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Posts Tagged ‘teaching history matters’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The “Two Franks” in this story are American World War II soldier/liberator Frank Towers and a Dutch teen named Anne Frank. Today is Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, had she survived; Frank would be 102 tomorrow, so I’m re-posting from the original in 2017.  Rest easy, friends. The world is a better place because you were in it.


My friend Frank Towers would have turned 102 years old tomorrow. 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.

Frank Towers by Pete Fredlake, USHMM, 2010.

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 90 today.  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. I’ve met some of her friends. 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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Tuesday morning, June 6, 1944. Omaha Beach. National Archives.

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-five 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-five 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” would soon stir the consciousness of a new generation, and the 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-fifth. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend, Buster Simmonds, a combat medic who is no longer with us. Last year, I featured a living D-Day veteran, Bill Gast, a tanker who made it from surf to beach and beyond. Sadly, Bill passed last December.

And today I am hard at work on the fifth oral history in my World War II series, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw: D-Day and Beyond’, due for release in August. Featured in it is one of our frequent classroom visitors, Tony Leone, a Coast Guard veteran of D-Day aboard an LST. And as I was working on his narrative this past March, footage of his ACTUAL SHIP, LST 27, was discovered, loading up for D-Day [click the photo below, it is only a minute long].

Tony left us in 2010. I’ll leave you with the book excerpt below. And remember to pause for a moment this day, June 6th, to think about what they did, 75 years ago.



Excerpt from ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw: D-Day and Beyond, by Matthew A. Rozell

He sits behind a student desk, wearing a medal presented to him by the French government that he also wears to Mass every Sunday. ‘I wear it with pride to pay homage to those fellows who burned alive next to me. I made it and they didn’t. It still bothers me.’

He rests on his walking cane and leans forward as he speaks. He is animated—he motions with his hands to emphasize his points. A prolific author and newspaper letter writer, Anthony’s mission is to educate the public about what his generation of Americans went through: ‘It would be at least 25 years after World War II before I could begin to think about the experiences of that time. They were buried deep in my subconscious and remained there so that my mind and body could heal.’

Anthony F.J. Leone

The Invasion of Normandy

 

I got assigned to USS LST 27. I said to myself, ‘What the heck is an LST?’ We boarded in Norfolk, Virginia. I carried my sea bag, along with the rest of the graduates of boot camp, up this long gangway. This was the biggest vessel I had ever seen in my life! If you had it up here on Lake George, it was 327 feet long, imagine that, and 50 feet wide. That’s a big ship.

‘LST’ stands for ‘Landing Ship, Tanks’. What we did is to carry small boats. We sent the small boats in first loaded with troops and vital supplies, then we came in right up to the beachhead with the LSTs and opened the bow doors and dropped the ramps. But on D-Day, not even the small boats could get in among the obstacles, and there were mines all over the place. They were killing our soldiers like sheep to the slaughter.

*

We left Norfolk in March of 1944 and landed in Africa. We had gone through bad air raids by the Germans in the Mediterranean and U-boat attacks but we survived. One ship was hit and set afire, a ship carrying lumber, and incidentally the crews couldn’t get the fire out; it was in the stern of our convoy. We got attacked by the Luftwaffe, JU-88s and Dornier torpedo bombers.

We reached Africa without further incident and then we sailed for England. We landed in Swansea, Wales, and we got liberty [after] we unloaded an LCT from the ship. An LCT is a long, wide, flat-box sort of landing craft where the ramp drops down and the conning tower is in the back, and we had one topside. We carried it piggyback; what we did was fill the starboard bilge tanks with water and then chop the cables holding the LCT on, onto these greased wooden skids. By severing the cables, the thing would slam into the water with a big splash. We got rid of that thing because there were some heavy seas and we were top heavy. These were the craft that what would land the men, later on.

