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“To Mom and Dad, Babe” WW2 medic, Walter ‘Babe’ Gantz, left

The Old Coach is being buried today. As I write this, he is being eulogized by those who knew him and loved him best. Losing an old soldier is a heavy road I have been down many times, but it’s taken me a week to compose my thoughts on best serving his memory.

In a previous Army life, combat medic Walter Gantz of the 95th Medical Battalion was known as the ‘Sharpshooter’, not for killing people in wartime, but for his uncanny ability to sight in on impossible to find veins in skin-and-bones-bodies racked with disease, malnutrition, and dehydration with a life-giving needle. And he went on giving life after the war, leading by example and taking the needle himself, personally donating 27 gallons of blood to the American Red Cross and spearheading the collection of thousands more in his hometown.

I last talked to Babe, as he liked to sign off in his letters, a few months ago. It had crossed my mind to call him again on his 95th birthday this year, November 1st, but I guess I was busy or put it off to the weekend, figuring I still had time.

I wanted to ask him if he would like to return to Germany with us this coming April, to the site of the Holocaust train liberation of the Train Near Magdeburg and a monument unveiling for the 75th anniversary, in the presence of survivors and 2nd and 3rd generation descendants of survivors and other American liberators associated with the liberation of the train. And to meet the German schoolkids, one a 17-year-old who became a pen pal for a while, when I told her to write to him with her questions. Of course, he wrote back!

You see, Walter was a hero to a lot of people. Mike, the filmmaker for the documentary we are working on, remembers driving many hours to pull up at his house to meet him, to get an interview for our film—”I got out of my car, Walter took my hand and looked me straight in the eye and thanked me for coming to tell the story.”

Walter died on November 27th, in the morning, exactly a week ago. His son-in-law Ken reached out to me shortly afterwards, and I have been struggling to find the words ever since; it did not register at first because it just did not seem possible. When I met him in April—he was waiting for me in the lobby of the hotel. He had arrived an hour early, having driven himself to the hotel where we were staying.

I don’t have many heroes. But I met one in April. WW2 combat medic, Walter Gantz–and he squeezed my hands so hard…

Walter got emotional. The Old Coach in his red athletic hoodie grabbed my two hands with the grip of the 20-year-old he had been as a medic at Hillersleben, the captured German Luftwaffe base and weapons proving ground 74 years before. “Matt Rozell, God bless you!” Mike snapped a picture. “It’s a good thing I am as cool as a cucumber; otherwise I would be real nervous about all this!”

We talked for a while. He lived only three minutes away in the hills overlooking the city, the ‘Polish Alps’ as he calls it, where his parents had raised him, most of the community having emigrated from Poland in the early part of the previous century to work in the mines. He remembered attempts at conversations with the Polish survivors at Hillersleben, how he could pick up word and phrases, and he remembered child survivor Micha Tomkiewicz’s Polish mother distinctly, an educated woman who also had medical knowledge and training. He remembered Gina Rappaport, a survivor from the Krakow Ghetto who spoke seven languages and translated for the people on the train. And he was so sorry to have missed the reunions (11 in all) in the past, but I did not even know about him until he called my classroom in October 2011, shortly after our Sept. 2011 final school reunion.

We were in Scranton for a film shoot-re-introducing him to survivor Judah Samet of Pittsburgh, who came with his daughter for a meeting and lunch with Walter and his family. Walter cried.

As it happened, I was scheduled to give a talk in New Jersey the next week. Walter and his son-in-law Ken made the trip, and when a New York based train survivor learned about it, he and his family came to meet Walter in another emotional meeting. More tears were shed, and students got to witness it.

As he recalled,

“After 70 years, I still get emotional. I try to control my emotions, but it’s impossible. I know I keep repeating the word, ‘helpless.’ It’s a good way to describe this situation, really. Yet as medics we did everything humanly possible to help; I would say without a question we saved a lot of lives. We really did save a lot of lives. When you hear them saying ‘heroes,’ we medics weren’t considered heroes, but I guess we were the unsung heroes. It’s a long time ago, over 70 years. It’s a lifetime. Sadly, in time, your memories become dimmed—but there are certain events that will stay with a person all of their lifetime.

 The whole experience [of being reunited with survivors over 70 years later] has made me feel ten feet tall, and I have to use the word ‘mind-boggling’—I guess you’d have to put it in the category of a dream… all the survivors keep saying is, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

Walter signed off on one of his letters to me.

