They hit the beaches, and we weren’t scheduled to go in till the afternoon, but they lost so many men that we went in at 11:00. The thing that really got to us almost immediately—the boats were bringing back the wounded to our ship. I guess they were at least not-so-badly-hit casualties; the worst ones were being taken to the hospital ship. But they were bringing casualties back to our ship, and of course that made us quite nervous because we knew what we were getting into.

Our turn to hit the beach came at 11:00 a.m.; we were called in early. And the Japs didn’t fire on us as we went in; I hardly saw any shells… When we got close to shore we were told to get in the landing craft. And when we landed at the beachhead, we ran out, and there was a slight rise ahead of us. It was hard to get over it because it was a mix of that black sand and volcanic ash and it was awful hard to get over it, and we were worried about the bullets.

Our target was an airbase. They had one main airfield, and they had another smaller one, and the third one they were still working on. That was where I got wounded, the unfinished airfield. They had Mount Suribachi, the highest peak, which the 5th Division took. We had the next highest peak, which was Hill 382—you name them by height. The day I got hit, my company went against it. They lost half of the men and had to pull back.

“Smashed by Jap mortar and shellfire, trapped by Iwo’s treacherous black-ash sands, amtracs and other vehicles of war lay knocked out on the black sands of the volcanic fortress.”  Robert M. Warren, ca. February/March 1945. National Archives.

Mount Suribachi was quite a sight, too. There, for a while, you could watch what was going on. They put spotlights on it at night, and they were pounding with everything they had! They put 20-mm and 5-inch guns—and the 16s—they were really pounding it. I don’t know if it did any good, the [Japanese] had the caves. But they were really working it over!

 AP combat photographer Joe Rosenthal took the iconic photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. As at Peleliu, mission planners had expected the island to fall within a few days. Only a third of Iwo Jima had been taken when the U.S. flag appeared over the peak of Mount Suribachi on D–Day+4.

I didn’t actually see the flag go up. We were pretty far inland, by that time, from the cliffs. I volunteered with another guy to go and get some food for the platoon. As we approached the cliffs, I looked over and I saw the flag flying. I said to my buddy—not knowing that it would become so famous—I said, ‘What in the devil do they have that flying for? We haven’t even taken this damned place…’

Art’s unit moved up to secure the unfinished airfield. Looking for cover, he received a shock.

We got the word that one of our outfits got the pounding pretty bad, so we were the replacements. We went up during the night, early morning, and moved into position. They told us to get in a foxhole. I got into a foxhole quickly, and there was another Marine sitting there. I see his feet. I brought my eyes up his body, and his rifle was standing beside him. So I said to him, ‘I’m going to get in with you, all right?’ And no answer. As I come up his body, no head [motions across his neck]. Some Japanese officer or somebody with a sword had taken his head off during the night. I felt the hair raise on the back of my head, and I got away from there! I found another foxhole and jumped in it.

‘I’ve got a good one for you, Doc.’

That morning, 12 days into the attack, Art was hit.

I was kind of in a shallow place, I was going to run up and join my outfit—they were a little ahead. All of a sudden a sniper was putting shots right by my head. I could almost feel it, so I figured I better run. So I zigzagged. Of course, if you zigzag, you make yourself a harder target. Next thing I know, I’m flying through the air. A machine gun burst had gone by me, and they were using explosive bullets. And so, luckily, I landed in a 5-inch shell hole; our guns on the destroyers were 5 inches in diameter across the shell, like the battlewagons had 16-inch diameters across that shell. Now the 16-inch shell was about across-my-body wide [motioning], 2,000 pounds, and you can imagine what explosive that is. You could put about 15 or 20 people in the [crater made by the shell on impact], I’d say. So I looked down at my leg, and I could see the bone, and you could put your fist into it. I could hear some guys in the next 16-inch shell hole, so I think I hollered over to them, ‘I’m hit.’ I wasn’t feeling any pain, I was in shock. As bad as it is, it was no pain that I remember. And so, I heard somebody running, and somebody popped down on me, and the machine gun was trying to get him. And it was my sergeant, section leader. And he says, ‘How bad you hit?’ And I said, ‘Pretty bad.’ I think he said, ‘Jesus,’ and he ran into the 16-inch shell hole. And this time, another body landed on me, and it was a corpsman this time. And he tried to patch me up, but that machine gun kept trying to pick him off. So he says, ‘I can’t work on you here, I haven’t got room enough,’ because it was very shallow. And he said, ‘Would you take a chance? We can push you across to the 16-inch shell hole.’ It was a short distance, maybe 10 feet. I said, ‘Sure, I got to get patched up.’ So he pushed against my good leg, and I’m trying to crawl. And the other guys in the 16-inch shell hole are reaching out for me. And one of them got a graze against the wrist.

They got me down in the hole; it was pretty deep, probably six or eight feet deep. Quite wide, too. They worked on me—patched me up. Then they left; they had to go to Hill 382. So all day I was there, I tried to drink water. But I couldn’t, I’d throw it up. Tried to eat food, same thing. I noticed a funny sensation, like something wet. I knew that they had bound up the wounds good. I was worried about hemorrhaging, so I pulled up my pants leg, and there was a fountain—about an inch or two high—coming out of my kneecap. A piece of shrapnel had gone in and hit an artery or whatever is in there. I had used my bandage on my wounds; the only thing I had was toilet paper. So I put that on with some pressure, and it stopped the bleeding.

Art shows students where he was hit on Iwo Jima.

