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April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

April 30 1945 Headlines, on display in my classroom.

Today, April 29th, is the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, 75 years on.

Today, if it is brought up at all, some of us might respond with a vacant stare. More might shrug and turn away. I suppose that is to be expected. But you know me. I just think that as a nation, sometimes we allow things to slip from memory at our peril.

It was real, and it happened. And it was American GIs who overran this camp and many others in the closing days of World War II.

The men of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Division arrived independently of each other, here, in southern Germany, at Dachau, on this day. A concentration camp, they were told. Their noses gave them a hint of what they were about to uncover, miles before the camp appeared in sight.

Read the headlines, above. Note the subarticle:

Boxcars of Dead at Dachau. 32,000 captives freed.

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

And so after some resistance, into the camp they entered. Life changing events were about to unfold for the American soldier.

***

For me, it’s not about hero worship, or glorifying the liberator or any World War II soldier by placing him on a pedestal. Our time with them is now limited, but many of the liberating soldiers I know push back at this, to the point of rejecting the term, “liberator”- “It all sounds so exalted, so glamorous” said one. But they will all accept the term, “eyewitness”.

Witnesses to the greatest crime in the history of the world.

So instead I think it is about honoring their experiences, their shock, the horror, the puking and the crying, the rage-and then, the American GIs recognizing that something had to be done. And they did suffer for it, for trying to do the right thing. Many tried to help by offering food to starving prisoners who just were not ready to handle it, only to see them drop dead. Or having to manhandle these emaciated victims who were tearing away at each other as food was being offered.

Some guys never got over it. How could you?

I have learned so much over the past few years from these guys, just through the way that they carried themselves and tried to cope with what they witnessed. In my World War II studies and Holocaust class, we discuss these issues at length. I’m so lucky to be able to teach it.

A few years back, I was privileged to teach a lesson to my high school seniors for NBC Learn, which was shared with other districts across the nation. Later, I stumbled upon this piece by the late author Tony Hays, who writes about his liberator father and his own encounter with the past. Thanks to the Get It Write folks; the original link is at the bottom.

***

Dachau Will Always Be With Us

by Tony Hays

This is not so much a post about writing as one about a writer’s education, about one of those experiences that molds us, shapes us into storytellers. I read yesterday the story of Joseph Corbsie, whose father, a World War II veteran, left him with a special legacy from the war, from the hideous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. I feel a particular kinship with Mr. Corbsie.

My father, Robert Hays, was the son of an alcoholic tenant farmer in rural west Tennessee. If the appellation “dirt poor” fit anyone, it fit my grandfather’s family. Daddy served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 30s. He and my mother, who was in the woman’s equivalent of the CCC, working as a nurse’s aide at Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee, met on a blind date in early 1940 and married in September of that year.

But just over a year later, Pearl Harbor happened. America was in the war. My father was among the first of those drafted in 1942. I won’t bore you with the details, but he participated in the North African, Salerno, Anzio, and southern France invasions, saved by the luck of the draw from Normandy. But they slogged through France and on to Germany. On April 29, 1945, Allied troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I don’t know whether he entered Dachau that day or the next, but that he was there within hours of the liberation is beyond dispute. A few months later, after more than three years overseas, he came home.

In later years, he would talk occasionally about the war, providing anecdotes that showed the chaos and random chance of battle. He spoke of driving through Kasserine Pass in North Africa just hours before the Germans killed thousands of Allied troops in a stunning attack. He spoke of a friend, defending his position from a foxhole, who was thought dead after an artillery shell landed right next to him. When the dust cleared, the friend was buried up to his neck in dirt, but did not have a scratch on him. He spoke often of Anzio, where he was wounded, and of the massive German air assaults on those soldiers clinging to that tiny sliver of beach along the Italian coast.

But he never spoke of Dachau.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945. USHMM.

 

Ever.

When he died in 1981, we found a photo in his wallet. An old sepia-toned shot like others he had taken during the war, pictures that he kept in an old brown bag. But this one was different.

It showed a pile of naked bodies. Well, really more skeletons than not, with their skin stretched pitifully over their bones. On the back, as had been his habit, was typed simply “Dachau.”