Some of the boys couldn’t take this type of duty and had to be sent back to our headquarters… My parents never knew of Hillersleben; the 95th held more than 40 reunions and barely a word was mentioned concerning Hillersleben.

Matt, I wish you well in all your endeavors. God’s blessings to you and yours.

 

As ever,

Walter (Babe) Gantz

Member, 95th Medical Bn.

 

I think the best way to serve your memory, Walter, is to keep on keeping on in our ongoing endeavor, that you and your deeds are never forgotten, and generations of people will know and celebrate the goodness in humanity in recalling your life and the lives of all the soldiers and liberators through the book A Train Near Magdeburg, and our upcoming film of the same name. God bless YOU, my friend, and Godspeed.



Walter (Babe) Gantz Obituary

Walter (Babe) Gantz, 95, South Scranton, died peacefully Wednesday morning at Geisinger Community Medical Center surrounded by his family. His wife of 69 years, Charlotte Jean Kester Gantz, died in 2018.

Son of the late Frank and Rose Slangan Gantz, he spent his entire life in the South Side area. A graduate of Central High School and Keystone Junior College, he was a member of St. Stanislaus Polish National Catholic Cathedral.

During World War II, he served as a surgical technician with the 95th Medical Battalion. He was the recipient of the Combat Medical Badge, Bronze Star, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Meritorious Unit Citation and many other awards. He served in northern France, Rhineland, central Europe and Ardennes campaigns. During the Korean War, he was a member of the 79th Infantry Division.

In early 1944, he volunteered on a secret mission in the wetlands of southern Florida. It was a joint effort involving American, British, Canadian and French Armed Forces. Their task was to test clothing to be used in the event of chemical warfare. He was seriously burned by nitrogen mustard gas and was hospitalized at MacDill Air Force Base. His group was placed under 24-hour guard.

One of the greatest satisfactions of his lifetime was to reunite with the boys from his medical battalion after being separated for 18 years. He always referred to it as a “labor of love.” The first three reunions were held in Scranton and the 50th anniversary was also held locally. He remained as the only president of its association.

He was a great sports enthusiast throughout his lifetime, both as a player and coach. He was a member of the YMS of R team in the first-class Scranton association, the top amateur league. He also played with some of the best softball teams in the area. In 1945, while waiting to be transferred to the Pacific, his battalion’s softball team won the championship at the Arles staging area with a record of 35 wins and five losses. The staging area, located in northern France, consisted of more than 250,000 troops. In 1960, he formed the first slow-pitch league in NEPA. An outstanding distance runner, he continued to do so in his middle 70s. He was considered one of the top speed skaters in the area. While in the service, he was an assistant coach and member of the battalion boxing team. While in his 80s, Babe was a team adviser to the women’s softball team at Baptist Bible College. He continued in this role well into his 90s. He derived great satisfaction in hearing the players refer to him as Coach Walt. Most of the young generation referred to him as the “Old Coach.”

Babe was involved in community affairs throughout his lifetime. He was elected to a six-year term on the Scranton School Board in the 1970s. As the overseer of athletics, he was successful in introducing cross county in the district. He was noted for his objectivity while on the board. In the early 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic became known, he was a member of the initial committee to study its local impact.

As an AIDS instructor, he spoke at many of our high schools and colleges. Babe also served on the hemodialysis commission. As a combat medic, it was an easy decision for him to join our blood program in 1948. He served at the head of every volunteer office at the Scranton Chapter blood program and was its first representative to the NEPA Blood Center. He was the sole remaining member of the initial committee that organized the South Scranton Ecumenical Blood Council. The group collected more than 17,000 units of blood. Leading by example, he donated 27 gallons locally. In 2015, he retired from the program after 65 years. As the Americanism chairman for the American Legion Central District, he attended many services for those who made the supreme sacrifice during the Vietnam War.

Babe was an ardent believer in physical fitness. He would say to both young and old, “Keep those legs moving.”

Babe had a perpetual smile and when greeting you by your first name, he would always follow it with “God bless you.” It was easy for him to find the good in everyone. A spiritual individual, he tried his best to walk in the path of God.

He always said that he was truly blessed that he rubbed shoulders with so many individuals. In many instances he played the role of mentor, conveying any words of wisdom that he possessed.

He enjoyed music and said it was a source of strength during difficult times. His favorites were bluegrass, hymns, big band and the classics. In the evening, he spent many hours reading in his den. His topics ranged from Abraham Lincoln, World War II and those of a spiritual nature. For many years, he and Jeanie were seen at the area polka dances. Also for many years, the family enjoyed walking around Lake Scranton. He was an ardent fisherman and spent much time at his favorite pond, saying it was a great way to relax.

