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My third book is now available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and other outlets. The paperback should be out by first week of September.

It is the story of eight airmen as they grew up during the Great Depression and then joined the US Army Air Forces and took to the skies over Europe. Each man held a different crew position on the ‘heavies’, the B-24 Liberator or the B-17 Flying Fortress. Most had a connection to ‘Hometown USA’, a name coined during WWII for Glens Falls NY and the surrounding environs and small communities that lined the Hudson River 200 miles north of New York City.

I’ll leave you with the teaser for now. The book is all in their own words, like they are speaking to us across the kitchen table (and that is exactly where some of them were seated when they told their stories…) It’s intimate, it’s heart wrenching at times, and it’s bust-out-loud-laughing funny at others. And it’s real history from real people, something a lot of Americans seem to have forgotten these days. We need these guys now as much as we did during the war.

Click here to see the book in the stores. Click here for a book preview. 

Earl Morrow, B-17 pilot and POW in my classroom , May, 2011. Credit. Robert H Miller.

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


— ‘You flew with what I would call ‘controlled fear’. You were scared stiff, but it was controlled. My ball turret gunner—he couldn’t take it anymore… I guess he was right. He’s dead now. But he had lost control of the fear. He never got out of that ball turret; he died in that ball turret.’ —B-24 bombardier


~THE LONG-AWAITED SEQUEL IN THE BEST SELLING ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’ SERIES~

How soon we forget. Or perhaps, we were never told. That is understandable, given what they saw.


— ‘I spent a lot of time in hospitals. I had a lot of trouble reconciling how my mother died [of a cerebral hemorrhage] from the telegram she opened, saying I was [shot down and] “missing in action”. I didn’t explain to her the fact that ‘missing in action’ is not necessarily ‘killed in action’. You know? I didn’t even think about that. How do you think you feel when you find out you killed your mother?’ —B-24 bombardier


At the height of World War II, LOOK Magazine profiled a small upstate New York community for a series of articles portraying it as the wholesome, patriotic model of life on the home front. Seventy years later, a history teacher tracks down the veterans with a connection to “Hometown, USA” who fought the war in the air over Europe, men who were tempered in the tough times of the Great Depression and forged in battle. He rescues and resurrects firsthand accounts of combat and brotherhood, of captivity and redemption, and the aftermath of a war that left no American community unscathed.
Here are the stories that the magazine could not tell, from a vanishing generation speaking to America today.


— ‘I was in the hospital with a flak wound. The next mission, the entire crew was killed. The thing that haunts me is that I can’t put a face to the guy who was a replacement. He was an 18-year old Jewish kid named Henry Vogelstein from Brooklyn. It was his first and last mission. He made his only mission with a crew of strangers.’ —B-24 navigator


By the end of 2018, fewer than 400,000 WW II veterans will still be with us, out of the over 16 million who put on a uniform. But why is it that today, nobody seems to know these stories?
Maybe our veterans did not volunteer to tell us; maybe we were too busy with our own lives to ask. But they opened up to the younger generation, when a history teacher told their grandchildren to ask.


— ‘The German fighters picked us. I told the guys, ‘Keep your eyes open, we are about to be hit!’ I saw about six or eight feet go off my left wing. I rang the ‘bail-out’ signal, and I reached out and grabbed the co-pilot out of his seat. I felt the airplane climbing, and I thought to myself, ‘If this thing stalls out, and starts falling down backwards, no one is going to get out…’ —B-17 pilot


This book brings you the previously untold firsthand accounts of combat and brotherhood, of captivity and redemption, and the aftermath of a war that left no American community unscathed.
As we forge ahead as a nation, 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.

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THE THIRD BOOK

I’m putting together the final edits for my new book, The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation-Volume II. The subtitle is War in the Air—From the Great Depression to Combat. In it, I track the wartime experiences of seven or eight veterans of the air war over Europe. I also make some surprising discoveries regarding a family cousin who was killed at age 20. I’ll be posting some excerpts over the next few days.

I know that some folks subscribed to this site for the Holocaust educational material. While this may not be directly related to the Holocaust, understand that it is all about keeping the memory alive. And I have to tell you that some of my biggest cheerleaders for these stories about our World War II veterans come from the Holocaust survivor community.

Maybe I’ll start with the guy who lived on the corner for most of my life. In 1969, he also became my younger brother’s godfather. Thirty-four years later he ran into some of my students at a garage sale. They found out he was in World War II, and asked him for an interview for my class.

I had no idea that Dick was even in World War II. Here’s just an excerpt. You can order the full book here; the paperback edition will be out Sept. 1, 2017.

 

War in the Air-Flight Engineer Dick Varney

Richard Varney

I grew up during the Depression. I remember that day in 1929 [when the stock market crashed] very well. I was about 17 or 18. I had been working for two years; I went to work at 15 years old with working papers. My parents, God bless them, they grew up in an era when school was not that important. You went to work as soon as you were able to help the family. I don’t think you people understand what I am saying or what that means, but it meant a lot. But I wish that I had gone to school. I did later on, but I made it in life without [a formal education]. I had to do it my way. I worked at the sawmill on Haskell Avenue in Glens Falls; it’s not there now. I also started playing at dances in a band when I was 17 and did it for a long, long time; it was a lot of fun. It was quite necessary then because the wages then weren’t what they are now. I took lessons for a little while on the violin, but I played by ear from then on. I also taught myself to play the alto and tenor saxophone, which I still have, incidentally.

You have to realize that when I went to work at the Imperial factory, later, if you weren’t late or forgot to ring in and out, you got 40 cents an hour. Can you imagine that? You worked 40 hours; you got sixteen dollars a week! Now on this, you had a family to support—it isn’t like what it’s like today. In the Depression era you could buy a home for 1,500 dollars. You couldn’t hang a door for that now! Money was something you didn’t have, but you didn’t feel deprived in those days because nobody else had any money. No, you probably had one change of clothes, maybe one pair of shoes if you were lucky. You didn’t wear them in the summer because you didn’t want to wear them out. I’m not exaggerating, because you just didn’t have the money. You made do. You didn’t eat a lot of prepared food, you [improvised and] cooked your own. You ate a lot of things… [Have you ever had] dandelions? We used to go and pick them. Clean them, cook them, you make do. You just didn’t always have money with those kinds of wages.

*

On December 7, 1941, I was working at the Imperial Color paint factory in Glens Falls. It was a shock— I was outraged naturally, because it was a sneak attack.  But it was not unexpected; believe me, we had been heading towards it. In fact, in my opinion we were already in an undeclared war; we were actually in it because we were supporting England. We had been giving them everything they needed; from then on it was just a matter of time before we all got into it.  But Germany and Japan declared war on us first.

I was not a kid; I was 30 years old at the time. I was married and I had no idea what the future was going to bring for us, because I did not know what they wanted to do. I don’t think anybody relished the idea of going to war; nobody does. But nevertheless, I think we had a level of patriotism at that time that we won’t ever see again; certainly we don’t have it now. Everybody was behind it, the whole situation, at that time. I don’t think you heard anybody wondering whether we should go in or not, because we were in. In retrospect it was so long ago now, a lot of the details are not as sharp as they should be maybe, but I can remember most of it.

Richard ‘Dick’ Varney, flight engineer, first row second from right, and the crew of his B-24 Liberator Source: Richard Varney, Sr..

I was drafted in April of 1943, I think. Then we went through God knows how many schools, how much training, to prepare us for it.

I took my army basic training in Miami Beach. It was tough duty in Miami Beach. [Laughs] After that we were assigned to air mechanic school, and there I was trained for the B-24 Liberator. I was being trained as the aircraft flight engineer, and my job at that time was everything mechanical on the plane. It was the flight engineer’s responsibility, so you were taught everything about the airplane. Then after we graduated from there, they sent us to Panama City for air gunnery. After that we went to various places and to Westover, and from there our crew was formed. Now this crew, when it was put together, was the first time that I had met most of these people, the enlisted men I met. Then we went to Walker Air Base in South Carolina, and there we met our pilot, copilot, navigator, and bombardier; from then on, we were a unit—we stayed together, we trained together, all our practice missions and everything. Then we went to Langley, Virginia, and from there we took radar training. And that was the last duty in this part of the world—from there we flew to Goose Bay, Labrador and then to Iceland and from there to Wales. We flew all the way over. Now as a unit we stayed that way. And then when we got there, we were assigned to our bomb group. And there we went through even more training—that’s all you ever did, you train, train, train, and train.

