November 9, 2010
The Jewish War Veterans of Post 603 [AUDIO]
Listen to interviews with Jewish War Veterans:
There are a few Jewish themes to the stories that the Jewish War Veterans of Post 603 tell. They tell of feeling ignored by a society that still thinks Jews don’t serve. Stories about anti-Semitism in the military ranks many decades ago are also common—and always seem to involve a superior officer from Georgia.
But most of the stories told by the vets of JWV Post 603 are ones you could hear from any aging veteran, no matter what their religious background: Tales of courage under fire, injuries sustained, near-death experiences. The Jewish vets tell of their own lucky and unlucky decisions, of their (first and second) marriages, of their grandchildren. The stories are inspiring, terrifying, humbling. With apologies to all for their brevity, here are a few sketches:
Morton Schecter, 87, flew 35 missions in the Army Air Corps during WWII as a tail gunner. He remembers, at the end of one of those missions, “coming in on a B-24 with six 1,000-pound bombs, and no wheels.” The plane hadn’t dropped its payload, and its landing gear had been shot out. “We had to come in on the belly. But we didn’t blow up, so I’m still here,” Schecter said.
Julian Cohen, 83, served in the Navy during World War II. “I was just a lousy seaman,” he said. The ship he manned was a landing craft, a bit like those that landed on the beaches at Normandy on D-day—except that Cohen’s ship was larger, and it’s mission was to land at Nagasaki, just two months after the atomic bomb was dropped there.
“I could feel the heat under my shoe,” Cohen said. “Nobody knew how bad the radiation was, how long it lasted. Nobody knew a whole lot about that.”
A few months later, Cohen began having eye troubles. “I went to see an eye doctor, and all he could do was give me glasses,” Cohen said. “I started macular degeneration. You know what that is? Macular degeneration? If you live long enough, you’re going to end up with it. Your eyes start getting blind.
“It’s called an old-age disease. At 36, I was blind in this eye,” Cohen said, pointing to his left eye, enlarged behind his thick lenses. “From macular degeneration, because of the atomic bomb.
“So that’s the end of that story,” Cohen said, making clear that he’d rather not dwell on his injury. Instead, he talked about the work that he does as the Veterans Affairs Volunteer Service Representative for JWV Post 603. Forty-two Jewish War Veterans from Post 603 volunteer at the VA campus in North Hills every week, and Cohen helps coordinate their efforts. Indeed, he started volunteering and joined JWV 15 years ago for this specific purpose. “I retired about that time,” Cohen said, “so my wife and I decided to thank the VA for doing what they do for veterans, because I’m a veteran.”
Nat Benjamin, 93, enlisted in the Army Air Corps (the precursor to the U.S. Air Force) in August 1942, and was called up on January 11, 1943. “Everybody wants to be a pilot,” Benjamin said, and although he had done well enough on the exam to go to pilot training school, he chose to be a navigator. “If you flunk the pilot training, you’ll go in with the ground army,” Benjamin said.
At the end of one of his crew’s practice flights, before they were set to deploy overseas, the pilot of his bomber came in rough on the landing and hit the tarmac, hard. Benjamin cracked his tailbone. He had to delay his deployment until he recovered, but his crew didn’t wait, and another navigator took over his spot. “That crew went in the 15th Air Force,” Benjamin said. “We heard later that they were shot down over Italy, and no parachutes came out.”
Benjamin deployed with the Eighth Air Force, and flew 35 bombing missions over Germany, including one to Peenemünde, where the Germans were thought to be manufacturing hydrogen peroxide for the V-2 rocket. “Because of our bombing, they never got the V-2 to work,” Benjamin said.
To hear Benjamin describe a bombing raid, it’s a wonder that they ever succeeded. First of all, they had to deal with enemy fighter planes. “Sometimes you could tell if the guy had a mustache or something, that’s how close you were,” Benjamin said.