About the end of May, about a week before D-Day, we went to Southampton, and then to Falmouth, to become part of the back-up force for the D-Day landings. We took on units from the 175th Infantry, which belonged to the 29th Division. Everything was frozen in place, we couldn’t move. The area was sealed off, we couldn’t go on liberty, we couldn’t visit the British girls, which was quite a sacrifice in those days, since they were all over the Yanks. We were like the invention of sliced bread; the British girls couldn’t get enough of the Yanks. [Laughs] We had a lot of money I guess, and we showed up the British service men pretty bad. The American troops over there, their behavior was abominable. The British treated them really good, but the Americans were spoiled had a lot of money, and… well, it’s the same old story.

They sealed us off, and on the 4th and 5th of June we were ready to go. We headed toward ‘Piccadilly Circus’, that was the code name of the circle in the middle of the Channel that we were supposed rendezvous at, from there the flotillas would go towards the English beachheads [in Normandy] and we would go towards the American beachheads, Omaha Beach and Utah Beach.

We went out to the sea on the 5th, and it was really stormy. Eisenhower was really blown away by [the weather]. So, they waited, and I guess a British meteorologist saw a break, a window in the weather. Eisenhower had decided to go for it, he had his fingers crossed, he had a letter ready apologizing for the loss of lives and withdraw from the continent in case it failed.[1] So, we went, the first units moved up from British ports of Southampton, London, Plymouth and Portland. We were the second, the backup force from Falmouth.

The Americans had gotten off the beach by late June 6th. Of course, [before that], the Germans had mowed them down like a wheat field. As I said before, there were German privates just sitting there with machine guns, just killing Americans and crying as they were doing it, ‘Please go back, I don’t want to kill no more!’ [Repeats this line in German]. At one point, General Bradley was going to pull them off, take all the people at Omaha Beach and bring them over to Utah. Utah was a pretty successful landing—there, casualties were [far less].

By the time we got to the [Omaha] beachhead the next day, it was a mess. We came in with the LSTs. We had already launched our LCVPs [on June 6] which brought in the troops, the ‘Landing Craft Vehicle-Personnel’, that is, a Higgins Boat. It was invented by Andrew Higgins, a boat builder from the United States. Then it was time for us to come in and unload the tanks.

It was now June 7th; all you saw was a layer of white smoke on the beach. The [US Army] Rangers had gotten in behind the Germans, but when we [first arrived there with the big ship], it was still hot, there were still mines all over the place, hedgehogs and stakes driven in the ground with Teller mines sitting on them. At high tide when you came in you couldn’t see them. Our LCVPs had to negotiate between them, this was impossible at high tide, you had to wait until the tide was way out, then the soldiers had to walk almost half a mile over bare land, no foliage or anything.

As we came in, it was pretty hard to negotiate because the mined obstacles were still all over the place and there were pieces of human bodies floating all over. The American soldiers had the life belts on that you activate, and they inflated because they had a CO2 cartridge. But because the guys had heavy packs on, it would up-end them and drown them because they couldn’t get loose. We saw a lot of soldiers floating that way. Their life belts worked alright, but they killed them. Their bodies floated to and fro all day long.

After we saw that, we were not too enthusiastic about going in and hitting the beach—we said, ‘If this is happening out here, what is going to happen there?’ Even though it was a couple days later, we were all armed to the teeth. We had our clothing well-impregnated with chemicals to withstand a gas attack, and when your body got out of it, that stuff would drive you crazy.

We proceeded in. Now up in our conning tower, our officers had barricaded themselves behind a pile of mattresses up in the bridge, not that they were ‘chicken’, they were just being smart about the whole thing, they didn’t want to get hit with shrapnel.