‘There Are No Heroes’

The B-17 crews were the glory boys. The B-24 flew faster, carried more bombs, and flew higher, but the B-17s were the glory boys. We didn’t name our planes like they did. We had ten to a crew in the 24s, yes. Originally they had a ball turret on the bottom but when we got over across the ocean they took that out and they put the radar transmitter in the bottom, where the belly turret was. That left the engineer free to do everything mechanical and the assistant engineer flew the top turret [gun] in my plane.

Finally we were scheduled for our first mission, to Hamburg. It was a vital mission, in the sense that Hamburg had all their oil refineries. And without that, they couldn’t fly, they couldn’t have gasoline, they couldn’t have anything, so you could destroy it because it would certainly limit their supplies. It was a very important mission. And because of that they concentrated their [fighter] aircraft and anti-aircraft guns to protect it. So that’s a target I really remember, believe me.

I’ve seen planes go down, naturally. And the only things you’d look for were how many ‘chutes came out of it because when an airplane gets spinning, you couldn’t get out. Sometimes because of centrifugal force, the spinning of the plane would kill you, because you couldn’t get out. As I said before, I never got hurt. It was always the other guy. And the frame of mind that you have is something that most people can’t understand—you can see this happening, but it’s not you. It becomes an impersonal thing; it has to be, because you would go crazy if it wasn’t. Not that you didn’t have sympathy for the people but still, it wasn’t you. I don’t know how to explain it. But there are no heroes, contrary to what people may think. It’s like a job. I don’t think there are any heroes up there because you’re just doing your job, you have to—you either did, or you didn’t come back. You don’t have time enough really to be scared a lot.

*

Our missions were all over. They were over the Rhineland, yes sure. And Cologne, Dusseldorf, whatever you can think of. And we hit them wherever they were—we bombed as far as Austria and Czechoslovakia; in fact we even hit Berchtesgaden, which was Hitler’s retreat.

Most of the missions we flew were around 20,000 feet and believe me, in the winter time at that altitude, it’s about minus 70 degrees. That’s cold. But we did have heated suits, heated clothes. And of course under those circumstances we still had our job to do. As an engineer, I had duties at the time. I had to check to make sure the generators were synchronized, I opened the bomb bay doors, and I transferred fuel. All of these things were part of my job. I won’t speak for the other people; they had their own jobs. But that is what I did.

*

‘Something Always Goes Wrong’

Did anything ever go wrong during your job?

 

Did anything ever go wrong? [Chuckles] Oh, something always goes wrong. Yes, I remember one time when we got ready on the ‘IP’, which is the Initial Point, where we start the bomb run to the target—I forget where the mission was to—well, they loaded the bombs all right. But there’s a propeller on the back of it, and when you drop them, the wind screws the propeller off. When that propeller comes off, that bomb is armed; it won’t go off otherwise. But when the group crews load them, they’re supposed to put a safety wire through it, in each thing. Well, somebody on that mission [laughs], they didn’t put the safety wires in. So when I opened the bomb bay doors, the wind hit them and I called the pilot on the intercom and I said, ‘I got news for you, we got 10 thousand pound bombs here that are now armed. The propellers are all off.’ Any piece of flak coming through would hit the nose of them and… [Makes the sound of an explosion] that would be all she wrote, you wouldn’t find anything! It didn’t though. But that’s one time I sweated a little bit, I can tell you. [Chuckles]  You couldn’t fix anything. We were on the ‘IP’. You couldn’t take evasive action, you couldn’t do anything and we’re flying right through that flak. But when they dropped the bombs, it was fine.

Flak

I learned more about the German anti-aircraft than I did about anything else because that was the only way you could defend yourself against anti-aircraft; oh yes, we picked up holes, sure. Flak holes. And they generally fired in bursts of three. They used their 88s, they called them, and at different levels. The first one would be 18,500 feet, and another one would be at 18,700 and so on; three. They’re like steps. And they would try to bracket you with the target. And each battery they had of anti-aircraft was three guns, usually. But they so had many of those batteries at some of our targets! When they started firing, you would have thought there was a thunderstorm up there, you know what I mean? But I never lost it, I never lost an engine. I did lose the oil out of one when we landed because there was a hole in the oil reservoir, but the pump in it was strong enough so I didn’t lose the engine in the air. No, I made sure the engines were alright before we went up. As I said before, I don’t make that much of that because there’s not many heroes up there. You’re doing your job, that’s all. But for flying personnel, we had the highest rate of causalities than any branch of the service, because there’s no foxholes up there either, no place to hide, but [we were lucky.] Out of our original crew of ten, we only lost two. There was a bomb group that was short a co-pilot and a tail gunner. And we weren’t scheduled to fly that day, so they assigned them to that other aircraft, from the other group. And they got shot down. They didn’t come back.