I was by myself in the shell crater. I was all alone. All kinds of weapons were firing because they were trying to pick our men off. My company was going against 382. And, of course, I was right in line with it. I’d peep up and try to see how they were doing, but I didn’t dare to stand up on my good leg. I looked back toward some rocks behind me. Some of our men were there, and stretcher-bearers, but they didn’t dare send anyone because there were so many bullets flying around. And they didn’t want to lose four men to save one.[1]

I was there about eight hours. I was concerned that they would leave me there and the Japanese would get me. Then, my sergeant came by and asked if I was still there. I don’t know how he got me out of that 16-inch shell hole but he asked me if I could stand on the good leg. He put me in a fireman’s carry and carried me out under fire.

On the hospital ship, LaPorte waited his turn for surgery.

From where I was I could watch the doctors operate. It was a table, and around the table was a trough. What fascinated me was when the trough was filled with blood, and when the ship would rock, the blood would go back and forth in unison with the ship.

They finally got to me, and I believe I said to the doctor, ‘I’ve got a good one for you, Doc.’ Because the one that was ahead of me apparently couldn’t take the pain too good. And he was screaming and hollering, and I could see the doctor. They were working right around the clock, and they looked awful tired. And I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to give them a hard time’—they had enough trouble. So when he got to me, I watched him. It really didn’t bother me. I could see him clipping with scissors around the wound, taking the jagged edges off. Then, when I got done, they put me out on the side where I could look out and see Iwo. Like a sundeck or something. That was the last time I saw Iwo—we sailed for Guam.

Another young Marine, Herb Altshuler, recalled,

One thing I will always remember is the day or two before we left the island, before we got back on that ship, they had services and they dedicated the cemetery on Iwo. I remember sitting on a hill looking down and there was a flag pole—they used dogs for bringing messages back from the front forward to the firing units in the back, and they had the [dead] dogs lined up around the flagpole where they were to be buried… You see a large area of your [dead] men just lined up, and… then I saw heavy equipment, and that [the ground] was plowed, and all the dead bodies were laid out. You could see dead bodies as far as you wanted to look, and then you realized that war was not fun and games. These were the guys that were left behind.

A total of 27 Medals of Honor were awarded for individual acts of heroism under fire at Iwo Jima. The island was deemed secure on March 25—25 days longer than planners had counted on. Nearly 7,000 Americans and 19,000 Japanese died at Iwo Jima. It was the Marines’ costliest battle ever.[2]


Most of the above was excerpted from my first book, The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation From Hometown, USA-Volume I: Voices of the Pacific Theater. A best-seller, it can claim a readership of upwards of 75,000 thus far. Get yours by clicking on the link.

 

75,000 readers. Did you read it yet?

 

 

[1] As on Peleliu and in other battles, the Japanese would target corpsmen and stretcher-bearers.

[2]World War II: Time-Life Books History of the Second World War. New York: Prentice Hall, 1989.

 

 

“The (Germans) held all the high ground, and one felt like he was in the bottom of a bowl with the enemy sitting on two-thirds of the rim looking down upon you. There was about as much concealment as a goldfish would have in a bowl.”–10th Mountain Division soldier[i]

“The general said to one of the battalion commanders, ‘I want you to take Riva Ridge tomorrow night. Go out and scout how you’re going to do it. You guys are a bunch of hotshots, you’re skiers and mountain climbers, find a way on top of that ridge!”–10th Mountain Division soldier

Rock climbing at Camp Hale, CO.

DID YOU KNOW that the United States had mountain troops in World War II?

That the last division to ship out to the European Theater of Operations actually originated as a brainstorm of civilians who recognized the Nazi threat of alpine troops striking the United States?

And were you aware that today, February 18, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the 10th Mountain Division’s nighttime assault, incredibly scaling the heights of a sheer slope of a mountain ridge in the darkness, in total silence, to surprise a deadly German observation post overlooking Allied positions for weeks?

The fighting force, eventually known as the 10th Mountain Division, would train hard for this new specialized type of warfare. Near Thanksgiving, 1944, it finally got the call, the last of sixty-three U.S. Army divisions to be sent to the European Theater. It would spearhead the closing push in Italy into the Po Valley north of Rome and Florence in the winter/spring of 1945. Though it would spend less than four months in combat, it would suffer ten percent losses and garner acclaim for helping bring the Italian Campaign to a conclusion. The heroic climb up Riva Ridge in Hitler’s Gothic Line of defenses in northern Italy in the winter of 1945, and subsequent German counter attacks and battles, are hardly even known today. Here are some oral history excerpts by veterans who were there, from my 2018 book The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation-Volume IV: Up the Bloody Boot—The War in Italy.

Frederick Vetter

[The climb up Riva Ridge]  was done at night, and with raw troops… They had had a little bit of patrol activity but had never been in a major battle to that time. And to put them into a nighttime situation—this ridge was about 1,600 feet from the base to the top. Very rugged, a very steep slope, and rocky. It was in the wintertime, February 18 I think it was, in 1945. And it was an escarpment that overlooked the valley where the Americans were. On top, the Germans held this ridge, and they had observation posts looking out over all of this area, including Mount Belvedere off to the right.

The Americans had tried to take Mount Belvedere three times before, in November and early December, previous to us getting there. And each time they had gained the summit, they were driven off by counterattacks. One of the keys was that the Germans had observation posts on top of Mount Belvedere, from Riva Ridge. So when the mission was given to the 10th Mountain to take Mount Belvedere, Hays, the commanding general, insisted that he first had to take Riva Ridge. And that was the key to taking Belvedere.