We had that on and we were all ready to go over, life jackets and helmets, I was manning the 20mm gun and all of a sudden, the public address system crackled. I heard the damnedest noise, that scared me more than the enemy, really, when it first came on [singing], ‘Mairzy doats and dozy doats And liddle lamzy divey/ A kiddley divey too/ Wouldn’t you?’. It was the voice of our skipper, and he was dead drunk. [Laughs] Now understand that he was a very solemn-looking individual, dark, so dark that at night we couldn’t see him, so we called him ‘The Shadow’—when he walked on the bridge, all you would see was the glow of his cigarette. He would let it burn to his lips and then spit it out, he was [tough as nails]. So here is this guy who is fearless, and as we were going in, he is singing ‘Mairzy Doats’[2] I would have chosen a different tune really, but everyone burst out laughing, so it was a morale builder in a sense. It told us the captain was human after all, and he was just as much afraid as we were!

So we went in and hit the beach, started up the ventilator fans as we had big tubes coming out of the tank deck to suck the exhaust fumes out—and incidentally, both their vehicles were burning oil, don’t know why, poor maintenance. They got them going and the trucks were towing—this was the 175th Heavy Tank Company, it was part of the 29th Division—they started to move out when the brake seized on the 57mm anti-tank cannon carriage they were towing in the back of the lead truck. Marion Burroughs, a friend of mine who was driving it later told me, ‘God that saved my life, that brake locking up like that, it never happened before in all my years of working with it.’ That’s the way things happen, you know. He motioned for the other truck to go back around him—it was an army wrecker, used for picking up tanks or wrecked vehicles. It went around and both of the vehicles went out, the wrecker hit a mine just coming off the ramp. They had it taped off where it was safe you know, I still think they went ‘off the tape’, the taped-off lanes to distinguish between the mined and unmined areas… It blew up and there were bodies all over the place and the trucks were filled with Chesterfield and Old Gold cigarettes, I remember vividly; ‘Lucky Strike had gone to war’ with gold packaging—they had taken the green out of the cigarette wrapper to save the cadmium that was green, I think—well, I remember those cigarettes just went all over the place, bazooka shells, the thing was loaded with ammo and gasoline and it went up, a flaming cauldron—it was like a blast furnace! These poor guys were screaming and they were pinned to the frame and you could see the rubber of the tires all turning to liquid and dripping. And their screams! It seemed like they screamed long after life left their bodies. I still hear them sometimes. If you ever hear a person screaming in agony when they were being burned alive… [looks down, shakes head]

We went out to see what we could do. I reached down and a piece of shrapnel came through the top of my helmet, punched it open, and broke some skin. I didn’t realize it until later, when the thing fell off my head and landed on the deck. You couldn’t get near the fire because the flames were so hot. A couple of individuals did rescue somebody, and I went out again to get another helmet. They were all over the place, like coconuts. I saw one with netting on it, and I went to get it and ‘zing-zing-zing’ [gestures quickly, tapping the air in succession three times], there were little bursts of sand right in front of it, some German probably anticipated my move and said, ‘well, this guy’s not going to get his helmet.’

One of our officers, a deck officer, a little fellow named Serge, went out and dragged somebody back to the ship. Now they had always made fun of Serge because of his size; he was puny, like another Don Knotts, all nervous and such. They all used to pick on him, like making him stand on a table because he was Jewish, things like that; that was World War II, you know. A colored steward would have to stand on the back of the bus—even though he survived a lot of battles, he had to stand on the back of the bus in Norfolk, Virginia. This is what World War II was really like.

He went out in the surf, the crazy [son of a gun, and rescued some guys], and he got back, I think he got the Silver Star or something for it. He was ten-foot-tall in our eyes after that. Finally, we closed the damn bow door; we lifted the ramp—it takes ages for that thing to come up on chains—and we closed the bow. We waited for the fires to subside and the flames went down, and we went out. We hated to see what was still out there. Things were still hot, fires were still burning, everything was gone—it was just bones sitting there, grinning skeletons.

[Later] on Utah Beach on June 19, a big storm stirred up a lot of mines. As we were coming in our lookout yelled, ‘Stop engines! Wreckage in the water, dead ahead!’ We slowed and stopped. Apparently, there was an LCT that had been hit earlier and it was laying there. Had we gone another 25 or 30 feet, we would have been impaled, practically stuck on the thing—so we couldn’t move. We reversed and motioned for the LST in line behind us to go around us. When they went around us, and as they made that move alongside, they blew right in half; they struck a mine. Now try to picture a huge structure like an LST, 327 feet long, welded steel, 50 feet wide, blowing in two, [lifting out of the water and straight up into the air]. The crew aboard it had a motley assortment of pets. They had pigeons, and chickens—what the hell would you have a chicken onboard for?—chickens, and dogs and cats; this was strictly forbidden, but they let them get away with it. Just before, we had been waving to the guys and laughing at the animals. We were the ‘Suicide Navy’, they called us. A very apropos title.

There were medical teams assigned to all the landing ships, like the LSTs, and they were composed of one or two naval doctors and a team of corpsmen. We had a surgical operating station in the back of the tank section, it was a complete operating room and they operated on the wounded there. At times we’d go back to eat, and we’d set our trays down in the dining room. They’d operate on the tables there, and our trays would slide in the blood—well, you don’t feel much like eating after that.

That is what I had to live with every day. The wounded, the dying, the death, it became a way of life. That’s bad, that’s real bad. When I got discharged from the service, I got a 100 percent disability because I was a basket case. I had to get some shock treatment, once or twice. I spent ten years at the VA hospital in out-patient treatment, I’m still going there in Albany. But I would do it all over again, because it was a cause. A cause célèbre, you might say. It’s nothing like what’s going on today.

War itself should be abolished, it should be outlawed. There can’t conceivably be any winners, [with these nuclear weapons]. For me it was bad enough to see men die all the time. I’d hate to see, right now today, a dog die—if a dog got hit by a car, I’d die, I’d feel badly. But now think about seeing human beings die, and then you get used to it, to endure you have to say to yourself, ‘This is a way of life, I have to live with it’. That crew became my family for two years, the only home I had. The medal presented to [us veterans by France] is the most beautiful medal I’ve ever seen, and I wear it with honor every Sunday. The priest doesn’t like the medal because to him it speaks of violence and war, but this is the biggest argument against war there is. For kids to even think of settling arguments with violence and war, that just shouldn’t be considered, because it is a foolish move. The innocent die.


MATTHEW ROZELL is an award-winning history teacher, author, blogger and speaker. He has been featured as the ABC World News ‘Person of the Week’ and has had his work filmed for CBS News, NBC Learn, the Israeli Broadcast Authority, the New York State United Teachers, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and one book will soon be released as a documentary on PBS. His books have been read by hundreds of thousands. You can follow him at www.facebook.com/AuthorMatthewRozell


[1] he had a letter ready-Eisenhower had hastily drafted a letter accepting responsibility in the event of a colossal failure at the Normandy landings: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” National Archives.

[2] Mairzy Doats-A silly novelty song that hit #1 in the US pop charts in March 1944. As others have noted, the amusing sheet music lyrics sung by Mr. Leone are revealed in the song’s bridge, “If the words sound queer and funny to your ear/ A little bit jumbled and jivey/ Sing ‘Mares eat oats and does eat oats/ And little lambs eat ivy/ A kid’ll eat ivy too/ Wouldn’t you?”.

  • From the Portsmouth D-Day Story Museum: “The number of people killed in the fighting is not known exactly. Accurate record keeping was very difficult under the circumstances. Books often give a figure of 2,500 Allied dead for D-Day. However, research by the US National D-Day Memorial Foundation has uncovered a more accurate figure of 4,414 Allied personnel killed on D-Day. These include 2,501 from the USA, 1,449 British dead, 391 Canadians and 73 from other Allied countries. Total German losses on D-Day (not just deaths, but also wounded and prisoners of war) are estimated as being between 4,000 and 9,000. Over 100,000 Allied and German troops were killed during the whole of the Battle of Normandy, as well as around 20,000 French civilians, many as a result of Allied bombing.”

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My friend Frank Towers would have turned 101 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.

Frank Towers by Pete Fredlake, USHMM, 2010.

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 89 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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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-fourth. 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.”