You didn’t do too much worrying because it’s something that you were trained to do, and you had to do it and you’re busy and taking care of the duties of the job. You didn’t have much time to think about anything else. No, I don’t think we always wondered—of course, it crosses your mind naturally, why wouldn’t it? When you look out the side window and see a plane going down, it isn’t you, but naturally you’re going to wonder about it, you know… But as far as that, that’s all there’s to it. I mean, the way the job was—what in retrospect, what I did like about the air corps was that despite the hazards, if you went over and came back, you did have a place to sleep. You weren’t like an infantryman sleeping in a foxhole! You ate in the mess halls; you did get your hot food. But outside of that, as I said, I don’t think there were many heroes flying up there—I can’t say I worried too much—because what are you going to do? If you don’t like it, are you going to get out and walk? You’re going where the plane goes, that’s all there is to it. And that’s it. But I can’t say I got to take much credit for that. The only thing you can take credit for is being able to function under those conditions. You take 70 degrees below zero and you’ve got murderous work, and if you take your gloves off, it wouldn’t be for two minutes and your hands would be frozen. Outside of that, that’s the part of it.

*

I’m just telling you that I don’t feel that air combat was such a personal thing. It only gets personal when you’re flying through flak or got another plane coming at you or something—then it gets a little bit personal. So, like I say—what are you going to do? So I don’t pretend to be a hero; I just did my job, and I was good at my job, too. I made it a point to be, because I wanted to learn everything about that plane that I could. [When I entered the service] I never expected to fly. I thought I’d be a mechanic at my age. Instead of that, I wound up over places, I’ll never know how, but I did. I was in pretty good condition physically I guess. Not very exciting, but that’s the way it is.

This interview took place in 2003. Dick Varney passed away on April 28th, 2008, just shy of his 97th birthday.

Mr. and Mrs. Varney and my kid brother, 1969.

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My friend Frank Towers would have turned 100 years old today. Frank passed on July 4th, 2016.

Frank W. Towers.

Frank was born on June 13, 1917. Think about that for a minute. John F. Kennedy also came into the world, less than a month before Frank. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody left the world. American involvement in WWI was just getting underway, and Frank’s future 30th Infantry Division was formally activated. Gandhi was tromping around India, investigating the poor conditions of local farmers under British rule. Revolutionaries in Ireland were still licking their wounds after the doomed Easter Rising against the British the year before. The Russian Revolution was just getting started. American suffragettes that summer were arrested for picketing the White House for the right to vote for women.

So into this world came Frank W. Towers. And Frank Towers came into my life after he had already lived a good, long one, in September, 2007, shortly after he turned 90. But he had more things to do before the Almighty called him home.

He did not know me, and I did not know him-I have never even been to Florida, where he lived. But, from the news he learned of a reunion that we had recently done at our high school. He read about how I had reunited World War II tank commanders from the US Army 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division with the children of the Holocaust who he also had helped to liberate. And Frank said to himself, “Wait, I know about this. I was there, too.”

Frank reached out to me and we began a fruitful partnership in trying to locate more of the survivors who were on that train. He invited me, and the survivors, to the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II reunions that they held annually down south. And these were powerfully moving events, to see the soldiers touched by the gestures of the survivors; and for the survivors to laugh and cry with their liberators was a gift that they, their children and grandchildren, will never forget. We also held additional reunions at our school, for the sake of making students the new witnesses to what happened during the Holocaust. Varda W., a survivor’s daughter in Israel, even orchestrated a massive reunion of 55 survivors and their children for Frank in Rehovot, Israel when he was almost 94… talk about a rock star. I was there to see him mobbed.

Frank Towers greeting survivors at the Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, Israel, May 2011. Credit: Matthew Rozell

*

There’s talk this week in Holocaust education circles of another important birthday, and another ‘Frank’-Anne Frank would have turned 88 yesterday.  She came into the world on June 12, 1929, in Frankfurt, Germany; I’ve seen the house where she was born, and I’ve been to the place where she died, at age 15. Just shy of her last birthday, on June 6th, 1944, she recorded the following entry:

‘This is D-Day,’ the BBC announced at 12 o’clock. This is the day. The invasion has begun!

Anne Frank iat school in 1940,Amsterdam, the Netherlands). Unknown photographer; public domain.