Anyway, they did go up. [Rock climbing had been part of our basic training.] A full battalion, there’d probably be 800 to 900 men, fully loaded with all their equipment, had to climb this Riva Ridge. And they had done a lot of scouting and they were not discovered, which was very fortunate; some of the scouting was done at night and some during the day. They established about three or four routes that could be done, up the ridge. In places they had fixed ropes. And that was tricky, when you had to put in pitons, the little pieces of spiked metal to hold these ropes. And they were pretty clever about that. They had their hammers, and they muffled them with cloth, putting in the pitons. They had those in the worst spots, where they had the fixed ropes. They gathered about a day or two earlier, going in at night through this valley into a number of small villages, and staying hidden during the day. And they started up at night, and they gained the summit, some of them by two in the morning, three o’clock in the morning; they were all on the top by the time dawn came. And the Germans had never figured that any large group would ever come up that cliff! That was their mistake. If they had defended it, as they probably should have, it would have been a different story, but these attack team groups—and they went up in three or four different groups—were not discovered until well after dawn. And the Germans were asleep behind the ridge! And our men attacked and took care of the ones that were up there, but the Germans soon came in and counterattacked.

A brutal fight for the five-mile ridge had begun.

Harold J. Wusterbarth

We’re going to go into a night attack. Night attack? You wouldn’t have any contact with each other, and single file, which means if the line breaks, you don’t know where you are. Well, if the line breaks and you don’t know where you are, the goal is to keep going up. Okay, so much for that. But what about friendly fire? We’re going to be in the dark and we’re loaded with all kinds of weapons. No, you’re going to clear your piece. That’s army talk for you’re going to take all the rounds from your BARs and rifles. Not loaded, so nobody’s going to be shooting. You’re going to know who the enemy is because they’re going to be shooting at you! That sounded like a hare-brained idea to some of us. We never had a training session where we attacked a mountain in the dark with no ammunition!

We went back to our areas. I had to explain this to the guys. All I could think of was the Charge of the Light Brigade, ‘Ours is not to reason why/ours is but to do and die.’ But orders are orders.

[We got to the top], and soon we were under fire, and we just went around the guys that were firing. Pretty soon the Germans firing the machine guns realized, ‘Hey, there are Americans above, on either side, and below,’ and they surrendered, but not before we took some casualties, because there were minefields we had to go through. I didn’t get caught in that minefield. And we held it. Incidentally, that wasn’t the end of the day. We were on top of the mountain by dawn, but Mount Belvedere was connected by lesser mountains that went off to the northeast, and we had to take that along with Mount Belvedere. It was like a Fort Benning exercise at this point. One company would move up and get shot up, then the battalion commander would move another company through. Then a platoon, the company commander would move one platoon up, and when they got shot up, another platoon would go through. I was the last platoon to be assigned and there was a stopping point—at the end of this [string] of mountains, I had half a platoon left. My platoon sergeant had been killed, a couple of guys had to take prisoners back, and a couple of guys just drifted off. In fact, I went back because the company CP told me to come back for instructions, and I saw two of my guys. They were so scared they were behind a tree with their back to the tree shivering. I said, ‘Hey, guys, you’re in trouble. You get back to your squad right now.’ They did, and I never brought it up. I was a little sympathetic to them because I was scared stiff too! [Chuckles] But officers aren’t supposed to get scared.

At the end of the day I had just about half of a platoon, and I was heading in a defensive position and I said, ‘These Germans are going to counterattack, they never give up without a counterattack.’ I said, ‘We are going to be slaughtered.’

Carl Newton

I never got shot at until I got on Riva Ridge.

Well, of course we climbed it at night. We had to cross a stream with a temporary log bridge on the way up, and we couldn’t see anything, couldn’t really know what was going on. There were fixed ropes here and there on the real steep parts. I remember a guy said, ‘Oh, I lost my helmet,’ and we heard a little clink way down.

I said, ‘Oh my God, where are we?’ Well, we got up on top of Riva Ridge, and it was foggy, and so we were well covered. The Germans were all in bunkers. Some of the guys went down and woke them up with a rifle pointed at them; we captured a lot of them. In fact, I captured a guy, he surrendered really, running down across this hill on top of the ridge. He was dressed in white like we were and I thought it was one of our guys. Well, he got maybe 100 feet from me and he dropped his pistol belt and threw his rifle down, put his hands up, and I realized it was a German. He said to me, ‘Got an American cigarette?’ He spoke pretty good English. He said he’d been freezing his feet off up there for three months and he was glad to get out of there, because all they did was observe. They were artillery observers. They didn’t have any artillery, they would just call it back to the artillery emplacements, and they would shoot, so every time we did much of anything, they would throw a shell at us.

Counterattacked

We could have captured all of them easily, except that one of the guys in the company took a potshot with his sniper rifle at a [German] relief column coming up and alerted them. They turned around and went back down, then that night we got a counter-attack and one of our squads was separated from the rest of the company out on a nose of the ridge. We lost quite a few people there, wounded and killed. So, we had to retake that the next day.

Fred Schuler was pinned down in a foxhole halfway between this platoon and the company, and with his white helmet with a red cross up there made it a good target; they were shooting at him too. Then we had a running, screaming assault to retake that position and I got a [bullet] crease across the back of my helmet, just above my ear on one side. [Another bullet] hit my arm and I turned around and looked at the guy behind me, because I thought he threw something at me to get my attention or something, but it was a bullet. A German hand grenade landed right in front of me, one of those potato mashers. I picked it up and threw it back, and it never did go off; it was a dud, thank goodness.

I had quite a few close calls. Later on, I was running across a potato field outside of Sassomolare; we lost a lot of people in that assault. A bullet went through my helmet, through my wool cap, through my hair, and out the back end, but it never touched me. I wish I could have kept that helmet, but you used the helmet for everything, and it wasn’t that good with a hole in it, so I threw it away. It would have been a good souvenir to have.