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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.

Mr. & Mrs. Gast, Holocaust Survivors-American Soldiers reunion, 2009.

Mr. & Mrs. Gast, Holocaust Survivors-American Soldiers reunion, 2009.

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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Memorial to Warsaw Uprising

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which marks the anniversary of the largest single uprising against German oppression of the Jews, which occurred in Warsaw in 1943. It is important to note, however that resistance to evil manifested in many different forms, not just physical ‘pushback’, as I was reminded on my Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program tour in 2013. As the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is now upon us, I share this post, an excerpt from my recent book, also recounting the narrative of a fourteen year old Jewish resistance fighter who was told she had to leave the ghetto by her leaders, so that she might live to remember them and tell this story.

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As 1943 dawned, the SS returned to the ghetto for another major deportation. They encountered the first armed resistance from the ghetto fighters and beat a hasty retreat, leaving behind wounded and weapons, and calling off the operation. For the next three months, the ghetto fighters organized and prepared for the final struggle. On the eve of Passover, April 19th, the Germans returned again, this time with the aim of liquidating the ghetto once and for all, in time for Hitler’s birthday on the 20th. By then, there were between 300-350 active fighters; the young were now the real leaders of the ghetto, having decided not between life and death, but rather, how to die.* Aliza recorded her observations of the preparations for the final battle they all knew was coming.

Jews captured by SS and SD troops during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising are forced to leave their shelter and march to the Umschlagplatz for deportation.  from the notorious Stroop Report. USHMM.

Aliza Melamed Vitis–Shomron

Spring, 1943

As spring approached, the atmosphere in the reduced ghetto changed. We waited for the final ‘aktion’, for the final extermination of the Jews of Warsaw’. People began to build bunkers. Experts turned up, engineers who built bunkers with electric light, in wells and toilets. Most of the bunkers were dug in cellars. There were various ways to enter the bunkers from the ground floor: by raising a cover in the kitchen stove or through an opening in the large stove attached to the wall, or in many other strange ways, according to the fertile imagination of the builders. The ghetto was preparing for a struggle.

March passed, and April came. Talk about the approaching final liquidation of the ghetto intensified. The ghetto was fully aware of it and prepared. It was the calm before the storm, suffused with energy and tension. Frequent shots near the ghetto and sudden evening searches by the SS command cars heralded what was to come. Sending off the people working for Töbens and Schultz factory workshops to Poniatow and Travniki* caused apprehension, even though they had gone of their own free will. If they are sending out the workers, what will happen to all the rest? The companies of the SS General Globocnik *, in charge of extermination, again arrived in Warsaw.

The only possibility left is to escape to the Aryan side, to dress up as a Pole and look for acquaintances or people willing to hide Jews in exchange for money. For a few thousand zloty, one could get a Polish birth certificate and a ration card. People handed over their children to Christian clerics, to monasteries and to peasants in the villages. Sacks were thrown over the walls daily and openly, at least on our side. People paid bribes to the foremen of the work crews to be able to join them going out to work on the Aryan side. Some of them did not look Jewish and were lucky enough to find ‘good’ Poles. Women dyed and oxidized their hair, and created curls by rolling their hair in pieces of paper, to look like blonde gentile girls. But they could not change the color of their eyes, or their dejected and pallid look. A Jew could also be picked out by his hesitant walk, his bent back, and his eyes constantly darting around him. We were so preoccupied by our aspiration to look like ‘goyim’ that we examined ourselves and others: Does that man look like a Jew? Will they recognize him in the street?

Of course, a new profession cropped up among the simple Polish people, with many demanding a bribe, or being paid to be an informer, a blackmailer. We were deeply disappointed; we thought that as witnesses of our tragedy, our compatriots, sharing the same language and culture, they would hold out a hand to save us. But it did not happen. A few of them hid Jews for large sums of money; these were mostly people connected to socialist activities and the left wing parties. Many devout Christians and religious scholars did so without taking money, out of true nobility of spirit. Many others, from among the simple folk, made a living by informing on Jews to the Gestapo, and collaborated willingly out of pure antisemitism. They walked around in the streets close to the ghetto, spied by the gates and the places where Jews worked on the Aryan side and looked for victims. Thousands made a living in this way.