I was confused. Why would he keep this one photo in his wallet all of those years? Especially a photo of a place and event that he never spoke about. It obviously had some deeper meaning for him than the other photographs. If it had been a shot of the building he was in when he was wounded (hit by an artillery shell), I could have seen that. A reminder of his closest brush with death. Yeah, I could buy that. But this macabre photo? That, I couldn’t see.

So, for the next fifteen years, I remained puzzled.

Until the fall of 1996. I was working in Poland, and I had some time off. I took an overnight bus from Katowice, Poland to Munich. It was an interesting trip all in itself. We sat in a line of buses at midnight on the Polish/German border, waiting for our turn to cross, next to a cemetery, as if in some Cold War spy movie. I remember passing Nuremburg and thinking that my father had been there at the end of the war. And then there was Munich.

I spent a day or two wandering through the streets, drinking beer in the Marienplatz. I’m a historical novelist, so the short trip out to Dachau was a no-brainer. Of course it was as much my father’s connection with it as anything else that spurred the visit. But I’m not sure that I was completely aware of that at the time.

Dachau literally sits just on the outskirts of the Munich metropolitan area. I looked at the sign on the train station with a sadness, wondering for how many people that had been one of the last things they saw. It was only later that I discovered there had been another depot for those passengers.

The Dachau Memorial is a place of deep emotion. In the camp proper, mostly all that are left are the foundations of the barracks. One has been reconstructed to give an idea of how horrible life must have been. The camp was originally intended to hold 6,000 inmates; when the Allies liberated Dachau in 1945, they found 30,000. The museum and exhibits are primarily in the old maintenance building. I looked with awe at life size photos of prisoners machine gunned, their hands torn to ribbons from the barbed wire they had tried to climb in a futile attempt at escape.

I followed the visitors (I can’t call them tourists) north to where you crossed over into the crematorium area. It was there that the full brunt of what had taken place at Dachau really hit me. A simple brick complex, it seemed so peaceful on the fall day that I stood before it. But as I read the plaques and consulted my guidebook, as I stepped through the door and actually saw the “shower” rooms where the prisoners were gassed, as I stared into the open doors of the ovens, I felt a rage unlike any I had ever known consume me.[i]

That night, I went to the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, to wash the images of the ovens away with some beer. I hadn’t been there long when an elderly American couple sat at the table. They were from Florida, a pleasant couple. He had been a young lieutenant in the American army on the push into Munich. In fact, it had been his pleasure to liberate the Hofbrauhaus from the Germans.

Of course, I asked the question. “Were you at Dachau?”

He didn’t answer for several seconds, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes as his wife’s hand covered his and squeezed. Finally, he nodded, reached into a back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

With a flick of his wrist, a photo, just as wrinkled, just as bent, as the one my father had carried landed on the table. It wasn’t the same scene, but one just like it.

Here was my chance, the opportunity to ask the question I had never been able to ask my father. I pulled the photo from my own wallet and lay it next to his. “Why? Why have you carried it so long? To remind you of the horror of Dachau, of what had been done here?”

His face carried the faintest of smiles as he shook his head. “No, son, to remind us of the horrors that we are capable of, to remind us not to go down that road again.”

The difference was subtle, but in that moment, I learned two lessons invaluable to a writer, subtle differences are important, and when you want to know the truth, go to the source.

As I sit here now and look at that same photograph, I realize that it was my father’s legacy to me, of Dachau. Joe Corbsie’s father left him something more tangible, a reminder of the same thing for the same reason, but more forcefully stated — a tiny box of human ash from the ovens.

Dachau is still with us, and I hope the legacy left by our fathers always will be.

The late Tony Hays.

[i] Where the prisoners were gassed- “In 1942, the crematorium area was constructed next to the main camp. It included the old crematorium and the new crematorium (Barrack X) with a gas chamber. There is no credible evidence that the gas chamber in Barrack X was used to murder human beings. Instead, prisoners underwent “selection”; those who were judged too sick or weak to continue working were sent to the Hartheim “euthanasia” killing center near Linz, Austria. Several thousand Dachau prisoners were murdered at Hartheim. Further, the SS used the firing range and the gallows in the crematoria area as killing sites for prisoners.” Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Dachau” Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/dachau

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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!

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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.

 

 

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“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.

