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Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

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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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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George Gross, former tank commander in Company D of the 743rd Tank Battalion, died ten years ago today. In his declining years before he died, I was able to bring him much joy in introducing him to several of the children he saved. He sent me the photographs, and wanted me to tell his story.  And I brought him together again with his old Army buddy, Red Walsh.  So I am re-posting this today on the 10th anniversary of Dr. Gross’ death.
Where does the time go? He lived a good life, and at the end, got to see the results of his actions six decades before.
We are all traveling our own roads. Days like this, I like to stop and ponder what it all means. I’m glad that I had a small role to play in his life.
george-gross-1945

~George C. Gross, 1922-2009~

Yesterday my son turned 11. And at about 11 pm yesterday on the West Coast, Dr. Gross died at home with his family around him.

I just found out. More than anyone else, he is the one responsible for this website and the hundreds of lives changed because of it.

You see, he took the photo that you may not really notice in the heading above, along with 9 other photographs that forever imprint the evidence not only of man’s inhumanity to man, but of the affirmation, hope and promise of mankind. It was he who wrote the prose that led me to the survivors, and vice versa. And it was he who cultivated a deep friendship with me via his wonderful writings and telephone conversation. How amazed and happy he seemed to be to hear from all the survivors.

In the summer of 2001, I did an interview with his comrade in arms, army buddy Carrol Walsh. Judge Walsh put me in touch with Dr. Gross. If you go back through the archives you know the rest of the story. It has changed my life and the lives of my students in that we are now trying to rescue the evidence, the testimony of the Holocaust and the World War Two veterans, for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And today I received in the mail a bulletin from this Museum, reaffirming the mission that Dr. Gross had everything to do with setting me on.

He came into my life during a dark time for me- we had just lost our father (who thankfully, like Dr. Gross, passed on from his own bed at home), and our mother was battling the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, or dementia, or whatever that nightmare was called…. we began a conversation that has yielded so much fruit.

Lately, I knew he wasn’t well. I actually had looked into flights across the country before Christmas for my son and I to pay a visit, but we just couldn’t seem to swing it financially, with Christmas bills coming in and holiday fares going up. My back up plan, in my head, was to go out in February, when fares were half the cost… Well, February arrived yesterday and now it is too late, I never got to shake the hand of a man who helped reshape my own life, and the lives of so many others.

His 8×10 liberation photos are mounted in the front of my classroom, with his captions for all to see. So I see George and just one of the noteworthy products of his life, everyday. The captions that he wrote for each are mounted below each print, a testament to his humanity and to his graciousness.

I know it is selfish to feel so bad about the fact that I was not able to literally reach out and touch him. I’m just so damned disappointed.  Right now it’s another dark day for Matt, but I am comforted that he was surely welcomed by his beloved wife, parents, and maybe even my folks as well.

From his statement read at the occasion of the first reunion, September 14th, 2007.

Sincere greetings to all of you gathered at this celebration of the indomitable spirit of mankind!

Greetings first to all the admirable survivors of the train near Magdeburg, and our thanks to you for proving Hitler wrong. You did not vanish from the face of the earth as he and his evil followers planned, but rather your survived, and grew, and became successful and contributing members of free countries, and you are adding your share of free offspring to those free societies.

You have vowed that the world will never forget the horrors of the Holocaust, and you spread the message by giving interviews, visiting schools, writing memoirs, and publishing powerful books on the evil that infected Nazi Germany and threatens still to infect the world. I am enriched by the friendship of such courageous people who somehow have maintained a healthy sense of humor and a desire to serve through all the evils inflicted upon you.

Greetings also to the dedicated teacher whose efforts have brought us all together through the classes he has taught on World War 2 and the web site he maintains at the cost of hours of time not easily found in his duty as a high school teacher. I know that several of you found your quest for knowledge of your past rewarded by the interviews and pictures Matt Rozell and his classes have gathered and maintained. Selfishly, I am grateful to Mr. Rozell for leading several of you to me, bringing added joy to my retiring years.

Greetings also to all the faculty, staff, students, parents, and friends of the school at which this important gathering takes place. Thank you for your interest in the survivors of the Holocaust and their message.

And special greetings also to my old Army buddy, Judge Carrol Walsh, and his great family. Carrol fought many battles beside me, saved my life and sanity, and resuscitated my sense of humor often. We had just finished a grueling three weeks of fighting across Germany, moving twenty or more hours per day, rushing on to reach the Elbe River. Carrol and I were again side by side as we came up to the train with Major Benjamin, chased the remaining German guards away, and declared the train and its captives free members of society under the protection of the United States Army as represented by two light tanks.

Unfortunately, Carrol was soon ordered back to the column on its way to Magdeburg while, luckily for me, I was assigned to stay overnight with the train, to let any stray German soldiers know that it was part of the free world and not to be bothered again.