Up in Riva Ridge, after that assault, it was a very difficult night, because there were wounded Germans out in front of us. One guy was screaming that he was freezing to death and wanted us to help him. One of the guys in my squad, my assistant gunner on the BAR, had been educated in Switzerland as a young kid and he understood German. And he said, ‘He’s freezing to death, we have to go out and help him.’ We did, and the squad leader interrogated [the German]; he was a captain, but he was shot up really bad and he didn’t make it.

And that was [part of] the trouble we had, we couldn’t get our own wounded off [the mountain] until later when they built a tramway to take our wounded people down on the tram. Paul Petzoldt, the famous mountaineer, was assigned to build that tramway.[1] There was a huge rock at the bottom just across the stream where we started, and they anchored the cable there and then ran the cable up the mountain. Then they fastened the litters to the cable to run them down; it was a fun ride if you weren’t wounded. We had to walk down. See, Riva Ridge was very steep from the American side. On the other side, it was gradual, and the Germans could actually drive up there. It wasn’t easy going, but they could get up there. Of course, they could just hike out. But they never expected anybody could climb from the other way, so they didn’t man any positions at night. We were lucky there, because they could have rolled rocks down and knocked us off the mountain. It would have been absolutely [like] shooting fish in a barrel, because [the terrain] was so difficult. There weren’t any trees at that time. Now, when we went back in ’95, it was all second-growth trees. [Back then], the Italians had stripped the mountain of wood for fire.

[I received the Bronze Star] at Sassomolare. That’s where I got the bullet hole in my helmet. Our squad was going across this field and there was a machine gun in this house, up in the town. [The Germans] had good field of fire and we lost [Bill Crookshank], who got severely wounded; he wound up in the hospital for about three years. They never expected him to make it, but he did. He has his one arm, but it is somewhat useless. Two people in my squad were killed. When I saw them go down, I went out from where we were pinned down to try and see if I could help, but when I got out there, I found out they were both dead. So that’s what I got the Bronze Star for.


The Tenth suffered nearly 1000 killed with four times as many wounded in their four months of combat, including future U.S. Senator Robert Dole. Today, the Tenth was the first to be called up for the rugged terrain fighting in Afghanistan. Returning home after World War II, the veterans of the 10th Mountain Division went on to pioneer and nurture the booming alpine skiing industry.

You can read more in my book. And by the way, that’s the 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain on the cover, in Italy about a month after the capture of Riva Ridge.

Vol. IV The War in Italy. Click on the cover to buy from Amazon, or for hard cover/signed books get it directly from the author. Discounts for sets!

[1] Paul Petzoldt (1908-1999)- accomplished mountaineer, making his first ascent of the Grand Teton at the age of 16. In 1938 he was a member of the first American team to attempt a climb on K2. During the war, he pioneered medical evacuation techniques to soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division. He went on to establish the National Outdoor Leadership School in 1965.

[i]Kennedy, Michelle. Bootprints in History: Mountaineers take the Ridge. U.S. Army, February 19, 2015.

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

A mother and her daughter murdered at Auschwitz, from a suitcase of photos discovered after the war. Author photo from a montage at Auschwitz Memorial, 2013.

“T-minus” 60 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben, Germany-Partners in the annihilation of millions of innocent souls.

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the train liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local students and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some early writings or book content.


TIMELINE

  • February 4-11 – The Big Three—FDR, Churchill, Stalin—meet at Yalta.
  • February 8 – Allies launch major offensive to reach the Rhine.
  • February 13-14 – Dresden is incinerated by a firestorm after Allied bombing raids.
  • February 15, 1945: The Red Army liberates the slave-labor camp at Neusalz, Poland.
  • February 17, 1945: Seven Jews, including a small orphan girl, are murdered by a Pole in Sokoly, Poland.
  • February 23, 1945: Nazis evacuate the Jews from the concentration camp at Schwarzheide, Germany. The 300 weakest prisoners are sent in open wagons to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, Germany.
  • February 18, 1945: Five hundred Jews married to Christians are seized throughout Germany and deported to the Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, camp/ghetto.

Source(s): Weber, Louis. The Holocaust Chronicle. Publications International Ltd., 2007. http://www.holocaustchronicle.org


Seventeen-year-old Irene Bleier, liberated at Farsleben that April of 1945, recalled her life turned upside-down after the Germans invaded Hungary in Spring, 1944, and her later arrival at Bergen-Belsen:

April, 1944

The Hungarian government introduced a degrading law forcing us to wear a yellow star on the left side of our clothes. Whoever disobeyed would be punished. My father prepared perfect yellow stars for each of us. Sad reflections overtook his face as he worked.

My father’s instruction that I put on the yellow star filled me with enormous hatred and depression. We always showed great respect and love to both our parents—especially to our father—but now I had to refuse. ‘I cannot wear the disgracing badge,’ I told my father. My father answered that I should wear the star with pride. ‘Show them that you are proud to be a Jew,’ he said. ‘I am proud to be a Jew,’ I told my father. ‘But that pride does not mean that I will let them degrade me and make me a laughingstock.’ Those barbaric demands deeply hurt my self-dignity. The first day I wore the yellow star fell on my seventeenth birthday. Instead of marking the spring of life, my birthday turned into a dark omen for many more hopeless days that followed shortly.