Is this really the beginning of the long-awaited liberation? The liberation we’ve all talked so much about, which still seems too good, too much of a fairy tale ever to come true?… The best part of the invasion is that I have the feeling that friends are on the way. Those terrible Germans have oppressed and threatened us for so long that the thought of friends and salvation means everything to us!

On D-Day, 26 year old 1st Lieutenant Frank Towers was also listening to this news in England as the 30th Infantry Division was preparing to ship out to the battle a few days later. Anne and her family would be betrayed in Amsterdam that August, as Frank’s 30th infantry Division held off a massive German counterattack in Mortain, France. The family was deported to Auschwitz and then Anne and her sister Margot were sent to Bergen Belsen, all the while with the Allies slugged forth through that long summer, fall and winter into 1945. Anne and Margot died in Belsen before the spring came, and liberation; there is a marker to honor them but they lie in a mass grave there today, whereabouts unknown, like so many thousands of others. Frank would not know them, but would help to liberate and rescue some 2500 from the train near Magdeburg, including some who knew of the Frank sisters. And yes, we are left to ponder some of Anne Frank’s closing words to humanity:

I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that only 5,000 of the 107,000 Jews deported from the Netherlands between 1942 and 1944 survived. That’s less than 5%. But I close today with Frank Towers, at age 97, in the Netherlands in 2014 meeting the generations who survived because of that fateful day when the US Army investigated a curious Bergen-Belsen transport stopped by the tracks near the Elbe River. And listen to the little girl in the video. The world was too late for Anne Frank, but maybe her ideals indeed live on.

 

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‘If I ever feel lost, or if I ever question the world and humanity, I will be able to find comfort in your words.’

Today was my last day with my seniors- they are on a senior trip tomorrow. One of them took the time to send me this email last night, finishing homework that I had assigned-(reading my book of course, on the Holocaust):
Hi Mr. Rozell, I know it is late and it probably isn’t the best thing for me to be telling you that I just finished your book (haha) but I was completely taken away by the ending and I had to say something.
The way you wrote the ending was incredibly insightful and clarifying, it was an amazing comparison between the Holocaust and our world today. I couldn’t get over how thoughtful the questions that you asked the reader [to consider] and what you realized during your time in Jerusalem as it came to an end. It was by far my favorite ending to any book I have ever read and I can see myself looking back years from now on the last few pages, if I ever feel lost or if I ever question the world and humanity, and I will be able to find comfort in your words. Thank you for being an inspiration to the entire class of 2017, we were truly lucky to have you!

I hope I served you well, kids. And I hope you can teach others. Ciao, baby. I’ll be around.

The last crew, June, 2017. Credit: Joan K. Lentini

Now I’m letting you know about this upcoming event below, so that you know. My blog certainly will not end, but a big part of me will be always in Room A-8.

Note: “Matthew Rozell is retiring. He will be honored as a Righteous Gentile on June 11th, 2017. In addition to his being honored, Matt will discuss his new book, “A Train Near Magdeburg,” about Jewish prisoners from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the U.S. soldiers who saved them, and how he and his students were able to unite the prisoners with their saviors. The general public is invited to attend this free, very special evening followed by a reception in Matt’s honor.”

Sunday, June 11, 2017, 7pm
Synagogue Center, Shaaray Tefila, 68 Bay St. Glens Falls NY 12801
Phone: (518) 792-4945

Books will be available for $20.

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So, it is the sixth of June again.

American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the primary landing zone for Americans during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (U.S. Air Force Photo)The ocean pounds the advance of sand amidst the relics of a different age, the hulking remnants of the tide of battle. The surf rolls in and kisses the beach, as the last participants mix on the hallowed bluff above with the politicians who have gathered from all over the world.

Thirty years ago I watched as the American president honored  the fallen, and the living, at the cemetery for the fortieth anniversary. Just out of college, something stirred inside me. Something was awoken.

Those thirty years have passed. I began by writing letters to the newspaper. I began to interview D-Day veterans and others. I began to collect stories- not relics, prizes, or artifacts. I really had little interest in captured Nazi flags or samurai swords.

I wanted to talk to the men who were there.

The fiftieth anniversary came next with great pomp and more reflection. It graced the covers of the major newsweeklies. “Saving Private Ryan” stirred the consciousness of a new generation, and reflections of the old. And I learned so much more of the war beyond the beachhead. That there were so many beachheads.