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A TALK BY MATTHEW ROZELL, FRIDAY, JAN. 17, 7PM

Matthew Rozell will discuss his newest book: The Things Our Fathers Saw―D-Day and Beyond: The War in France, this Friday, Jan. 17, at 7pm at the Rogers Island Visitors Center, 11 Rogers Island Dr., Fort Edward, NY. Come out and pick one up, or just sit and have a listen. https://www.facebook.com/events/542669763258537/

WHEN YOU STEP OFF THE LANDING CRAFT into the sea, bullets flying at 0630, how do you react to your vision of your mother opening the telegram that you have been killed?

WHEN YOUR GLIDER CRASHES AND BREAKS APART, what do you when you are shot and the Germans are bearing down on you, and you know your dogtags identify you as a Jew?


— “I had a vision, if you want to call it that. At my home, the mailman would walk up towards the front porch, and I saw it just as clear as if he’s standing beside me—I see his blue jacket and the blue cap and the leather mailbag. Here he goes up to the house, but he doesn’t turn. He goes right up the front steps. This happened so fast, probably a matter of seconds, but the first thing that came to mind, that’s the way my folks would find out what happened to me. The next thing I know, I kind of come to, and I’m in the push-up mode. I’m half up out of the underwater depression, and I’m trying to figure out what the hell happened to those prone figures on the beach, and all of a sudden, I realized I’m in amongst those bodies!” —Army demolition engineer, Omaha Beach, D-Day


Dying for freedom isn’t the worst that could happen. Being forgotten is.


— “My last mission was the Bastogne mission. We were being towed, we’re approaching Bastogne, and I see a cloud of flak, anti-aircraft fire. I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to make it.’ There were a couple of groups ahead of us, so now the anti-aircraft batteries are zeroing in. Every time a new group came over, they kept zeroing in. My outfit had, I think, 95% casualties.” —Glider pilot, D-Day and beyond


Maybe our veterans did not volunteer to tell us their stories; perhaps we were too busy with our own lives to ask. But they opened up to a younger generation, when a history teacher taught his students to engage.


— “I was fighting in the hedgerows for five days; it was murder. But psychologically, we were the best troops in the world. There was nobody like us; I had all the training that they could give us, but nothing prepares you for some things. You know, in my platoon, the assistant platoon leader got shot right through the head, right through the helmet, dead, right there in front of me. That affects you, doesn’t it?”” —Paratrooper, D-Day and beyond


As we forge ahead as a nation, do we owe it to ourselves to become reacquainted with a generation that is fast leaving us, who asked for nothing but gave everything, to attune ourselves as Americans to a broader appreciation of what we stand for?

This is the fifth book in the masterful WWII oral history series, but you can read them in any order.


— “Somebody asked me once, what was the hardest part for you in the war? And I thought about a young boy who came in as a replacement; the first thing he said was, ‘How long will it be before I’m a veteran?’I said, ‘If I’m talking to you the day after you’re in combat, you’re a veteran.’He replaced one of the gunners who had been killed on the back of the half-track. Now, all of a sudden, the Germans were pouring this fire in on us. He was working on the track and when he jumped off, he went down, called my name. I ran over to him and he was bleeding in the mouth… From my experience before, all I could do was hold that kid’s hand and tell him it’s going to be all right. ‘You’ll be all right.’ I knew he wasn’t going to last, and he was gone the minute that he squeezed my hand…” —Armored sergeant, D-Day and beyond


It’s time to listen to them. Read some of the reviews below and REMEMBER how a generation of young Americans truly saved the world. Or maybe it was all for nothing?

— “A must-read in every high school in America. It is a very poignant look back at our greatest generation; maybe it will inspire the next one.”

Reviewer, Vol. I

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My wife and I drove to the state capital to present a talk to representatives of the United States Army last Saturday. I was invited to speak at the Albany Recruiting Battalion’s Annual Training Conference, seven companies from the Northeastern United States and Europe. I think it was the first time that they had invited a civilian to address them as their keynote speaker. And I think that took some boldness, a willingness to ‘think outside the box’, as most certainly had no idea who I was. [Thank you SFC Christian O’Keeffe for being a reader and a fan!]

There were 350+ present, a culmination of their weekend gathering and training, a sea of dress uniforms and evening gowns, some formality and protocol but also a chance to celebrate and take pride in serving the United States of America. We were honored to be seated at the table with the Command of the Albany Battalion.