***

The Allied air forces started conducting air raids since the Nazi occupation began. Looking up at the planes in the sky, I wondered why the free countries don’t do something to help us Jews before the Nazis exterminate us. We were innocent victims, and they could have helped us if they wanted to. My soul directed a silent prayer to them—please help us escape the devil’s clutches.

***

An order to pack our belongings and return to the ghetto came suddenly one afternoon. We had to quit work and go right away. Some of the girls cried hysterically, fearful that we would now all be taken with our families to Hitler’s death camps. I was scared stiff and overcome by tears, my brain stiffened by the worry. With great pain, we boarded the horse-cart.

Six horse-carts filled with fifty young Jewish girls made their way through town. Some of us cried uncontrollably, the tears streaming down our faces. The others just cried inside in their hearts. Starting at the outskirts of town, we passed by the Jewish cemetery. Two girls wailed bitterly at this point, bidding farewell to their dead—one to her late mother, the other to her late father. Many people stared at the pitiful sight. If they felt sympathy to the humiliated girl prisoners, none showed any signs.

June, 1944

Early afternoon. All the Jews of the ghetto stood by the gate in the schoolyard. A local Christian midwife had to undress all us women over 16 years old and check our bodies for hidden gold or jewelry. We all crowded into a classroom for this degrading event, but the woman did nothing to us. We just lingered there for a few minutes without being molested. Girls with long hair had to have their hair cut.

We stood in the courtyard with our meager possessions in the one backpack we were allowed to take. The gendarme officer asked if anyone still had any valuables—there were none. Then he shouted that if one person tried to escape, ten people would be shot dead. An old man cried out, ‘Someone please give me rope so that I can hang myself and die here. I do not want to go to a death camp to be killed by Hitler. I would rather do it with my own hands.’ Mrs. Grunfeld, a mother of four small children, quieted him down and asked him not to stir up a panic.

Contradictory thoughts overtook me. On the one hand, I very much wished to disobey these inhuman decrees, run away and hide somewhere. On the other, strong fears stifled my feelings and paralyzed my body, leaving me unable to resist those devilish decrees. I am sure that many others also felt this dissonance. We lived under great mental pressure, paralyzing fear. Our feelings were stifled, and our brains were unable to think clearly—as if dark clouds floated in our heads.

***

A uniformed German SS soldier appeared and called on rabbis and families with four children and more to gather at the center of the yard. Our empty stomachs rumbling, we heard this Nazi bawl out instructions to us. We were about to start a long ‘walking tour.’ For many of us, this would be a death march to Auschwitz.

Thus, after starving for four days, we commenced our march. German SS guards watched from both sides as we marched in rows of five. None of us tried to escape. We were too depressed, our will power broken down, wholly tormented. We soon arrived at a camp overcrowded with other fellow, desperate Jews, stopped for a while, and then continued the humiliating journey. As Jewish men aged 18-48 were long ago taken to forced labor camps, the marching contingent was composed of young girls, mothers, babies, and children, along with many old and sick human souls. Trucks car-ried our backpacks while we marched for grueling hours in our mournful procession through small towns. The Christian townsfolk stared at us, nobody pouring tears, nobody expressing sympathy.
We arrived one afternoon at a small farm where we were accommodated in empty tobacco sheds. The armed Hungarian gendarmes who carefully watched us let us walk outside a fixed distance from the sheds during the day. We saw how a heartless gendarme chased away a Jewish child who tried to pick up some food on the ground.
Another day of beautiful, joyous sunshine came Saturday morning, but not for us on June 25, 1944. By Sunday afternoon, we packed our backpacks and prepared to board the nearby train trucks. When we entered the strongly chloroformed boxcars, many people became dizzy or fainted. Ninety people crowded into each boxcar, and we were each given half a slice of tasty dark bread and a little water, which we quickly consumed. Quite a few people died during this week-long journey.

As the Jewish transports did not appear on the regular railway schedule, we were often stranded for hours under the blazing sun waiting for our turn to travel. We received no food or water. People urinated and took care of their natural needs aboard the train, spreading a putrid odor. Small children and babies cried themselves to sleep out of sheer exhaustion, from hunger and thirst, from the wholly wretched situation we were in. Some of the men donned their tefillin and fervently beseeched the Almighty to save us, ‘Look upon your forsaken children, see what the world is doing to them and send help; pull us out of this catastrophe before it is too late—if it isn’t already.’

The transport hurtled along mostly at night, rocking us to sleep. We dreamed of freedom, of home, of plentiful food and water. Each time the train stopped, so did our dreams. We sadly woke up to the dreadful reality. During air raids, the cowardly SS guards locked us inside the train, taking cover themselves in bomb shelters.

Our transport stopped one day by the train station, with many Hungarian soldiers and civilians all around. My cousin Magda peeked out of a tiny window at the side of the boxcar and begged a Hungarian officer for a little water. He promptly denied Magda’s request. How could anyone be so cruel? Even dangerous criminals condemned to death receive their last request. Why are innocent Jews treated even worse?
Is there no more justice left on earth?

Our journey reached a turning point on Thursday afternoon as we left Hungarian territory, soon arriving at a nearby small Polish town. Our transport was delayed at the station and another transport with Jews being deported to annihilation centers stood nearby.

After a while, our transport’s locomotive went to the rear—we were going to travel backwards. We soon went back onto Hungarian soil. At first, we fooled ourselves into believing that the Hungarian government claimed us back and would not let us be taken to annihilation. It took just a short while, however, for us to face our destiny. Now our transport traveled swiftly. We left behind the country that we mistakenly believed was our homeland.

***

Thus our journey continued, coming to a stop after an unknown amount of time. We dragged ourselves out of the boxcars as the doors were unlatched, the Nazi guard roaring out orders. We had to line up at our destination, the Bergen–Celle train station, a slow and steady rainfall welcoming us.