*

The state of our family grew worse. We began to suffer from hunger. There were no clothes left to sell, we lived on the food we had received in the workshop, distributed by the Germans.

Aliza’s family decided to split up to increase chances of survival. Her more ‘Aryan-looking’ mother and younger sister, with a great deal of bribery, subterfuge, and nerves of steel, went into hiding on the Aryan side. Her father decided to take the chance and volunteer to go to the work camp near Lublin. Aliza herself wanted to stay and fight in the ghetto, but now only fourteen she was deemed too young and directed by the leadership of the resistance to make her way to the Aryan side as well, to live to tell the story. 

Aliza’s cousin stayed in the ghetto to fight the Germans. For three days, the resistance fought on, against impossible odds. It was weeks before the ghetto was overcome; there were few survivors.

Lazar

In the morning, we heard dull sounds of firing and explosions. In another house, in Swentojerska Street 34, the Z.O.B. had their positions. People from the organization told us about a mine they had detonated when the Germans decided to penetrate into our area; about battles leaving ten Germans dead; about a ‘peace delegation’ of SS officers who came with a white flag asking for an armistice to pick up their wounded, and how they fired at them at once. The fighters were elated, exhausted—but looked happy.

The battle in most of the houses in that area lasted two days. They ran from house to house. The leader of the group was the commander Marek Edelman. Dozens of fighters took part in the battle; some of them were killed. They went out at night to try to make contact with their friends. They told us that the battle inside the ghetto was still going on, that the fighters had delayed the entry of the tanks and set fire to them with homemade Molotov bottles. They were stationed at windows and changed their positions by moving across the rooftops. We in the shelters decided to open fire only when they discovered us. We made up our minds to defend our families to the end, not let them take us to Treblinka.

On the third day, fighting also broke out in the area of the workshops of Töbens and Schultz. At the last moment many people preferred to move to the Poniatow camp. In the meantime, the Germans began to set fire to the houses. On the second day of the uprising, the fighters told us about fires in the ghetto. We sat in the crowded shelter, praying that they wouldn’t get to us. We had expected the worst, but not fires. The people in the shelter said goodbye to each other. We were in despair, expecting certain death. We could already smell the smoke. Someone came from the neighboring house; people were fleeing from adjacent houses. There were no Germans around. After a night full of dread, just before dawn, we did hear German voices in the courtyard. They were calling to the Jews to come out at once, or else they’d burn us alive.

The artillery was constantly firing incendiary bombs. Whole blocks of houses were on fire. The shelter was not damaged, but the water stopped running. The electricity went out. The walls of the shelter became unbearably hot, smoke penetrated the cellar. We sat there, coughing, wrapped up in wet sheets. People wept, dragged themselves to the courtyard with the last vestige of strength. We had no choice, we would defend ourselves in the yard. The men cleared the opening and gave the order—‘wrap yourselves up in sheets soaked in the remnants of water, lie in the middle of the courtyard, in the garden.’

The yard is full of people, smoke covers everything, the top floors are in flames, the fire is running wild without any interference, parts of walls are collapsing and falling into the yard. People lying on the ground are groaning with pain…

Suddenly, we hear German voices in the street. God! We thought it was all over, that they’ve left us here. What shall we do? Several Germans burst in through the gate…

 

Lazar was captured and beaten, but managed to escape deportation, and made it to his cousin’s hiding place on the Aryan side.

 

I saw a different Lazar before me. He used to be arrogant, a show-off. The person sitting here now was thin, withdrawn; he stammered slightly when he spoke. We’ll have to live together in that small room in the cellar. Who knows how long? Until this damned war is over?