As navigator, Benjamin sat in the compartment with the bombardier, just below the pilot. The noise in that compartment, with bombs exploding below and the engines roaring throughout, eventually proved to be deafening, and today the VA pays Benjamin a monthly stipend for his hearing aids.
As navigator, it was Benjamin’s job to know where the plane was and figure out in which direction they had to fly—that is, until it came time to actually drop the bombs. “Nine minutes before reaching the target, the bombardier takes over the plane,” Benjamin said. “In that nine minutes, when the enemy came at us, we could not change direction. That was the tough time for us.”
Benjamin still has his navigational instruments at home. He also has a piece of Plexiglas from the B-17, a souvenir from his 23rd mission. “Flack came in, and tore my boot off,” Benjamin said. He won medals for his service, but chose to downplay his heroism. “When you’re flying in combat, who gives a s—- about the medals?” Benjamin said. “It’s getting back home that counts.”
Seymour Bloom, 81, was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Boyle Heights, and missed serving in World War II by three months. He turned down an offer to take part in the postwar occupation of Japan. “I didn’t want any part of it,” Bloom said.
He was working as an apprentice typesetter at an advertisement printing company when the Korean War began. He remembers seeing the headlines on June 25, 1950, when the North Korean People’s Army crossed over the 38th parallel that divided the Korean Peninsula.
“I was talking to another apprentice, and I said, ‘Where the hell is Korea?’” Bloom recalled. Even 60 years later, his question sounded more resigned than inquisitive. “And I found out,” Bloom added.
“I was a runty kid,” Bloom said, especially compared to everyone else working at his company. “Half the guys were returning service guys from World War II,” he said. Nobody in his office thought he’d be called up. “I lost the lottery,” he said.
Bloom is an avid photographer; today he’s the official photographer for JWV Post 603 and teaches a photography course to veterans living at the local VA nursing home. Back when he was drafted, Bloom wanted to join the signal corps, which would’ve allowed him to pursue photography and printing while in uniform. It wasn’t to be.
One day, while Bloom was still in training, his commanding officer pulled him out of line. “He says, ‘We have a mimeograph machine,’” Bloom recalled. “‘You could run it.’”
Running the company’s mimeograph seemed to the officer similar enough to the work Bloom had doing in his civilian life. But to Bloom, it seemed overly basic.
I said, ‘Are you kidding?’,” Bloom said, “so he said, ‘OK, get back in line!’”
Bloom became a Forward Radio Operator for an 81-millimeter mortar, but he saw the mimeograph machine in action, though. In January of 1952, during what became known as the Korean War’s Second Winter Campaign, Bloom’s unit was attached to three rifle companies, marching through the Incheon valley.
“They issued us some more cold weather gear, and then we went on line,” Bloom said, “and it was 20 below zero by the time we were moving up on line. And just as we were going over this hill, over this mountain and another mountain, there was a tent. And it said, ‘Headquarters.’ So I’m marching with these guys, and I’ve got my 80 pounds and all that, and I look in that tent there,” Bloom said. “And there is a guy with a mimeograph machine, cranking it like that, with a big pot of coffee and a potbelly stove.”
Bloom smiled. “I look at my buddy and I says, ‘Kick me!’”
Marty Falk, 85, was drafted in June of 1943. “I was asked Army or Navy,” Falk writes in a two-page document called “MARTY’S WWII STORY.” He was 18 years old. “I remembered about where my father was in 1917.” Morris Falk, Marty’s father, fought in the United States Army in the First World War, and he was gassed in the trenches in Germany. “So I picked the Navy,” his son writes.
Falk became a naval electrician, and he did experience combat during his service—although he didn’t exactly see it. He was on a Destroyer Escort in the Mediterranean when a unit of German Junkers 88 planes came in from Southern France to torpedo their whole 80-ship convoy.
“My General Quarters Station was below decks in the engine room. Wondering when it was our turn to get hit with a torpedo,” Falk writes. They didn’t get hit. “We all were awarded the Bronze Star for this action with the enemy.”