The sixtieth anniversary came around. Students on their bi-annual trips to France would bring me back their photographs and the requisite grains of white sand from Omaha Beach. Teenagers had their emotions  a bit tempered, I think. I would go on to introduce them to so many who were there. When they themselves were teenagers.

So now it is the seventy-second. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend who is no longer here, but today I would like to introduce you to a survivor of D Day who is still with us.

I first met Bill Gast at a reunion of 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion soldiers at a reunion in March 2008, in which I  was present with several Holocaust survivors who were meeting their liberating soldiers for the first time. Later, Bill came to my high school to speak to students. I think the experience of sharing, and meeting the Holocaust survivors whom the 743rd came upon and liberated, affected him deeply.

Unlike many who may be physically able, Bill has no intention of going back to the sands of Omaha for this anniversary. As he explained to our students in 2009,

“I’m listed [in the event program] as a liberator- however, I am also a survivor of World War II, having landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D-day and fighting through to the end when the Germans surrendered, May the 7th, 1945.”

“Pictures.

Video games.

Movies.

Words.

They simply do not covey the feeling of fear.

The shock.

The stench.

The noise.

The horror, and the tragedy.

The injured.

The suffering.

The dying, and the dead.”

*****************************************

D-Day: the view from a tank on Omaha Beach

Washington (AFP) – From inside his tank, the young soldier could see “practically nothing” on Omaha Beach.

Seventy years later, William Gast still wonders whether he rolled over his comrades sheltering from German gunfire that day.

Gast was 19 years old the morning of June 6, 1944. “We came in at H-10, that was 10 minutes before the designated hour.”

He cannot recall why he and his fellow soldiers arrived early, but he has other memories that have never left him.

As part of Company A, 743rd Tank Battalion, 1st Army, Gast remembers the training beforehand in Britain, when he rehearsed driving the Sherman tank onto the landing craft. And then floating in the English Channel.

“Another night we went out and we didn’t come back. That was it.”

Gast got to know the captain of the landing craft that would ferry his tank to the beaches of Normandy.

The skipper promised he would get them close enough that they would not be submerged in water, like so many tanks were that day.

He kept his word.

Another tank unit at Omaha Beach was less fortunate, with 27 of 32 tanks launched at sea five kilometers (three miles) from the coast sinking before they could reach land, despite being outfitted with a flotation screens.

“The order was given to go, we started our engines up, they lowered the ramp,” said Gast.

Amid German shrapnel and sea spray, he “could feel the tracks spinning.”

At last, the tank tracks took hold on the sandy sea bottom and he drove up the beach.

– Like throwing marbles at a car –

Down below in the driver’s seat, Gast tried to steer the tank with the aid of a small, manual periscope.

“You can imagine how much we could see, practically nothing,” he said.

The radios inside the tank were so unreliable that his commander would tell Gast which way to turn by kicking him on the left or right shoulder.

The difficulty in seeing the way ahead has left Gast with a gnawing sense that he may have run over the bodies of American soldiers on the beach.

“The saddest part about the whole thing is, not being able to see, I may have run over some of my own people.

“And if I did, I don’t even know it. I can’t ever get that out of my mind, you know?”

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Corporal Gast heard machine gun bullets hitting the side of the tank, “like throwing marbles at a car — that’s what it sounded like.”

“And there were shells that exploded right beside me. You could feel the tank shake.”

For Gast, it was a day of fear and terror, and following orders without reflection.

“I can’t tell much about what happened, I was scared to death to start with,” he said.

“It was just like putting it on automatic, you just did what you had to do, did what you were told to do.”

By noon, close to 19,000 American soldiers who landed at Omaha were still pinned down on the beach.

– High school sweetheart –

Carefully laid plans had unraveled as the beach became a killing zone, with troops mowed down under a fusillade of German machine gun, artillery and mortar fire.

Small teams of US troops eventually managed to break through on the bluffs between German positions, with the help of combat engineers blowing up obstacles.

The losses were staggering: more than 2,000 dead, wounded and missing on Omaha beach. The exact toll is still unknown. Of the 15 tanks in Gast’s Company A, only five survived without damage.

Gast, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart during his combat tour, and went on to marry his high school sweetheart.

Now 89 years old, he recently was awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur at a small ceremony for World War II veterans at the French embassy in Washington.