One of the most memorable events in his later years was having the honor and pleasure of meeting many Holocaust survivors at the Teen Symposium sponsored by the Holocaust Education Resource Center. For a number of years, he related his experience treating survivors from the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. His medical battalion set up a hospital to meet their needs. They were victims of what was known as “The Death Train at Magdeburg.”

In 2010, Babe was the recipient of the Hero of Combat, Hero of Compassion award by our local group for his humane endeavors. He is also portrayed in the book called “A Train Near Magdeburg,” written by Matt Rozell, and will be featured in the upcoming documentary by the same name.

Although he was very devoted to his family, he credits his wife, Jeanie, for faithfully providing the everyday needs of their children while he was away or on assignment.

Surviving are three daughters, Debbie Gantz, Lake Winola; Linda Guarino and husband, James, Blakely; and Doreen Klinkel and husband, Kenneth, Dalton; grandson, Tony Guarino; great-grandson, Elijah Guarino; nieces and nephews; and a sister-in-law, Shirley Angelis, Lake Ariel.

He was preceded in death by a brother, Frank Gantz, and two infant brothers, Steven and Walter Gantz.

The funeral will be Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. from the Leon S. Gorgol Funeral Home, 1131 Pittston Ave., with Mass at 10 in St. Stanislaus Polish National Catholic Cathedral. Interment with military honors will be at Abington Hills Cemetery.

Published in Scranton Times on Dec. 1, 2019

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Thanksgiving is upon us.

And this is Marvin Boller’s final resting place, killed just the day before in 1944.

MARVIN K. BOLLER

PFC, 743 TANK BN WORLD WAR II

Birth: Oct. 9, 1908
Death: Nov. 22, 1944

 

Riverside Cemetery, Oshkosh, Winnebago County, Wisconsin, USA. Credit: J M Schumann

 

Exactly 75 years ago today, Marvin was killed in an apple orchard four thousand miles away from his home in Wisconsin in a horrific incident that occurred in the earliest days of American penetration onto enemy turf in Germany. Unlike 40% of those who lost their lives in combat on foreign soil during World War II, his remains did make it home after the war.

A Thanksgiving letter written to him did not.

Resistance was stiff; on that cold and rainy day before Thanksgiving, 1944, three tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion’s ‘D’ Company were wiped out in a muddy apple orchard a few miles into Germany.

A few years back, I was alerted to the existence of this unopened letter in a memorial museum in Belgium. The envelope was postmarked Nov. 27, 1944, and addressed from the USA to PFC Marvin K. Boller, D Co., 743rd Tank Battalion. It was also stamped ‘DECEASED’.

Vince Heggen, who tends graves of the men who were killed with Martin, posted this one Memorial Day:

Co D 743rd Tank Bn was moving from Langendorf to Erberich in November, 1944. It kept raining the whole day before they arrived in the orchards near Erberich. It was 8h20 when a German tank opened fire and knocked out 3 light tanks… All the crews were killed and a few of them are buried at the cemetery of Margraten. The letter, in front of the graves , was written by Marvin Boller’s wife. Marvin was killed just the day before Thanksgiving and the letter was marked ‘return to sender’.  The letter made the link between the crew members of Marvin’s tank  buried here, and Marvin who was buried [elsewhere].

Frank McWilliams grave by Vincent Heggen, 2017. Netherlands American Cemetery.

 

I wrote to Carrol Walsh, a liberator of the train near Magdeburg and a fellow member of Company D, and asked if he knew Boller; I also sent him the image of the envelope.

 

He wrote back:

‘Hi Matt, I was stunned when I read your message. I remember Boller very well and remember when he got killed.  I believe it was just before Thanksgiving 1944 when a big German tank wiped out three tanks of the first platoon of Co. D of the 743rd. Every member of every crew of every one of the tanks was killed.  I seem to remember packages arriving for some of these guys after they had been killed.  I used to tease Boller, who was an older man, because he wanted to vote for Tom Dewey and I was big for my pal, FDR.  Boy what a memory you stirred up.  I knew all the guys that got killed in that engagement.’

Walsh and others would survive and go on to liberate Holocaust survivors on April 13th, 1945. And the letter has never been opened.

I did not know you, Marvin, I don’t know if anyone is alive who knew you. We give thanks as a nation this week; seventy-five years later, you are not forgotten. Maybe someday we will find someone who can open the letter.

