When the flu epidemic of 1918 took my father’s mother, his father dumped him on a Bronx doorstep and fled for Paris. Jack was just four and the loss of his parents along with World War II shaped his life forever. The sense of abandonment would rob him of confidence, but he was toughened by his four war years in North Africa and Europe.
He was on the front lines of history fighting and freezing at the climactic ‘Battle of the Bulge’. By bonding with his war buddies he gained a family, but the war left him with psychic scars that dogged him the rest of his life.
Nothing could have prepared him for WW II and although innately street smart, his formal education didn’t include a high school diploma. He was not officer material, dropping out of high school to work as an errand boy before and during the depression. As hard as life was on the streets of New York during the 1930s it was no training camp for fighting the Nazis. Brought up in a kosher household by his grandfather in the Bronx, he wore the traditional tefillin under his clothes. His world view was shaped by Judaism that Hitler tried to annihilate. My dad’s escapes were the New York sports and jazz scenes and his weekend summer trips to Rockaway Beach. He met a curvaceous brunette from Queens there whose father was a Jewish émigré from Poland whose brothers and sisters were being lost in the concentration camps. The coming war foreshadowed everyone’s life.
They started dating but by 1942 the budding romance intersected with the horrors of Europe. My father had registered for the draft in 1940 and by 1942 he was among those called up. For the next three years he was overseas on a journey that would change his life, my mother’s and mine forever.
Making a Man
“The war made me a man,” was the way my dad always described his exploits during his war years. What he didn’t say was that the war was his education shaping his world outlook that wouldn’t change until his death at 80. His war experience made him a strident believer in Uncle Sam’s unbridled use of military power, a view I never shared and over which we clashed frequently in the Vietnam era.
But going to war forced him to develop the composure to manage the daily crisis of life on the front lines. It may have made him a man, but also changed him irretrievably. “He wasn’t the same man I fell in love with when he came home from the war,” is the way my 94-year-old mom still describes my dad after he came home in the summer of 1945. His religious devotion was dashed and his freewheeling innocence was lost to her. I could evoke vestiges of it on our road trips 30 years later and when my brother had two daughters he let it show.
Through travel my dad regained his sense of adventure that the war had robbed. But I never got him to take me on a camping trip. “After living outdoors for four years, I don’t want to do it ever again,” he told me while walking through Muir Woods on my first California trip in 1978. My dad and I bonded on the road and at stadiums, but I’ve been camping in exotic locales for him ever since.
Hell on Wheels
When I ask my mom why she married him as he was precariously going off to war in June 1942, she said without batting a false eyelash, “Well there was the $5,000 you got if your husband didn’t come back from the war. After all we didn’t have much money.” And so they married during my father’s leave from infantry school at Ft. Benning, Ga. Every month a $3.45 life insurance premium was paid from my dad’s $22 army salary.
My mother never collected the 5 G’s thankfully, but the money she made as a secretary at a metal manufacturer during the war staked us when my dad struggled with post war trauma and the transition to civilian life.
By 1943 my father’s Second Armed division under General Patton was entrenched in North Africa preparing to take on Rommel’s Panzer division. Patton had dubbed his tank battalions ‘hell on wheels’, because they had been toughened in endless maneuvers that my father endured under the relentless Moroccan sun. When not drilling and waiting to fight, my dad played softball. His team won the division’s championship and the ball and wooden trophy from that tournament sits in my library. The ball has the autographs of the nine players on the team. My dad was the left handed second baseman and it was the happiest remembrances of his war effort.
By June 1944, my father’s combat mission began. It was D-3 when he landed at the beaches of Normandy and the stench of death, diesel fuel, and exploded ordinances was still in the air. The krauts were on the run and my father’s ‘hell on wheels’ tank brigades were in pursuit across the hedge groves of France and into the frosty forests of Belgium.
After being assigned to the Second Armored’s engineering division some commissioned officer took one look at my dad, a wiry 5’-7” and figured he could crawl into tight places. They decided to make him a human bomb detector. His job was going out in advance of the tanks and demining the roads and bridges the Germans were traveling on their way back to Germany.
It was a suicide mission and he knew it. On his stomach he crawled on the roads probing with a knife in the dirt trying to find land mines. On the bridges he tight-roped along the cables finding bombs and defusing them. No wonder my dad developed an ulcer that was a nightly reminder of the war during the 1950s-60s when he would make chocolate malteds to coat the pain in his gut. My brother and I enjoyed the nightly ritual but never wanted to ask why we were drinking heavy chocolate malt on school nights. My dad spoke sparingly of his war experiences partially to forget and partially to shield us from the horror.
At the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ my dad spent the winter freezing his ass off with thousands of other GIs camped out in the Ardennes forest. It was Hitler’s last gasp to keep the Allies from invading Germany and he threw all he had at the Second Armored. It was amongst the coldest winters in Europe and the frost bite in my dad’s hands was so bad he never regained partial feeling in his right hand.
During the climactic battle my dad was firing along a ridge alongside a sharpshooter. He saw the sharpshooter take a fatal bullet through the helmet. The horror of that day would be with him forever and he was not eager to retell the story every Thanksgiving when he put on the uniform and gave thanks that he was one of the lucky survivors.
Post War Seder
My dad came home shell-shocked and weary, but after a few years he figured it out finding a career as a linotype printer. Although he always called himself a “shop slob” he was good at what he did, was a staunch union man and ran the shop’s various betting pools to make money on the side.
Unexpectedly we got a phone call in the 1960s; his father had returned from Europe. He wanted to reconnect with his son over a Passover Seder. Reluctantly we went and it was tense and unforgiving. The loss of his mother, the war years, the pressure of having his own family all came to a boil that night. My dad could never accept his father and avoided him for the two years his father had left.
My dad’s best post war years probably came after he retired when he traveled the country visiting hundreds of sports stadiums. He traveled without a driver’s license (he didn’t drive), a credit card or a form of ID. Along the way he met famous athletes (i.e. Bart Starr, Willie Pep, and Steve Garvey) who he took pictures with. And his photo albums overflowed with clippings of his trips. The trips were planned like combat missions and he often stayed at dive hotels near bus terminals, but never complained. After his war experiences, it was all tame.
When I had time I would meet him in cities, rent a car and drive him around the country. He would reminisce about his war experiences, but when we met people he would never talk about his war years or portray himself as a war veteran. He simply presented himself as a knowledgeable sports fan who had visited hundreds of stadiums and events.
Under the surface he had a profound sense of pride that he had been on the right side of world history in defeating Hitler and making the world a better place for his children. For years my anti-war feelings prevented me from realizing how important the war was to him and how it shaped us kids. In spite of that, it became a wedge between us, but with time and a father-son love that could transcend politics; I came to realize how that experience shaped our family dynamic. I grew to respect his courage, toughness and survival skills that my brother and I have in our DNA. And that’s how he won the war. His war.