Since we were chased out of our former homes, dark skies and steady rain greeted us at each new location. Such a marvelous sensation this phenomenon gave me. I was overcome with a special feeling that somehow even managed to uplift my darkened spirit. It came to me as a message from the heavens, which were venting their anger: The Almighty shares in our tragedy and is pouring tears of sorrow; He is crying on our behalf. These thoughts planted seeds of hope and faith into my soul against the backdrop of the great catastrophe.

Lined up in rows of five, we set out on our sad march. Army trucks delivered our backpacks. German SS Nazi soldiers escorted us. The group I was in consisted mainly of women and children, some old people and a few young ones; men aged 18 to 48 were taken to forced army labor several years before, where most had perished from starvation, from inhuman beatings, or from freezing to death in sub-zero weather.

Our group marched in the middle of the road, with a few stone houses to our left, curious eyes staring at us from the windows. I felt deep humiliation, but the people who should have felt the shame were those staring at us from the houses. We were innocent, defenseless people; they were partners in the annihilation of millions of innocent souls.

from the narrative of Irene Bleier Muskal, edited for inclusion in A Train Near Magdeburg (The Young Adult Adaptation): The Holocaust, the Survivors, and the American Soldiers who Saved Them 

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“WATER, WATER!”
by Train Near Magdeburg survivor Ervin Abadi. Completed at Hillersleben DP camp, May, 1945. Soldier Monroe Williams collection. USHMM.

“T-minus” 65 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben, Germany-Millions of people were on the move.

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the train liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local students and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some early writings or book content. Millions of people were on the move; survivor Leslie Meisels remembers “the first miracle of my survival.”


  • Late January 1945: 29,000 Jews, mostly women, are evacuated on forced marches from Danzig, Poland, and Stutthof, Poland. Only 3000 survive.
  • Late January 1945: Thousands of Jews are sent on a death march from the Lamsdorf camp near Breslau, Germany, westward toward Thuringia, Germany. Hundreds die or are killed on the way.
  • February 1945: Ukrainian nationalists hunt down and murder Jews throughout the Ukraine.February 1945: Allied forces close on Cologne, Germany.
  • February 3, 1945: 3500 prisoners from Gross-Rosen, Germany, are marched southwest to the concentration camp at Flossenbürg, Germany, nearly 200 miles away. Five hundred will die on the way. Two thousand more are evacuated by train to the labor camp at Ebensee, Austria, near Mauthausen; 49 will die on the journey and another 182 will perish at the camp.
  • February 8, 1945: Soviet troops are 30 miles east of Dresden, Germany.
    February 13, 1945: German troops surrender Budapest, Hungary.
    February 13, 1945: The SS evacuates the concentration camp at Gross-Rosen, Germany.

Source(s): Weber, Louis. The Holocaust Chronicle. Publications International Ltd., 2007. http://www.holocaustchronicle.org


Seventeen-year-old Leslie Meisels, liberated at Farsleben that April of 1945, recalled disobeying his mother for the first time in his life after the Germans invaded Hungary in Spring, 1944::

On the third day, there was an announcement that families with five or more children had to report to the railway track, where a group was being assembled for transport. We knew that people were being taken away, but the government’s propaganda emphasized that any rumors we heard about Jews undergoing cruelty at the hands of the Nazis was just that, a rumor; they made us believe that for the remainder of the war, which we hoped would be short, we were being sent somewhere for slave labor. As bad as that seemed, we still thought that if they wanted our labor, they would have to give us food and shelter. At the tannery we had nothing, and so we believed that anywhere else would be better. We didn’t know at that time about the Nazis’ unparalleled, unimaginable annihilation plan, already working full blast in Auschwitz and the other death camps.

Later, there was another announcement calling for families with four children to report to the train. One of my best friends, who had four siblings and was going to be on that transport, came to me saying that they had heard that they needed eight more families with three children to make up the quota and asked if we wanted to come along with their group. I went back to my mother and told her this, even though nobody knew where the people on the transport were going or what would happen to the rest of us. My mother said we shouldn’t go because they hadn’t called for families with three children.

I have to explain that in those days, a seventeen-year-old never, ever, said ‘no’ to his or her parents. Up to that moment, I, too, had never spoken back to my mother, but this time I said, ‘We’re not staying! We’re going!’ We argued back and forth until I grabbed my belongings and started to walk. She had no choice but to follow. My father had already been taken away to the unknown, and she didn’t want her family to be broken up any further.

I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know now, what made me defy my mother, but it was the first miracle of my survival, [for this was a transport that was shunted away from Auschwitz towards Austria].

***

The doors closed, and the train took off to an unknown destination. In that closed-in, dark, crowded place we were given two 25-liter pails, one with drinking water and one for human waste. The water was soon gone, and the waste pail flowed over. These were changed, refilled, and emptied once a day when we stopped at a station. On the seventh day, we arrived at a town called Strasshof in Austria, about 25 kilometers northeast of Vienna, a central transit station for deportees arriving from Hungary and other places. When the door opened, we heard Germans harshly yelling, ‘Raus! Raus!’ ‘Out! Out!’ As we left our car, I saw several bodies being carried out from each of the wagons. Six or eight bodies were carried out of ours. Many had succumbed from lack of food, water, and ventilation.