 

 

 

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Just a year ago, eleven human beings were slaughtered in their sacred house of worship, their synagogue, in Pittsburgh, PA, USA.

I was at my six-year-old niece’s birthday party as the news unfolded. Little ones were running about the house—it was raining hard outside, the chill of a late October Saturday nor’easter—laughing, playing, joyful. Life!

But an all-too-familiar numbness crept in. How does one make sense of the senseless? How does one begin to find the words, to explain, to understand? And I began to sense the continuation of a profound shift on a national level.

And today we are approaching the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, the so-called Night of Broken Glass, when the massive state orchestrated pogrom against the Jews in Germany was unleashed.

How many Americans even know what that means? Or that it all started years before, with words?

Burning synagogue in Ober-Ramstadt, Hesse; Darmstadt, Germany, November 10, 1938. Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Trudy Isenberg

 

How many good, ordinary Germans looked the other way? Or straight into the camera as their neighbors’ synagogue went up in flames, the firemen dousing the nearby non-Jewish community houses to keep those flames from jumping?

How many good, ordinary Americans read those newspaper headlines on Nov. 10, 1938, and turned to the sports pages? In a just a few short years, two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish community would be slaughtered.

New York Times, November 11th 1938. Nazis smash, loot and burn Jewish shops and temples. Credit: New York Times

 

And I’ve been trying to figure out a lot of things these past couple years. Because I think words, like history, matter, but sometimes I think there are times when some people may wonder when I’m going to get off this ‘Holocaust affectation’. Well, probably never.  Because I guess they don’t get it. There is a reason I am here to do what I do. There is a reason I spent ten years, the last one feverishly, writing a book while teaching full time, a couple times wondering if I would survive it. If they struggle to understand how an interest became a passion that became a mission, they should pick it up sometime.

Because it’s never over.

Because I’m tired of trying to explain, to ‘understand’.

 

Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 54
Bernice Simon, 84
Sylvan Simon, 86
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69

 

Eleven gentle souls brutally taken in their sanctuary.

In the United States of America.

 

Because today is ‘why’.

***

A mutual friend in Holocaust education circles found the words on Saturday.

Today is why.

By Juanita Ray, North Carolina Council on the Holocaust

October 27, 2018

 

If you want to know why I study the causes, events, and horrors of the Holocaust…today is why.

 

If you want to know why I left my dear, beloved theatre kids to teach this dark history…today is why.

 

If you want to know why I spend my retirement time working with the NC Council on the Holocaust and the NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching to train teachers in Holocaust Education…today is why.

 

If you want to know why many of my posts are about love, acceptance, justice, and tolerance…today is why.

 

If you want to know why we still bother to teach this history that “was so long ago” and

“not on my end of course test”…today is why.

 

If you want to know why I still read and research and teach about the dangers of extremist political ideologies…today is why.

 

If you want to know why I taught my students to be upstanders- not bystanders…today is why.

 

If you want to know why when I visited a synagogue in Vienna in 2011, I had to show my passport…today is why.

 

If you still believe the horrors of past antisemitism could never happen here, or again…open your eyes.

 

Don’t become too comfortable with events like today. Guard you words, guard your hearts. Love your neighbors as yourselves. Seek to do good and repair the world– Tikkun Olam.

 

If you have any doubt where I stand… I stand with, for, and beside those who are hated, bullied, dehumanized, ostracized, targeted, scapegoated, threatened, harmed, and sadly, killed. But I cannot just stand by. Perhaps I have a bleeding heart, but I cannot have a hardened heart.

 

Esther 4:14– Perhaps you were born for such a time as this.

 

NO ONE, EVER, ANYWHERE should have to be afraid to enter a house of worship.

[Further Reading: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/antisemitism]

 

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My local news just broadcast the story I did not want to hear.

The last surviving Medal of Honor recipient in New York State and New England has passed 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, Franks had single handedly shortened the war by six weeks or more, by stopping that German advance during the Battle of the Bulge [below]. Later, he was an administrator at the Veterans Administration in Albany and played a role in uncovering corruption. He enjoyed supporting other Medal of Honor recipients— at the White House announcement, our new heroes’ lives are going to change on a dime—but also was content in turning down a White House request for an appearance much later in life, especially when the staffer calling him told him he could not refuse the President. Well, he lived life on his own terms. He also played a large role creating the Medal of Honor Museum aboard the USS Yorktown in South Carolina.

Frank Towers, Frank Currey, Matthew Rozell. September 2009.