Carrol missed much heartbreaking and heartwarming experience as I met the people of the train. I was shocked to see the half-starved bodies of young children and their mothers and old men—all sent by the Nazis on their way to extermination.

I was honored to shake the hands of the large numbers who spontaneously lined up in orderly single file to introduce themselves and greet me in a ritual that seemed to satisfy their need to declare their return to honored membership in the free society of humanity.

I was heartbroken that I could do nothing to satisfy their need for food that night, but I was assured that other units were taking care of that and the problem of housing so many free people.

Sixty years later, I was pleased to hear that the Army did well in caring for their new colleagues in the battle for freedom. I saw many mothers protecting their little ones as best they could, and pushing them out, as proud mothers will, to be photographed. I was surprised and please by the smiles I saw on so many young faces.

Some of you have found yourselves among those pictured children, and you have proved that you still have those smiles. I was terribly upset at the proof of man’s inhumanity to man, but I was profoundly uplifted by the dignity and courage shown by you indomitable survivors. I have since been further rewarded to learn what successful, giving lives you have lived since April 13, 1945.

I wish I could be with you in person at this celebration, as I am with you in spirit. I hope you enjoy meeting each other and getting to know Matt Rozell and Carrol Walsh. I look forward to seeing again my friends whom I have met and to meeting the rest of you either in person or by E-mail. My experience at the train was rich and moving, and it has remained so, locked quietly in my heart until sixty years later, when the appearance of you survivors began to brighten up a sedate retirement.

You have blessed me, friends, and I thank you deeply. May your lives, in turn, bring you the great blessings you so richly deserve.

Fondly yours,

George C. Gross

September, 2007

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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.”

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

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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Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I study this photograph,

and so it begins.

Seventy-three Years Later.

The war comes to a devastating conclusion.

The discoveries unfold:

Eyewitness encounters with the most horrific crime in the history of the world.

Battle-hardened tough guys cry.

They stomp their feet in rage, and get sick,

but the lost are lost.

The Survivors ‘carry on’.

The Soldiers ‘carry on’.

Some will be lost for the rest of their lives.

Now, it is Seventy-plus Years.

But it is not over,

because ‘closure’ is a myth,

and seven decades is but a blur.

The barracks door opens slowly. New tracks form in the snow

but how is life supposed to go on?

And now for the rest of humanity-

Just what have we learned,

Or have we just allowed ourselves to forget?

Is it even important, for us to stop and think

about snowflakes on little boys?

*****

-m.a.rozell-

See the Altantic’s photo essay here.

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

Matthew Rozell is a teacher who has studied at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority. His second book,  A Train Near Magdeburg, is on teaching and remembering the Holocaust.

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A reminder for Veterans Day. My classroom is gone now, but Mr. P is still with us, at 95. I hope the lessons stick with you, kids.-MR

 

the last generation

My 93 year old friend Alvin Peachman came into school on Friday. He was once a teacher at this same high school, and I was once his history student. Now he is in my first book, and it was one white haired old man interviewing another, before a polite and rapt audience of tenth and twelfth graders in my classroom. My friend Liza from the New York State United Teachers, who did a nice story on us for Veterans Day, also came up.

 

alvin 3

Alvin even brought in a fragment of the kamikaze plane that tried to do him in when it crashed into his ship, killing scores of his shipmates. As a radioman he would have been a target on the bridge of the ship, supporting the invasion of Okinawa, but he was not near that part of the ship when the suicide pilot struck that day.

Before the interview session began, I asked for a show of hands of the number of kids who knew of a World War II veteran, like Alvin, who was still alive. Two kids volunteered. Nearly thirty years ago, it was two hands in the air for every kid. And that is how this whole project got started.

Alvin was from a generation that knew firsthand of the Civil War veterans, and his father and his uncles were all veterans of the Western Front in World War I. He had a good day with the kids, and made them laugh on several occasions. But it got me to thinking. This is the last generation of kids to ever hear firsthand the stories of the most cataclysmic events in the history of the world, World War II and the Holocaust.

The students came up to Alvin after the lesson, some seeking his autograph, others just wanting to shake his hand and hang out a while longer with him. I think it made his day. I know it made theirs and it is not something they will soon forget- that they actually met a genuine World War II survivor and now have that tangible link to the past.

I hope it is not the last time, but they are certainly the last generation.

the last generation 4

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So, it is the sixth of June again.

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

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

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

I wanted to talk to the men who were there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pictures.

Video games.

Movies.

Words.

They simply do not covey the feeling of fear.

The shock.

The stench.

The noise.

The horror, and the tragedy.

The injured.

The suffering.

The dying, and the dead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He kept his word.

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

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

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

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

– Like throwing marbles at a car –

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

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

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

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

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

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

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

– High school sweetheart –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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