We were all sent into a large room and together—children, adolescent boys and girls, mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers—had to disrobe and march naked to a shower between two lines of laughing, pointing, machine-gun-toting SS guards with dogs. Walking to that shower was the very first real dehumanization I experienced. It drove into our minds the fact that we were not who we used to be, not individuals who had our own dignity, respected within our communities, but, rather, people who the SS guards considered to be subhuman. I was stunned, as were my mother and grandmother. All those laws that had existed in Hungary for a number of years and prevented Jews from living a free and normal life, even the German occupation and being forced to wear the yellow star—none of it was as psychologically damaging as this was. It wasn’t just a physically and mentally unpleasant experience—this was the ultimate shock from which I don’t think I recovered.

***

As we waited, we saw some of the people who had come with us on the train being led back to the cattle wagons, and we all wondered where they were going. When we saw that our respected rabbi and his wife who were both in their late seventies, were being forced into one of these cattle wagons, my mother gave me a half-full pot of roasted flour and goose fat we had been saving and told me to take it to them because they might need it. I went right over to the wagon and finding the door slightly open, gave them the pot from my mother. After thanking me, the rabbi put his hands on top of my head and recited the priestly blessing, ‘May God keep you… bless you and be gracious to you….’ It was very moving, and I felt touched. He had barely finished the blessing when an SS guard came over and slammed the door shut, pushing me away. This has always stayed with me.[1]

[1] This has always stayed with me-Thirty-five years later, Leslie had the opportunity to meet the granddaughter of this beloved rabbi, and share her grandfather’s blessing with her.

from the narrative of Leslie Meisels, used with his permission, edited for inclusion in A Train Near Magdeburg (The Young Adult Adaptation): The Holocaust, the Survivors, and the American Soldiers who Saved Them 

 

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“T-minus” 77 DAYS Countdown to Commemoration at Farsleben-the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau II

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the train liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local school kids and others.

In our countdown to commemoration at the site of liberation in Germany, I will share updates and circle back to some of my earlier writings.


Auschwitz-Birkenau-July, 2013

75 years ago, today, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated.

After the ‘tour’ of Auschwitz I, we have lunch on the bus in the parking lot, and then drive the three kilometers through town to Birkenau.

The entry tower is the iconic symbol of evil, menacing and devouring as we are pulled closer on this overcast day. We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.

Dozens of long, narrow women’s barracks, brick, still stand, albeit some braced with wood on the gable ends to keep them from toppling until they can be re-pointed. Our guide indicates that historic preservation here is a major concern.

The rest of the camp is many square kilometers of row upon row of foundations and brick chimney stubs, surrounded by the intimidating curved and tapered concrete posts dotted with white insulators and strung with miles of parallel lines of barbed wire.

In the summer of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families were deported here, the rail lines came right into the camp. Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews- ushmm

Our guide leads us along the path through the camp that leads to the gas chamber and crematorium. We walk in silence along the roadway, the only sound the crunching of brick fragments and gravel underfoot. It appears to have been paved with brick, slave labor of course, though in some spots it is hard to tell anymore. No one speaks, and on and on we walk.

Two minutes.

Five minutes.

Ten minutes.

Fifteen minutes. I’ve been on historic battlefields that are smaller than this site.

Finally we reach the end of the camp where the kitchens stood. A round concrete ring rises out of the earth, maybe 6 feet in diameter. Someone finally speaks and asks our guide what it was. It was for flowers, a giant flowerpot.  She tells us that they were also placed near the entrances of the gas chambers.

Flowers at the gas chambers.

We turn left and keep walking past interpretative signage. It seems like we are walking outside of the camp perimeter, but we are not. Beautiful woods of white birch appear, and we are walking on the edge of the woods with the camp to our left.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

We stop near another sign and rest for a moment, allowing the others to catch up. Then our guide calls our attention to the photo on the sign, showing Hungarian mothers and children doing the same thing we are doing. Halting and resting.

And a short path through the woods will take us to the ruins of the gas chamber/crematorium Number Five.

We are resting at the spot they rested at, 20 minutes after walking, immediately after disembarking from overcrowded transports that they had been traveling on for days. Here they waited, anxiously, as their turn to approach the chamber would come. But the victims of the transport ahead of them had to be removed from the chamber first. Some days in the summer of 1944, these victims were backed up for hours.

I pick up a rock from the path and carry it with me past the ruins. At the ash field there is more signage and a memorial asking visitors not to walk through the field. I place my stone on the memorial, looking down to watch where I step. But it is probably a futile gesture—this whole place is an ash yard, a graveyard. So many Hungarian Jews were killed in the Auschwitz camps in that season of murder that the crematoria were incapable of burning all the bodies, so open-air burning pits had to be utilized.

The secret sondercommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

We turn again and walk past the remains of crematorium Number Four to the disinfection center for those selected to be worked to death. Again, there was a system.

Disrobing.

Wading through disinfectant.

Shower.

Uniform thrown at you, mismatched clogs or shoes.

Elaine’s mother spent two years here. Her grandmother and the little ones were selected upon arrival. Her mom’s teenage sister was shot in the quarry after slipping while carrying a large pot of soup in the ice and snow with three other girls.

Today is a hard day. I feel helpless. There is nothing I can do.

The Red Army liberated this place on January 27, 1945. At the Soviet memorial constructed near the two destroyed gas chambers/crematorium at the end, we have a remembrance ceremony. Kaddish is recited in Hebrew. I read it aloud in English today to the group. With tears, Elaine tells us that she feels her grandmother smiling down on this extraordinary group of dedicated teachers. A lump rises in my throat again. I swallow hard and try to blink back the wetness I feel welling in my eyes, so I am glad for the sunglasses, even though there is no sun. The plaque reminds:

A Warning to Humanity.’