As we took our seats the ceremony began with the posting of the colors by the local Christian Brothers Academy Color Guard. The MC also pointed to the Missing Man/Fallen Comrade Table, set up for one, but highlighted by the absence of those who were no longer present. It instantly reminded me of all of the times I had been with my World War II veteran friends for their annual reunion ceremonies, which began exactly the same way. And as I was readying to take to the podium, I was frankly struck with an emotion I did not expect, a profound sense of sadness:

All of my old friends who led or organized these ceremonies, in reunions of Army veterans all over the south, are now dead.

Matthew Rozell, 30th Infantry Veterans of WWII, Holocaust survivors at Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, March 2, 2012.

With ranks thinning, the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II (which had met annually since 1946, sometimes taking over more than one downtown city hotel) folded its reunion tent in April 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee, on the 70th anniversary of the 1945 Nazi death train liberation. And for the past ten years, led by Frank W. Towers, they had warmly hosted the Holocaust survivors that they liberated in April 1945. I remember the way they greeted my ten-year-old son at the reunions we attended with the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, rubbing his head at the annual final banquets, the colorful fundraising auctions that followed with many laughs and jokes. They opened each reunion by reading the names of those fellow soldiers who had passed away in the past year, with the tolling the bell for each man who had passed on the previous year; my son and I, and the Holocaust survivors I helped to reunite with the men of the 30th, were privileged to witness this moving ceremony several times.

It was with these tempered feelings that I took the stage. I was introduced by the Command Sergeant Major as the dessert service was getting underway, and coupled with some blistering microphone feedback, it took a few seconds to get my audience’s full attention, but I had them as I began recounting some of the feelings I was having—these reminders which had been buried for the past five years—my sudden reckoning of the irrevocable certitude that those special weekends and touching moments with liberating soldiers and the people they saved now were firmly categorized as ‘Things of the Past’, now seemingly dissolved and flowing down the long Corridor of Time.

The slideshow the audience never saw…

My carefully tailored AV slides also had gone out the window—the Army laptops would not accept my work—but I was able to bring up the Major Benjamin photograph from the internet and ask a few questions.

743rd S-3 After Action journal report- the moment of liberation

743rd S-3 After Action journal report- the moment of liberation

How many people in this room have seen this image before? (Less than 1%). Well, settle back, and let me tell you a story, about a beautiful spring day in 1945, when two Army friends who had miraculously survived 10 months of vicious combat from the beaches of Normandy, across the Dragon’s Teeth into Germany, back down into the winter nightmare of the Battle of the Bulge—men who had seen their friends killed in front of their eyes and could no longer even recall their own mothers’ faces—would be shocked on this day to learn about the death of their President—the only one they had grown up with, their Commander in Chief—only to be confronted and stunned a few hours later with the horrors of the Holocaust—so unknown to them that it did not even have a name: THIS is what your forebearers ran into, were assaulted with, on that Friday in April 1945 as the killing went on around them.

And one of them said, “What Are We Going to Do With All These People?”

What would you do?  The tank commanders set up a perimeter guard and declared the train and its 2500 tortured occupants to be under the protection of the United States Army. Frank Towers, who arrived the next morning to transport the people out of harm’s way and toward medical attention, remembered, ‘Never in our training were we taught to be humanitarians. We were taught to be soldiers.’ And Walter Gantz, as a medic who nursed the survivors back to health over six weeks, recalled, ‘After I got home, I cried a lot. My parents couldn’t understand why I couldn’t sleep at times.’

Of course, the men and women in uniform, now listening intently, knew NOTHING about this incident, which, I posited, is really a lesson, an exercise in ethics and morality that took its place as a nano-incident in the most cataclysmic war in history, so infinitesimal it was virtually lost for 65 years, until those two tank commanders showed me that picture and others they had taken from that incident, and told me the story.

What happened next was just as mind-blowing, I continued, but for now, we will consider this:

In a shooting war, the rescue of the people on the train was not a military objective. The Army did not have to stop and help.

But it did.

Six/sevenths of European Jewry would be killed in four and a half years, but thanks to the soldiers’ actions, tens of thousands are alive today. And it’s not a nano-incident to them; ‘whoever saves one life, saves the world entire’.