Later, I met him in the local airport as he and his wife Wilma were flying out of Albany, New York for our reunions down south with the 30th Infantry Division. It was nice to witness the red-carpet treatment afforded him by our federal authorities as he travelled. I cherish the memory of being honored to sit at the head table with him, medal adorned around his neck, and Towers and their wives at these reunions with soldiers and Holocaust survivors. I especially cherish the late-night hospitality room conversations with the two Franks; he even gave me advice, after we were featured on the ABC World News (you can see him in some nice stills with students near the end of the clip), about the ‘perils’ of the limelight. Once in Nashville I think, we were sitting there alone and were approached by a shy teenage boy and his girlfriend, who wanted to shake his hand, aware of the actions that Frank undertook when he himself was the same age. They turned away, awestruck, and Frank watched them go, with appreciation I think, and maybe even a touch of admiration as well, simply commenting, ‘Youth’.

Both those men are gone now. And I’m struck today that we are losing these guys, these national treasures, our World War II veterans, like a tsunami washing over us. Francis S. Currey was a giant among giants, yet still a simple boy who had had the opportunity to go into the Army, like so many others, to improve his lot in life. He remained true to his roots.

Rest easy, Frank. I’m following with a post about you to help my readers understand more about who you were, and what you did. MR

https://www.today.com/video/wwii-hero-sgt-francis-currey-dies-at-94-71179845879


Nearly seventy-six years ago, it began. Hitler’s last gamble would claim more American lives than any battle in U.S. History. Frank Currey was there, and on a cold winter day in December, saved five men and killed scores of Germans single handedly. Frank was in the 30th Infantry Division, which liberated the Train Near Magdeburg; he came to our school.

The morning of December 16, 1944. A lonely outpost on the Belgian frontier.

In subzero temperatures, the last German counteroffensive of World War II had begun. Nineteen thousand American lives would be lost in the Battle of the Bulge. “Hell came in like a freight train. I heard an explosion and went back to where my friend was. His legs were blown off-he bled to death in my arms.” The average age of the American “replacement” soldier? 19.

Of the sixteen million American men and women who served in WWII, four and a quarter hundred thousand died on the field of conflict. In 2015, on the downward bell curve slope, nearly 500 veterans of World War II quietly slip away every day. The national memory of the war that did more than any other event in the last century to shape the history of the American nation is dying with them. The Germans threw 250,000 well trained troops and tanks against a lightly defended line on the Ardennes frontier in Belgium and Luxembourg, which created a pocket or “bulge” in the Allied offensive line, the objective being to drive to the port of Antwerp to split the American and British advance and force a separate peace with the Western Allies. What ensued was the bloodiest battle in American history. It saddens me that it comes as a shock to many Americans today that the “Battle of the Bulge” didn’t originate as a weight-loss term.

On a personal note, I have had the privilege of interviewing many of the veterans of this battle. In the high school where I teach, I have been inviting veterans to my classroom to share their experiences with our students. As their numbers dwindled, I smartened up, bought a camera, and began to record their stories. And for the past decade, I have been sending kids out into the field to record the stories of World War II before this generation fades altogether. These men and women have helped to spark students’ interest in finding out more about our nation’s past and the role of the individual in shaping it. In our books we have worked to weave the stories of our community’s sacrifices into the fabric of our national history. And that, to me, is what teaching history should be all about. After all, if we allow ourselves to forget about the teenager who bled to death in his buddy’s arms, if we overlook the sacrifices it took to make this nation strong and proud, we may as well forget everything else. I shudder for this country when I see what we have all forgotten, so soon. But if you are taking the time to read this post I suppose I am preaching to the saved.

I will close with the account of a nineteen year old infantryman who in fact survived the battle and the war, and who I was able to introduce to many Hudson Falls students on more than one occasion. Sixty-nine years ago this December, a day began that would forever change his life.  Frank is now the only living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II left in New York State and New England.

In the winter of 1944, nineteen year old Private First Class Currey’s infantry squad was fighting the Germans in the Belgian town of Malmédy to help contain the German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge. Before dawn on December 21, Currey’s unit was defending a strong point when a sudden German armored advance overran American antitank guns and caused a general withdrawal. Currey and five other soldiers—the oldest was twenty-one—were cut off and surrounded by several German tanks and a large number of infantrymen. They began a daylong effort to survive.

Francis Currey MOH and Ned Rozell March 2010-Ned is friends with the last WWII Medal of Honor recipient in NY and NE, Frances Currey. Yes, the special edition GI Joe he signed for Ned is 19 yr. old Frank!