The Beginning of May, 1943

They say that the ghetto no longer exists. The wreckage of the houses is still standing; the piles of cinders still crackle, and at night shadowy figures, seeking food and shelter, still move about in there. But the ghetto no longer exists; 500,000 people have gone up in smoke. And those still alive bleed inwardly, their deep wounds will never heal. And maybe there will be no one left when freedom comes? Why are human beings so cruel and evil? They speak about the future, about truth, about Man as proof of God’s great wisdom, and it’s all lies, lies!

I know there are also good people, but they are persecuted; society rejects them as weaklings. Why am I prevented from seeing the wonders of nature and the world, from breathing fresh air?

The full narrative is available here.

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In 2013 I visited Warsaw, rebuilt; almost nothing remains of the ghetto itself- with slight exceptions.

July 17, 2013

We tour Jewish Warsaw and finally the remnants of the ghetto wall, and also the Umschlagplatz. It is here that forced gatherings for the mass deportations to Treblinka took place. I am also reminded of the scene from the film “The Pianist”.

 

 

 

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

 

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

 

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The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

We walk the edge of the wall, memorialized in bronze in the sidewalk.

 

 

 

1240

And we come to a section that still stands.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

 

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are hear, listening to their teacher.

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are here, listening to their teacher.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was the first open fight in an occupied city against the Germans. And it was conducted by Jewish youth, who held off the Germans for half a month in the spring of 1943. Utterly inspiring and amazing. We make our way to Mila 18, the bunker command post where Mordechai Anielewicz and many of the resistance fighters breathed their last. It is another solemn moment.

18 Mila Street.

18 Mila Street.

Monument at Mila 18.

Monument at Mila 18.

 

We know why we are here. We are not only witnesses, but we were chosen to become, for many, the point of entry on the immense and sometimes unfathomable subject of the Holocaust, and the many forms of resistance that were taken during it.  And so rightly, our trip is concluding here. The processing will only come over time.

***

* By then, there were between 300-350 fighters- Bauer, Yehuda. ‘Current Issues in Holocaust Education and Research: The Unprecedentedness of the Holocaust in an Age of Genocide.’ Lecture notes, International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel. July 21, 2016.

* Poniatow and Travniki– forced–labor camps for Jews in Lublin District near the concentration camp Majdanek.

* SS General Globocnik –SS and police leader who directed Operation Reinhard between autumn 1941 and summer 1943.

 

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Paige and flag. Credit: Dan Hogan

We walked in the snow, squinting against the early winter sun, moving past the headstones in one of the older cemeteries in our town. Small talk wound down as we approached our destination. We stopped, and greeted the reporter who met us there for the event. Austin opened the small bag of black river stones, and each student picked one to write a message onto.

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We approached the grave. Well, it is not really a grave, you see—a nineteen year old kid’s body lies somewhere back in Hawaii, at a place called Pearl Harbor. His parents lay just to the south of this marker, passing on 14 and 18 years later. The kid’s body was never properly identified. He lies in a mass grave somewhere else, far, far away.

And here in his hometown, there is not even a flag on his marker. Why should there be? As far as I know, there is no immediate close family left here to tend to his stone, and he is not even here.

But we buy a flag, and Paige affixes it to the holder.

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Teacher and student. Credit: Dan Hogan

Paige holds the 1942 yearbook senior class dedication, and I pull out a copy of his photograph, and say a few words.

Seventy-five years after his death, after his parents’ pain and anguish at the telegram announcing he was ‘missing in action’, after his classmates’ angst that following June at graduating without him into the new world of 1942, where so many of them would go on to fight and die along with him, a bunch of kids from his high school return. The 17 and 18 year olds are on the cusp of entering a new world themselves, along with them the 55 year old man who was once also a young graduate-to-be of Hudson Falls High School.

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We come to remember, and to set down our memorial stones.

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The kids speak to the reporter, and we pose for one last picture.

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We are here for all of 15 minutes before the bus has to return to the school to make another run, due to parent-teacher conferences at the elementary level. It is quick, a surgical tactical strike in an overly crowded and rushed school day; some might say, hardly worth the effort.