The short, soft spoken man stood up to receive the medal and shook hands with a French diplomat. But he has no plans to return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

His son, Bill, said his father did not want to relive that day: “It’s important we don’t forget but you try to hide things somewhere.”

http://news.yahoo.com/d-day-view-tank-omaha-beach-104656852.html

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Blair Williams grave by Vincent Heggen, 2017. Netherlands American Cemetery.

Here in the United States, Memorial Day will be upon us soon.

In interviewing WW II veterans over the years, I found that most whom I was privileged to know shied away from honors and recognition on Memorial Day.  I was reminded of the sacrifices that the veterans made, again and again, but they all told me that the real heroes were the ones that did not come home. And that Memorial Day was the day reserved for THEM; contrary to popular American opinion, it’s not another Veterans Day. But this weekend we tip our hat to the veterans among us, and post that ‘salute to the troops’, thank them for their service, and we are free to start our summer vacation. Did we just give ourselves some kind of pass?

The holiday known originally as “Decoration Day” originated at the end of the Civil War when a general order was issued designating May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” When Congress passed a law formally recognizing the last Monday in May as the day of national remembrance, we effectively got our three-day weekend and our de facto beginning of summer. But do we really want to know?  If we do, maybe we can take the time to seek out one of those who fell on those faraway fields, and think about what it means on a personal level, try to find out more about a life that was cut short. Here are a few to think about.

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

This is Marvin Boller. His remains did make it home. A Thanksgiving letter written  to him did not. The backstory:

In writing my second book, I revisited a horrific incident that occurred in the earliest days of American penetration onto enemy soil in Germany.  Resistance was stiff; on a cold and rainy day before Thanksgiving, 1944, 3 tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion’s ‘D’ Company were wiped out in a muddy apple orchard a few miles across the river.

In 2012, I was alerted to the existence of this WWII era 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 for 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.

 

{You can read a Washington Post article:

Americans gave their lives to defeat the Nazis. The Dutch have never forgotten.}

 

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 this 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, I don’t know if anyone is alive who knew you, but you are not forgotten.

 

 

MARVIN K. BOLLER

PFC, 743 TANK BN WORLD WAR II

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

More can also be seen here.

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Two of our high school classes went to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York on Friday. We blew a bus tire on the way down, but managed to get a replacement bus to make it all the way there, about two and a half hours away. Because our visit was very abbreviated, I’ll touch on the exhibit that moved us the most, where we spent most of our time.

 

It was fitting that we arrived during this last week of April, though it was not planned this way. You see, the apple blossoms were blooming, just as they probably were exactly 75 years ago, when notices like these sprang up all over California. Executive Order 9066 had been signed by FDR only as few months before, and now, it was taking effect.

April 25th, 1942-75 yrs this past week.
Anxious residents wait outside a ‘civil control station’ in San Francisco where they will be given their instructions for evacuation day. Dorothea Lange

From the Museum: “On February 19, 2017 — the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 — the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum opened a new photographic exhibition entitled, IMAGES OF INTERNMENT: THE INCARCERATION OF JAPANESE AMERICANS DURING WORLD WAR II, with over 200 photographs including the work of Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Executive Order 9066 led to the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent — including approximately 80,000 American citizens — during World War II.”

“In the tense weeks after Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans — particularly those on the Pacific Coast — feared enemy attack and saw danger in every corner. Rumors and sensational media reports heightened the climate of fear. Under pressure from military and political leaders, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. It is widely viewed today as a serious violation of civil liberties.”

I’ll leave you with more photos of photos I took on our visit.

Kimiko Kitagaki waits for an ‘evacuation’ bus that is due to leave in 30 minutes. Dorothea Lange, May 6, 1942

 

Kimito’s dad, former owner of a dyeing and cleaning business.

Members of the Mochida Family Awaiting Evacuation

Arrival at the Santa Anita Assembly Center from San Pedro.

1945. A girl exits a truck that transported her family from the Granada, Colorado camp to a railroad depot, where they will board a train for California. Hikaru Iwasaki .Oct. 6, 1945

 

We will debrief and unpack our trip down to Hyde Park on Monday-there were many more things to see, but this is where we spent our 2 hours.

 

And I’d say the kids learned that the past is still relevant, with no prompting needed. But how little we adults really seem to learn from the past.

The author with Karen Korematsu, daughter of Fred, now head of the Korematsu Institute, at a plenary presentation on Human Rights for the Law, Youth and Citizenship Program of the New York State Bar Association, Oct. 2015. (see above)

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