Francis Currey MOH and Ned Rozell March 2010-Ned is friends with the last WWII Medal of Honor recipient in NY and NE, Frances Currey. Yes, the special edition GI Joe he signed for Ned is 19 yr. old Frank!

The six GIs withdrew into an abandoned factory, where they found a bazooka left behind by American troops. Currey knew how to operate one, thanks to his time in Officer Candidate School, but this one had no ammunition. From the window of the factory, he saw that an abandoned half-track across the street contained rockets. Under intense enemy fire, he ran to the half-track, loaded the bazooka, and fired at the nearest tank. By what he would later call a miracle, the rocket hit the exact spot where the turret joined the chassis and disabled the vehicle.

Moving to another position, Currey saw three Germans in the doorway of an enemy-held house and shot all of them with his Browning Automatic Rifle. He then picked up the bazooka again and advanced, alone, to within fifty yards of the house. He fired a shot that collapsed one of its walls, scattering the remaining German soldiers inside. From this forward position, he saw five more GIs who had been cut off during the American withdrawal and were now under fire from three nearby German tanks. With antitank grenades he’d collected from the half-track, he forced the crews to abandon the tanks. Next, finding a machine gun whose crew had been killed, he opened fire on the retreating Germans, allowing the five trapped Americans to escape.

Deprived of tanks and with heavy infantry casualties, the enemy was forced to withdraw. Through his extensive knowledge of weapons and by his heroic and repeated braving of murderous enemy fire, Currey was greatly responsible for inflicting heavy losses in men and material on the enemy, for rescuing 5 comrades, 2 of whom were wounded, and for stemming an attack which threatened to flank his battalion’s position.

At nightfall, as Currey and his squad, including the two seriously wounded men, tried to find their way back to the American lines, they came across an abandoned Army jeep fitted out with stretcher mounts. They loaded the wounded onto it, and Currey, perched on the jeep’s spare wheel with a Browning automatic rifle in his hand, rode shotgun back to the American lines.

After the war in Europe had officially ended, Major General Leland Hobbs made the presentation on July 27, 1945, at a division parade in France.

source material Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty by Peter Collier.

Frank signs autographs at our school.
Frank signs autographs at our school.

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A Journey of Humanity.

TEN YEARS AGO today I looked up at a TV screen at a resort restaurant where I was gathered with some very special people—Holocaust survivors, American World War II veterans who became their liberators, family, students and the school staff who helped me pull off one of the most incredible experiences of our lives. The word was that we were going to be featured on national television that Friday night for the closing segment of the ABC World News. And as we gathered for our final banquet, were actually going to get to watch it together.

Earlier in the week, the soldiers and survivors shared their gripping testimony with high schoolers and news reporters. We had planned this three-day event for months—and don’t you think I wasn’t sweating bullets. What if the students are indifferent or inattentive? What if the octogenarian participants, traveling from all over the world, experience health issues, or worse? Who am I to have the audacity to attempt to bring them together for the first time since 1945? Will this event serve to rekindle trauma buried for decades?

All worries evaporated, from the first informal meetings between soldier, survivors, and families, to the formal presentations. Kids listen attentively, cheered their new heroes, formed lines to get autographs, even danced with our guests on a special evening lake cruise. Many tears flowed, but ones of joy and happiness and love in a special reunion across decades.

And just how had a schoolteacher found himself orchestrating a life-changing event that might have reverberations for generations to come?

Eight summers before that 2009 reunion, I sat down with an American World War II veteran, Carrol Walsh, to record his war story for posterity, in my hometown. He was the grandfather of one of my students, and I knew of the family because we shared the same day-care provider. Picking up children one day at the same time, Walsh’s son-in-law suggested I contact Walsh for an interview for my WWII oral history project.

So I did.

We sat down together, and I started questioning and filming. He told me of pitched battles and close calls, ten months of combat and 18-hour days on the move after crossing the Rhine in the spring of 1945.

But he very nearly did not tell me of the incident on Friday, April 13, 1945, when his tank and another reached a mysteriously stopped train near the Elbe River. He had overlooked it—his tank was only on site for an hour—but his daughter reminded him that it was an interesting story, and that he should share it with me.

So he did.

At his suggestion, I reached out to his friend George Gross, the other tank commander who was present that day. Walsh told me that Gross had taken photographs. Dr. Gross was delighted that I had an interest and gave me permission to put them on my school WWII oral history webpage. I did some research and shared those interviews and photos there; in one of them was one of the most spectacular photographs of Holocaust liberation that the world had never seen before. Gross also gave me his recollections of the encounter with the train.