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You wonder if the lesson will stay with them.

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They leave this cemetery, some certainly forever, to go out into the world, having paid their respects to the boy from Hudson Falls whose future ended on December 7th, 1941.

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GET THE BOOK HERE

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‘One of Their Own’

Local sailor who died at Pearl Harbor remembered by teacher, students

From the Remembering Pearl Harbor, 75 years later series

by BILL TOSCANO btoscano@poststar.com

HUDSON FALLS — On a windy Tuesday morning, in a snow-covered cemetery, Matt Rozell’s history class took a somber turn.

Rozell and about 25 Hudson Falls High School seniors stood in the fresh snow at a memorial stone that read, “H. Randolph Holmes,” followed by the words, “Died in action at Pearl Harbor,” “Age 19 yrs” and “U.S. Navy.”

Holmes had been a student in Hudson Falls’ Class of 1942 but left school early, joined the Navy and was killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t forget Randy,” Rozell told the group, which had taken a quick bus ride on Route 4 to the Moss Street Cemetery. “Especially you in the Class of 2017 because it’s the 75th anniversary of the year he should have graduated.”

Holmes was aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma during the attack and was one of 429 men killed when the ship was struck and capsized. Like many of the sailors on the Oklahoma, his body was not recovered for 18 months and has never been identified. Holmes was buried, with the other “unknown” Oklahoma sailors, in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the “Punchbowl.”

Several years ago, one of Rozell’s students located Holmes’ name on the memorial to those who died on the Oklahoma.

Two of Rozell’s students said Tuesday they had no idea a former Hudson Falls student had died at Pearl Harbor.

“I had no clue,” said Alex Prouty, who went on to talk about what she and her classmates had

learned about the attack. “We learned that there was a loss of a lot of lives and that a lot of people went missing. No one was prepared for it, and our military did the best they could to protect us.”

Jacob Fabian said he learned about Holmes in class as well.

“Before class, no, I didn’t know anything, but now, yes, because of Mr. Rozell’s book,” Fabian said. “We learned a lot about Pearl Harbor, what its effects were, why and how it happened and how monumental it was.”

 During the brief ceremony Tuesday morning, one of the students held up a picture of Holmes from the Class of 1942 yearbook and another held the yearbook itself as they stood by the memorial stone. Rozell had a student hand out black stones, and the students wrote on them and left them on the stone.

“This year’s yearbook is also going to have a page for Randy,” said Rozell, who has written two books on World War II and is working on several more. “It’s important for us to remember him.”

Photo by Steve Jacobs, Post Star, Moss St Cemetery, Hudson Falls, NY, 12-6-2017.

Identification ongoing

Holmes may yet come home.

Five formerly “unknown” sailors from the USS Oklahoma were identified in January, using medical records. The identifications are the first to come from a project that began in April 2015 when the Defense Department announced plans to exhume an estimated 388 of the Oklahoma’s unknowns.

The first exhumations took place June 8, 2015, and the last four caskets were dug up Nov. 9, 2015.

Sixty-one caskets were retrieved from 45 graves. The caskets were heavily corroded and had to be forced open.

The remains were removed and cleaned and photographed. The skeletons were flown to the lab in Nebraska for further analysis, but skulls were retained in Hawaii, where the Defense Department’s forensic dentists are based.

http://poststar.com/news/local/local-sailor-who-died-at-pearl-harbor-remembered-by-teacher/article_8b7006ad-ba5f-5544-85a4-131a5a0b9430.html

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

UPDATE: 

As of Nov. 30, 2016 the Pentagon says it has ID’d 21 of the 388 unknowns.

You can see the news releases here. Hopefully someday they’ll ID Randy Holmes …

http://www.dpaa.mil/News-Stories/Releases/

 

 A highly recommended PBS video is below.

http://www.pbs.org/program/pearl-harbor-uss-oklahoma-final-story/

 

 

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