As the ones who have picked up the mantle of your grandfathers, this is YOUR LEGACY: in learning this story, you become witnesses empowered to reflect on your roles as DEFENDERS of our core democratic values, as PROTECTORS of those in your path who are suffering, AS CONFRONTERS of injustice and indignity.

Thank you, indeed, for your sacrifice, and for all you do, and for allowing me to share this with you. I hope you can draw strength from what you have learned.

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MALMEDY, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, DEC. 21, 1944. 75 YEARS AGO…

The last surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient in New York State and New England died in Oct. this year at the age of 94. And I had the honor of calling him my friend and introducing him to some of the Holocaust survivors that he and the 30th Infantry Division helped to save in April 1945.

Francis Sherman Currey was humble; he was, as the time of our association from 2008 on, the vice president of the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II. He and Frank Towers, the president, helped to organize and come to our high school in upstate New York for our 2009 gathering of American soldier liberators and the Holocaust survivors they help rescue in 1945. Frank and the others signed autographs for the kids and were treated like rock stars. And in every sense of the word, they were more important than rock stars to these kids.

Frank told me he met Eisenhower, Bradley and Truman after the war. Ike told him that in his opinion, Frank’s actions had single-handedly shortened the war by six weeks or more, by stopping that German advance during the Battle of the Bulge.

[Frank’s son Jon sent this link to my Facebook page. There is a link to the source file at the end.]

Francis Currey, WWII Medal of Honor recipient, passed away on October 8, 2019, at the age of 94. The New York native was orphaned as a 12-year-old child and passed through the New York State foster system, growing up with a foster family in the town of Hurleyville, New York. Upon his high school graduation, Currey wasted no time in enlisting in the US Army at the age of 17.

In September 1944, Currey was assigned as a replacement infantryman to the battle-hardened 30th Infantry Division, stationed at that time on the front lines in Holland. While he was stateside, Currey received extensive training on infantry weapons of all sorts, ranging from the standard M1 Garand, the Browning 1919 .30 caliber machine gun, the .50 caliber machine gun, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), and the bazooka. Just a few months later, the young man from New York would put all of that training to the ultimate test.

On the morning of December 21, 1944, Currey was standing guard at a bridge crossing in the small Belgian town of Malmedy when his position came under fierce German artillery fire. The battle-experienced Currey assumed that the artillery barrage was cover for an enemy infantry assault. He had no idea that the infantry would be accompanied by something a bit heavier.

As the smoke from the artillery cleared, Currey looked down the road to see the barrel of a German tank protruding around a corner. Through the smoke and haze, Currey could see the German tank commander standing up in the turret of his tank, surveying the area. The enemy tank commander made a perfect target as Currey let loose with a burst from his BAR. As the tank continued down the road, he retreated across the bridge and ran towards a nearby barn, where inside he located a bazooka. Currey and another soldier loaded the weapon, and leveled and fired it at the oncoming German tank. The bazooka round struck the enemy tank at the base of the turret, thereby jamming the turret and rendering it ineffective. The German vehicle retreated in the direction from which it came, allowing Currey to assume his former position near the bridge.

Minutes later, three more German tanks rounded the corner and headed for the bridge and Currey. Eyeing a knocked-out antitank position nearby, Currey ran through furious German fire and located antitank grenades. He fired the grenades at the German tanks relentlessly by himself until the three German tanks were disabled, forcing their crews to either abandon their vehicles or retreat. Despite the retreat of the German tanks, enemy rifle and machine-gun fire was intense, and the Germans were determined to force the river crossing and get into Malmedy.

As Currey took cover from the enemy fire, he noticed that a machine gun crew just opposite of his position was knocked out, the entire crew either wounded or killed by enemy fire. Without regard for his personal safety, Currey crawled across the road under fire in order to aid the wounded machine gunner’s evacuation. Currey opened fire with the position’s 1919 .30 caliber weapon, providing covering for the wounded men as they escaped. He was able to escape the position as it became untenable due to the heavy enemy fire. For his bravery in action, Currey was awarded the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor, for gallantry on July 27, 1945, while in Germany. He finished the war with the rank of 1st Sergeant, carrying the Medal of Honor, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. After the war, Currey worked for the Veterans Administration, retiring in 1980.

BY Seth Paridon, staff historian at The National WWII Museum. SOURCE FILE AND VIDEO: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/about-us/notes-museum/francis-currey

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