That narrative seemed to just sit there on my obscure little website for four years, with no commentary and few visitors. Then in early 2006, a grandmother in Australia who had been a 7-year-old on the train found my website and got in touch with Gross and Walsh because of it. I cried when she wrote to me and told me what it all meant to her.

And then it really began.

After the fourth survivor contacted me in 2007, I organized the very first reunion at my high school between Walsh and three of the survivors. It was very emotional, and students were the witnesses. The news story that day also went viral; nearly 60 more survivors who had been children on the train contacted me. So did soldier Frank Towers, who would go on to partner with me and an Israeli survivor’s daughter to track down over 250 more train survivors on five continents and organize more reunions.

We had eleven reunions in total. We have since met the soldier-medics who nursed survivors back to health. I’ve visited Bergen-Belsen Memorial, where they have set up an exhibit on this transport, and authentic sites in Germany, Czech Republic, and Poland [with the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program], retracing the steps of the victims, the perpetrators, and the soldiers. I’ve also studied intensively at Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And I spent ten years gathering material and working on my 2016 book, A Train Near Magdeburg.

The banquet room hushed as ABC News anchor came on for the final three-minute segment. I had been after them for months to come the 3.5 hours north from New York City and film this event, but just weeks before the event all communication ceased as they dropped off the radar screen to cover the death of an important statesman. And then, just as the participants began to arrive on Tuesday, they called and said they would be up Thursday to film!

Holocaust Survivors, front row. Soldier-Liberators, back, and me, far right.

Friday night September 25, 2009, we all watched together. In the opening sequence, Frank Towers is walking his wife Mary into the high school, and he says, “Here we are! We have arrived!” And it was the perfect metaphor for the arrival of the liberators on the scene of the train; 64 years before, because tank commanders Carrol Walsh and George Gross did exactly that—they arrived on the scene with their two tanks to save 2500 Jews from probable death, just as the SS was fixing to set up machine guns. The next day, Frank arrived to transport those saved by the Americans out of harm’s way.

*

You can say that my ordinary schoolteacher’s life had taken quite a turn; and now ten years later (eighteen since interviewing Walsh), I have committed almost half of my adult life to telling this story. No one who becomes aware of it goes away untouched. I became a witness to the greatest crime in the history of the world. And that comes with an obligation to educate others, who themselves become the new witnesses.

We are working on a new film, and that is what it will be all about. Mike Edwards the filmmaker came into my life three years ago with an interest, which quickly became a commitment as he shared my vision. It became our vision, and he never has stopped pushing; we have witnessed new miracles together. And to reinforce that this is meant to be, we would like to thank all of our supporters, and announce that we last week received a $50,000 commitment to bring it closer!

I think about all this nearly every day. Most of the soldiers are gone now, as are many of the survivors; Gross died in 2009, Walsh in 2012, and Towers in 2016, but we are driven especially by Walsh’s commentary, as people were hailing him as a hero—a mantle he emphatically rejected:

“I cannot believe today, as I look back on those years and on what was happening, I cannot believe that the world almost ignored those people and what was happening! I cannot believe it! How could we have all stood by and have let that happen? We owe those [victims] a great deal; we owe those people everything—they do not owe us [liberators] anything! We owe them for what we allowed to happen to them! That is how I feel.”

Ariela meets her liberator Carrol “Red” Walsh, Sept. 2009, at our “reunion”.

 

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A stop at her door.

I am in Amsterdam at the moment, a 2-day stop on a short tour of Europe.

Last night I stopped by the Anne Frank House. It was late. My party was viewing it from across the canal. I had to go to the door for myself.

I was moved, deeply, and I had not expected my reaction. I was alone at the point, and sat across from the door. Even at the late hour, tourists posed for photos in front of the door. [That’s something I will never understand, I suppose.] Here is where the Frank family hid, in their own adopted city, Jews hunted down by their own neighbors and the invaders who were in fact their German countrymen.

I’ve been to the door of Anne’s girlhood home in Frankfurt, and I’ve met and listened to her childhood friend in Jerusalem as she related Anne stories and spoke of her last meeting with Anne across the wire fence in February 1945 at Belsen. I’ve walked the grounds where she and his sister died a few months after arriving at Bergen-Belsen, emaciated and racked by disease. She is buried somewhere there, no one truly knows where, one of many thousands in one of many mass graves.

I sat there, thinking, in the semi-darkness. And I was glad for a moment alone with her again.

