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Warrior Stories: 20 World War II veterans swap memories

Denver Jewish veterans of WW II gather recently at a breakfast hosted by the Pepper and Leff families.“LONG story short.”

More than one of the old warriors who gathered June 6 at a Denver area restaurant summed up their tales of war with that phrase.

Long stories, indeed.

One told of parachuting into Germany, in air that measured 19 degrees below zero.

Another recalled being blown off the deck into the ocean when a Japanese kamikaze struck a bulls-eye on the ship he was aboard.

Still another survived what World War II veterans knowingly refer to as the Bulge, only to be among the troops who found a whole new level of horror when they liberated Dachau.

“Everybody has a story,” said one veteran, another veteran of the Bulge. “We could sit for hours and days and talk and talk about it.”

Yet on June 6, 2011 — 67 years to the day after D Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy that finally turned the tide of the war — each of the 20 veterans who gathered at the Fresh Fish Company had only five minutes to tell their long stories.

They each did their best, with the unique blend of stoic selflessness, wise-guy humor, brotherly comradeship and the “aw shucks, it was nothing” attitude so characteristic of those who served in WW II.

Two Denver couples — Miff and Joanne Pepper and Marv and Shirley Leff — hosted the first of what they hope will be many gatherings of Jewish WW II vets. Many of the veterans who attended are old friends of the Peppers and Leffs; some are new friends, meeting them for the first time at the breakfast.

Marv Leff, himself a WW II Army veteran, is an outgoing, humorous fellow who brought a handful of war trophies to the breakfast – a binoculars with its case and a dagger with its sheath, all bearing the swastika emblem of the enemy.

Pepper, a serious and sincere man whose military service came in a long career with the Army Reserve beginning just after WW II, took care of the emcee duties.

“Some of these are fellas that I grew up with and know very well,” Pepper told the Intermountain Jewish News. “I know they served in the world war and thank G-d they came back.

“We owe them a debt of gratitude for the work they did. They were all heroes, in my mind. They put their lives on the line for us and helped preserve our freedoms – otherwise we wouldn’t be here to celebrate.”

When asked whether the gathered veterans would agree with his description of them as “heroes,” Pepper smiled.

“They would say no, all they did was their job. But they did a very good job to help us win the war.”

Most WW II veterans today are 85-90 years old, Pepper said, which means that now is the time to hear their stories and pay them tributes.

“Overall, we’re losing about a thousand a day,” he said of WW II vets. “We want to let them know they’re not forgotten.”

When breakfast was done, Pepper stood before his heroes and asked them to stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and to observe “a little prayer of silence for those that didn’t return and those we have lost since the end of the war through attrition.”

To those who found it difficult to stand — many carried canes or sticks, a couple used walkers — Pepper said they could remain seated.

But they rose as one, each and every one, and assumed erect military stances, hands on their hearts, as they pledged and prayed.

Pepper then quoted George C. Patton, a general who served as commander for many of those present: “Do not mourn for them; thank G-d that they lived.”

ONE by one, like roll call, the vets gave their names and told their stories. Some took a bit longer than the five minutes allowed, some considerably less.

Howard Greinitz — After noting the names of a few brothers in arms recently lost to death, Greinitz summed up his service as a halftrack driver in the Third Army in Europe, his survival of the Battle of the Bulge and the Bronze Star he earned.

He also recalled an effort to clear a minefield. He drew the short straw and went on foot to track a path through the field on his own, but a comrade insisted on going with him, even though he hadn’t been ordered to go – a moment of selfless bravery that Greinitz has never forgotten.

Les Levitt — Served in the Naval Air Corps, based on the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in the South Pacific.

“We had a lot of close calls but I think mainly our survival was by the sergeants, the corporals. Everybody included made it possible for us to deal with this.”

Levitt was 20 when he went to war, he said, “and lost a lot of good friends.”

Homer Goodman — An Army Air Corps veteran, Goodman served aboard a B-17 bomber as a belly gunner. He too had a lot of close calls, and “a lot of experiences.”

It was he who parachuted into the icy air above Germany.

Leonard Litvak — A Navy yeoman, Litvak was a man of few words, taking only a few unelaborated seconds to describe his service aboard the battleship USS California.

Hesh Steinberg — A fighter pilot, Steinberg flew a P47 Thunderbolt on a total of 87 missions, only 60 of which were officially credited by the Air Corps. He escorted bomber formations and attacked enemy ground forces. He was interviewed about his return to Normandy in 2009 by the IJN.

“I made it all the way through,” he said. “Out of the original 36 pilots that graduated with me, seven of us came back. It was an interesting introduction to life, I guess, but I can’t say that it was particularly enjoyable.”

Shep Waldman — Waldman served in the Third Army as an infantry staff sergeant during the Allied invasion of Europe, which included the infamous Bulge.

“We fought our way through Normandy to the Elbe River,” he summarized.

David Marks
— Interviewed recently by the IJN, Marks served as a truck driver for the artillery during the waning days of the war in Europe. “I happen to be one of the very, very fortunate ones,” who missed the worst fighting, he said.