We light candles, turn our backs, and just walk out, which allows for another twenty-minute stretch of quiet, personal reflection. We have come to the epicenter of evil. We have been to Auschwitz; we try to process—but we just cannot.

 

COUNTDOWN TO LIBERATION-75 YEARS

“T-minus” 78 DAYS-the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau

January 27, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Red Army. The concentration camp Majdanek had been captured intact the previous summer.

On the other side of Europe,  the Allies had landed in Normandy the previous summer as well. The Battle of the Bulge was just ending; the western allies were fighting through the Low Countries and had actually already crossed the West Wall, or Siegfried Line. In 2001, I interviewed a tank commander who had experienced all of this. But nothing would prepare young soldiers for their encounters with the Holocaust in the months to follow.

On April 13, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the first train transport out of Bergen-Belsen, I will board an airplane for Germany. I will return to the site of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and make my way to the liberation site at Farsleben near the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, to join survivors, their families and the second generation of soldiers in commemoration with local school kids and others. In 2013, I traveled the same railroad route from near Bergen-Belsen to Magdeburg in less than an hour. In 1945, starved, emaciated, and typhus-stricken prisoners covered the same journey with little food and water or sanitation for nearly a week. Then, the tank commander appeared on the scene, in his tank with the white star, with another tank commander and their crews, and their major who snapped one of the Most Iconic Photos of the 20th Century. It is fitting that I travel back to this place, this time with an Emmy Award-winning film director and crew, with our own cameras rolling.

The two tank commanders, by the way, were not Jewish, contrary to some things you may find on the internet.  The two filmmakers, Mike and I, are not Jewish either. Does that matter? To us, of course not. But in a world where Jew hatred has existed for millennia, and antisemitism rears again, we stand with the Jewish people as those American soldiers did in 1945. They were faced with a moral choice in a shooting war. And they chose to DEFEND, PROTECT, AND CONFRONT. And with our film, based on my book, we choose to affirm and promote those values. We will witness, once more, and we want our viewers to think about what they saw, and what they did, and the lessons they now pass on to us all as they take their final leave.

In our countdown to commemoration, I will share updates and circle back to some of my earlier writings.


Auschwitz-Birkenau-July, 2013

What is this place? Our guide is a top-notch scholar, and she leads us on a day-long tour that is hard to put into words.

We begin at Auschwitz I, the first camp. This place is centrally located, a railway hub dating back to the turn of the century.

The first prisoners, after it is converted from a Polish military facility, are Soviet POWs and Polish prisoners and other ‘security risks’ who will be worked to death slowly expanding this camp, and the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau. She walks us through the exhibits and the displays at the various blocks. Block 4 is the ‘Extermination Exhibit.’ We think about the words, the language used by the perpetrators: ‘extermination’—as if the victims were vermin. Over 1,100,000 human beings were killed here, most of them Jews. Now, 1.4 million people visit here every year.

We see the map with the spiderlike rail lines radiating outward from Auschwitz like tentacles, from northern Poland, from Germany, Hungary, as far south as Greece and as west as Paris and the Netherlands. In the summer of 1944, tens of thousands were murdered here, per day; Primo Levi put the record at 24,000 on a single day in August 1944.[i]

We see the large-scale terra cotta model of the process, which the German engineers had perfected at Auschwitz II-Birkenau—the arrival of the transports, the undressing rooms with signs admonishing bewildered people to hang their belongings carefully and to remember the number of the wall pegs where they left them for quick retrieval later. We peer into the shower rooms that could fit in some cases entire transports, which were in fact the hermetically sealed gas chambers. The figurines of the Germans stand above them with their gas masks, waiting for the proper temperature to be reached through body heat, just the right humidity to be achieved before dropping in the pellets so the gas released would work more effectively. The anguished death throes of the thousands of naked figurines assault our senses. The process is not complete until the corpses are carried out by the sondercommando slaves, defiled for any gold fillings, the hair shorn from the women, the bodies then burned in the open air behind or cremated in the ovens.

But the experience is just beginning. Minutes before, we were looking at a terra cotta model. And now in Block 5 we will be presented with the evidence. This is an exhibition, after all. ‘Exhibit A’ in the evidence file is about to slap us in the face.

It is a room, 50 feet long, with nothing but human hair piled several feet back and as many feet tall. My heart skips a beat.

What do our eyes perceive? Now we see a photo of stacks of bale bags, carefully labeled, packed, and stacked, awaiting shipment back to the Reich for use in various products for the German war effort. Slippers for submariners so they can walk quietly aboard ship to evade Allied sonar. Stuffing for the seats of German pilots.

We shuffle on in silence with hundreds of others past the mountains of eyeglasses and frames, the pots and pans, the suitcases carefully labelled by their owners with chalk on the orders of the perpetrators, again, for ‘quick retrieval after disinfection.’ And the shoes, all sorted, case after case of women’s shoes. Men’s footwear. And then, the children’s shoes.

Our knowledgeable guide takes us into Block 27, the new exhibit on the Shoah. This is a temporary relief of sorts as now we see faces, film and stills, of prewar Jewish life, projected on the walls. We hear songs and voices, see people dancing in a past life.

At the end of this is the Book of Life, rows of giant suspended volumes containing four million names compiled thus far. When Elaine and others in our tight-knit group find entire pages with the names and dates of family members murdered during the Holocaust, there are gasps, and tears.

And now it is on to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

[i] Levi, Primo. Primo Levi’s Heartbreaking, Heroic Answers to the Most Common Questions He Was Asked About ‘Survival in Auschwitz’. The New Republic, February 17, 1986. newrepublic.com/article/119959/interview-primo-levi-survival-auschwitz