Sometimes we need our special moments alone to think about these things. What does “Never Again” truly look like? Did anyone really care then? Do they today? What if she was my neighbor? What does my ‘selfie’ at her door really say about me?  Have I asked God about the victims? The perpetrators?  The bystanders? What have I done during my sojourn on Earth?

My wife came by and we walked away.

[Visit the Anne Frank House website; if you are going, book a time slot/tix well in advance]

 

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I awoke with a start about quarter to three this morning, today, July 29, 2019. I think in my subconsciousness I had been preparing for this a bit.

I’d like to tell you a story about how this photo above came into my possession. First, though, it was exactly 75 years ago, almost to the hour, that the boys in that photo were all killed in the skies over Nazi Germany. The boy on the far left, Clarence McGuire, was known to me; I’d been visiting his grave with my dad since I was a little boy; his body came home at some point and he is buried in our local cemetery.

All were killed―except one. That’s why I have the photo today.

I had never seen this photo before it was sent to me in the mail two summers ago.  In fact, all of my life I thought that the man who sent it to me was dead, like everyone else in the picture. Even as I began my book discussing this tragic event, I had assumed everyone in my dad’s cousin’s B-17 was killed when their plane blew up 20,000 feet over Nazi Germany in the summer of 1944.

My dad’s cousin Clarence was a twenty-year-old waist gunner on the crew, clean cut, the one in the white T-shirt.  Many times I accompanied my dad on walks to the quiet cemetery a few blocks from our house. The memorial reads:

SGT. CLARENCE B. McGUIRE

A COURAGEOUS AND GALLANT GUNNER

WHO GAVE ALL FOR GOD AND COUNTRY

JULY 29, 1944

MAY HIS SOUL, AND ALL THE SOULS

OF THE GALLANT MEN WHO DIED, REST IN PEACE

So naturally, for years I thought that all of his crew had died in 1944 when their B-17 was hit on a mission to bomb a German oil refinery. I think that is what my dad told me; I dug out their crew photo—the only photograph I had ever seen of Clarence, to be honest—from his desk after Dad passed. So imagine my surprise a two summers back when I found the exact same photo, labeled, on the internet, at the American Air Museum in Britain. Then I noticed that someone had sponsored the page, ‘in memoriam’, and it was the same name as one of the crew. A son, perhaps?

back row, third from left, Clarence; far right, John.

No. I tracked the tail gunner in Florida, and mailed him a letter to what I hoped was the right address, hoping that maybe he was still alive.  Well, he called me shortly thereafter.

John at World War II Memorial, Washington, DC

‘‘This is John Swarts’, said the voice with the distinctive Southern twang. ‘Me and Clarence was pretty good friends.’ A pause. ‘You got it right, address and everything. I knew him well; I went with him to his home up there in New York. Me and him used to ride horse together; I got some pictures to send you. His mother used to write me letters afterwards.’

Letter from Clarence’s mom to John Swarts, 1946.

John hailed from Missouri, and later settled in St. Louis.

‘Things worked out right for me. Was married twice, got a boy and a girl. Spent 33 years on the railroad, and then had my own business. But it was just me and the co-pilot who survived that day. I was burned in the eye and didn’t go on the last mission.’

The plane went down on July 29th, 1944. That last weekend in July of 2017, the 73rd anniversary was upon us as we spoke.

‘The name of the plane was Pugnacious Ball. Flak got the plane. Blew up before it hit the ground. But I think they recovered a body bag to send home to his mother.’

‘I watched for the planes coming back; you always do when they are out on a mission. You count them. We waited and waited. They didn’t come back.’

‘It was the worst day of my life. Still is.’

John also sent me newspaper clippings. ‘Vet Feels Guilty Because Buddies Died’, declares one. ‘I feel so guilty. They were buried in Germany the same day they were shot down.’

And he sent me the picture I had never seen before, labeled in his hand, five friends for life smiling for the moment, smiling for eternity, though the kid in the back looks more reserved, almost as if he is already carrying the burden that will haunt him in some ways forever.

My book with the vets recounting the air war over Europe starts with the kid on the far left in the top photograph (Clarence), and ends with the one in the back, on the far right (John), 73 yrs later. So I went back to the cemetery where I had visited with my father many times in my boyhood, and left a simple note, and my book.

I found him, Clarence, or maybe John had rediscovered you, somehow, through me. But he did not forget you, and neither will anyone who reads John’s words:

‘I get a little emotional. I’m almost 95; I hope to see them all again in heaven.’

You can read more or listen to the book in The Things Our Fathers Saw- VOL II, Book One: War in the Air here.

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