Another vet asked Marks what division he was in.

“The 65th Division. Does it make any difference? There were so many divisions. We all won. We all won.”

Mort Gordon — A retired brigadier general, Gordon began his military career in the Air Corps in the South Pacific and China Sea. He flew in a squadron of Black Widow fighters — “the only aircraft that was designed and built during World War II to accommodate radar.”

While on a naval vessel, Gordon witnessed a successful kamikaze strike. “It hit the deck, blew us out of the water and blew me off the top deck. I was in the water for five hours.”

Leonard Strear – Drafted into the Army, Strear served as a Second Lieutenant in the Third Army. He fought at the Bulge.

“Our unit fought all the way through Normandy, went to Paris and ended up the war on May the 8th [1945] in Czechoslovakia.

“I had a nice ride. Thank goodness I made it safely. I was happy to serve our country.”

Sol Flax — An Air Corps sergeant, Flax (the father of IJN photographer Arlen Flax) served in the Pacific Theater.

“I was serving in the Philippines during the time that they were mobilizing for the landing on Japan and President Truman dropped those two big whoppers. I was very, very fortunate.”

Marvin Leff — Leff was an Army PFC and yet another Bulge veteran.

“I was in a little recon troop of 10 men that was 15 miles ahead of the front lines,” Leff said.

“Since I was such a dummy, I did most of the night patrols where we’d set out in the forest trying to hear the tank movements or what the German infantry was doing, trying to figure out what the hell the Germans were up to so we could get rid of ‘em quick.”

Then a touch of mordant GI humor: “Otherwise, it was an uneventful nothing of a war.”

Martin Boxer — The ultimate man of few words, Boxer told his fellow vets only that he flew 25 missions on a B-17 in the Eighth Air Force.

“That’s it,” he said. “Got nothing else to say.”

Iz Kozatch — Another tight-lipped veteran, Kozatch, an Air Corps tech sergeant, served as a gunner aboard a B-24 bomber. He has an amazing 50 missions to his credit.

Bob Talpers — Talpers served as a captain in one of the Transportation Corps’ “Red Ball” units that hauled gasoline —  96,000 gallons at a time.

He acknowledged the combat vets for the intensity of their service.

Morris Brown — An Air Corps corporal, Brown served at the Panama Canal, contributing to efforts to counter Axis attempts to destroy the Panama Canal – from Germans on the Atlantic side and Japanese on the Pacific side.

Norman Druckman — A National Guard sergeant who enlisted well before the war started, Druckman served in Europe as a “tank destroyer.” His brother also served in Europe and was wounded at the Bulge, only a few miles away.

Later, Druckman’s skills in Yiddish landed him a postwar job at a DP camp. In later years, he met an inmate of that camp here in Denver, at BMH Congregation.

Sid Shafner — An Army corporal during the Bulge, Shafner served in a Signal Corps unit in the Seventh Army.

“Heading south toward Munich,” he said, “we accidentally ran into Dachau, the concentration camp.”

Sol Shafner — Sid’s brother, Sol Shafner was an Air Corps staff sergeant. He served as a bombardier aboard B-24s and B-29s in the South Pacific.

He addressed his brother, who sat next to him: “Thank you, brother. I appreciate what you did. Inasmuch as you’re my younger brother, I salute you.

“I did my bit and I’m very, very proud and humble that all these nice gentlemen are here.”

Irv Hook — A Navy vet, Hook expressed admiration for his comrades’ stories.

“I never liked to wear a tie so I decided I’m going into the Navy,” he cracked. “That was probably a fortunate thing. I’ve listened to all you people, you people who’ve been to hell and back.”

The Navy, however,  wasn’t all that safe either. A number of Hook’s engineering classmates were sent to the carrier USS Benjamin Franklin, which was “practically destroyed and all went down.”

BEFORE he could leave the room, Martin Boxer – the lieutenant of few words – is stopped for a quick talk. He is asked what he thinks of Tom Brokaw’s characterization of WW II vets as “the greatest generation.”

Boxer, who at 93 is on the elder side of this elder group, smiles.

“I don’t know about that,” he says quietly. “I never thought about it that way. But I guess we did a pretty good job. I know I did a good job.”

The veteran philosophizes for a moment.

“I never learned how to pray,” Boxer says. “I didn’t know how to pray. So I counted on luck, and I think I was lucky because I got through the war, through 25 missions over Germany, got a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart and a Presidential Unit Citation.”

Luck, he says, was an omnipresent factor during the war, especially in the perilous world of bomber squadrons.

“You know, it didn’t matter how great your pilot was. It was all luck, as far as I’m concerned.”

Boxer knows that young Americans are still fighting today, and still dying, nearly seven decades after his own war came to a close. In some ways, he thinks it might be harder for them than it was for him.

“I think we understood better why we were fighting. They don’t have a clear understanding of what they’re fighting for in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

This old warrior doesn’t foresee a time when the world will no longer need the sacrifices of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

“No,” Boxer says sadly. “Never. I don’t think there will be a time when there is no war.”

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com

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