Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

“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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Okay, boomer.

 

On December 10, 2019, I surpassed 500,000 blog visits on TeachingHistoryMatters.com. Thank you for visiting; maybe you were the one who tripped the milestone.

I’ve been trying to think of what to write for this occasion, and set aside the time to get it done. (Did you know that every new original post takes me at least 2 days to write, edit, and proof?) Should I do a ‘greatest hits’ post, highlighting my most popular reads? A twelve-year retrospective of this journey I have been on which has carried me from mid-career teacher to published author, sought-out speaker, and historical commentator? Of the people who have crossed my path here and graced my life but who have now passed on?

Well, I suppose I can’t just let it pass.

I started this blog with a Sept 2007 entry after our very first soldiers-survivors reunion at the high school where  I had a 30-year career. Now I’m retired; my school honored me with a commencement address and induction into their honored graduates’ alumni, but sometimes I wonder if it’s all moving so fast that it’s all going to be lost in the current of time.

We did something important. We showed that teaching history does matter. And I want that to be remembered, because it is lazy to let it slip away, and as a nation we are complicit to an alarming extent.

So I write, first this blog, now my books. Now, some reviewers of the book around the events that began this blog took me to task for ‘Inserting Himself into the Narrative.’ Well, I am part of the narrative now. Get off my lawn and write your own damned book. That one nearly killed me on a few levels. Good luck on yours.

I didn’t write it as an exercise in self-promo; rather, one of the threads in it was more an ongoing dialogue with myself in attempting to come to grips with my mortal place in this universe, my sojourn on this earth, so to speak. And I literally did not figure it out until the last 20 pages of a 500-page odyssey. I’m no longer an observantly religious guy in the traditional sense, but the full weight of revelation hit me in the City of God, Jerusalem. Go figure.

This year I lost one of my first World War II interviewees, Art LaPorte. He was a wiry, tough, battle-scarred 17-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 3-year-old daughter to his kitchen table; the interview went on for so long that I think I remember I neglected my fatherly duties and she had a minor ‘accident’ off camera. Almost 2 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. When he died in August his family mentioned me in his obituary. I found out after the fact, I missed his wake and service. At the time I was totally absorbed with helping another history friend conduct his life’s work shortly after being diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I felt bad about that, and that I have not brought Art up until now, but maybe it’s all part of whatever review this post is turning out to be. So long, Art.

I feel also super compelled to write a 75th anniversary post about the Battle of the Bulge, which unfolded tomorrow morning about this time. I have a lot of profound things to say, some of which I’ve definitely said before in blog posts here and in my new book, and probably my next one. But it’s 5:45 AM and I have to leave to do another book fair type show today, getting the word out on the street again that teaching history matters. It reminds me of my project 10 years ago, before any books, where on this blog I began a 65th anniversary tour of 1945 event posts entitled, ‘The Year of the Liberator’. You can look those up in the search bar, but I will probably be re-editing and re-introducing in 2020 if I have the time. I have half a dozen new book ideas to work on and I am looking to keep spreading the word on a national level with the documentary on the train. It’s a cliché that you can get even more busy with work in retirement, but for me it’s true. I still can’t believe that I knocked out my first 2 books while I was still a full-time teacher. How the hell did I pull that off? Well, any author knows the personal sacrifices; father and husband of the year I have not been awarded yet. Add full time job and responsibility to students to the pile! And I had my own kids in class and/or was their National Honor Society advisor, so I’m kinda grateful for that; at least we had that time together during those crazy days. Thank goodness for my wife…

The 75th anniversary of the Bulge also reminds me of the recent passing of Francis Currey, MOH. Frank was the sole surviving WWII MOH recipient in all of New York and New England, a nineteen year old replacement soldier looking to get the hell out of his hometown who became the hero of December 21, 1945 in a horrible place called Malmedy, and who was told by none other than the Supreme Allied Commander that his actions there that day may have shortened the war in Europe by 6 weeks. I shamefully lost touch with Frank over the last few years, but shared a place at the head table with him at many a 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II reunion; Frank donned his Medal of Honor, Frank Towers wore his Legion d’Honneur, and I felt no shame pinning on my national medal for American history education. I was honored by these heroes, to be in their presence, to be asked to speak to their deeds, not for their benefit, but for the betterment of humanity. Now they are gone.

I lost my 95-year-old friend Walter Gantz a few weeks later just before Thanksgiving, so suddenly it knocked the wind out of my sails for a time, that is for sure. He was the 95-year-old medic who I re-united with the children he nursed back to health after the horrors of the Holocaust, including Judah Samet, train survivor and Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooting survivor. Walter cried. And he was funny, so kind, gentle; his family told me that former student athletes of his coaching drove hundreds of miles to be at his funeral. And what do you say when they tell you that a copy of A Train Near Magdeburg was placed in his casket, to be with him for eternity?

I guess this brings me full circle. While working on the audio version of that book (supposedly out in a week, but don’t hold your breath), I was struck again by listening to the chapter where I try to reconcile my place in the universe with the memory of the passings of Frank Towers, George Gross and my first ‘train interviewee’, Carrol Walsh, seven years ago this coming week, and the beautiful survivors that I grew to know and love as well. So right now, it brings me back to the beginning again. I’m on the downhill side of my fifties now; my former 3-year-old is 25 soon. I’ve lost students, high school friends, parents, and all the friends mentioned above. So, it makes one wonder, rambling on here; half a million blog reads over 12 years is really nothing; I’m sure some ‘influencers’ get that in a few days or a week.

Somedays it feels like it is over, but as I have learned, it’s never over, is it?

“Okay, boomer.”  But yeah, it really is okay.

I’ll leave you with an accompanying news article that still hangs on the door in my woodworking shop, the event that kicked off this blog and miracle upon miracle after September 14, 2007.

 

Read Full Post »

“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

Read Full Post »

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.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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]

 

Read Full Post »

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

The last surviving World War II 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, 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 [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

 


 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/francis-currey-one-of-the-last-living-medal-of-honor-recipients-from-world-war-ii-dies-at-94/2019/10/10/07ae83f2-eb6b-11e9-9306-47cb0324fd44_story.html

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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”.

 

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »