European Theater

For the history of World War II, September 1, 1939 is a date as important to Europeans as December 7, 1941 is to Americans. On that day in 1939, Germany invaded Poland. This armed aggression moved Great Britain and France to declare war against Adolph Hitler’s Nazi government, the Third Reich. Officially, the United States declared itself neutral, but there was no doubt as to where the government’s sympathies lay. Nine months later, France fell to the Nazis as soldiers of the Third Reich marched into Paris. Germany and Italy, its major ally, controlled most of the continent. By the end of June 1940, England basically stood alone against Germany. In spite of American “neutrality,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt funneled aid to Britain. The United States became an official ally of England in December 1941 after Congress declared war on Japan due to the attack at Pearl Harbor. That Congressional proclamation triggered similar declarations by Germany and Italy against the United States due to treaty obligations between Germany, Italy, and Japan, the so-called Axis Powers. Within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, America found itself in a two-front war.

As in the Pacific theater, Americans associate World War II in Europe with certain pivotal events. Our popular culture, for example, has chronicled the bombing runs over Germany, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of the concentration camps by the United States Army. In fact, the Army dominates the stories of those who served in the ETO (European Theater of Operations). A more complete knowledge of the war in that area, however, demands a look at the roles of the Merchant Marine and the Navy. And as those who served in Europe will tell us, Americans fought countless battles on the continent, and before that in Northern Africa. The movement “up the Bloody Boot” in Italy particularly proved to be an arduous battle for the Allied forces. All of those campaigns preceded the famous landings on the coast of Normandy in June of 1944.

These pages contain stories of men and women who witnessed first-hand the history of World War II in Northern Africa and Europe.

John Bergeisen, when he spoke to Palomar College classes on the Holocaust, invariably began with the simple statement, “I am a survivor.” He is that. Seven days after the war began in 1939, Germans entered the Polish town where John lived with his parents and four brothers. Over the next six years, the Nazis transferred John from one concentration camp to another. One day, at Auschwitz, the electrician John worked for sent him into the crematorium on a job. John saw piles of human hair, clothing, and gold extracted from the teeth of those who had been gassed by the Germans. As John emotionally recalls, “What I saw, I could never forget.” By war’s end, only John and one brother were alive; the Nazis had murdered the rest of his immediate family. John eventually ended up at Buchenwald, a camp Allied troops liberated on April 13, 1945. Every year since then, it is a date of remembrance for him.  John lived, in spite of the fact, as he observes, that he “faced death every moment, everyday.”  With eyes that looked toward heaven, he asked himself a question on that April 13, “Why me?” He continues to ask that question, as to why he survived and others didn’t, to this very day.

Herman “Hank” Rosen served in a military branch that is often neglected in histories of World War II. He wore the cadet-midshipman uniform of a Merchant Mariner. The enemy torpedoed Hank’s Liberty ship, the John Drayton, in April of 1943 off the coast of South Africa. For thirty days, he survived without food and water, drifting in a lifeboat surrounded by sharks. As Hank has written in his published memoir, which drew from a diary he kept, “ Our bodies are wasted and it’s difficult to sit with sores on our buttocks, faces and arms are blistered…Drinking salt water and urine is common. The men are acting crazy.” Of the twenty-three Merchant Mariners who shared the boat with him, only four others lived through the ordeal.

Marty Finkelstein enlisted in the Army at age of seventeen because, as he put it, “no one makes my father cry.” Mr. Finkelstein had been moved to tears with news of the murder by the Nazis of relatives in what became known as the Holocaust. As a member of the 82nd Airborne, Marty arrived in North Africa in the spring of 1943, soon after that area had been taken from the Axis Powers. He first saw combat in Sicily just a few months later. After that, Marty took part in the most famous D Day of World War II, the invasion of Normandy. On that date, June 6, 1944, enemy forces took this “skinny kid from Philadelphia” as a prisoner of war. But Marty fought more than the Germans during the war. He also battled discrimination in what he called “a war within a war.” Anti-Semitism could be seen within the ranks of the American military, and Marty experienced it first-hand from his training days in the States through his time in a German POW camp.

Dick Field wore the unique boots of an American paratrooper. As such, he served as part of an elite, voluntary Army unit. As Dick proudly explains, the Airborne had been “trained to be special.” When the Army assigned him to the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, Dick’s status became even more unique. The 551st was one of only two independent airborne units, meaning the battalion did not belong to any division. After landing in North Africa in the spring of 1944, Dick experienced his first combat action in Italy. From there, in August of that same year his battalion participated in the invasion of Southern France. Only nineteen years old that summer, Dick recalls, “We were just kids.” Four months later, he and other “kids” held back a brutal German offensive in eastern Belgium known as the Battle of the Bulge. That confrontation in the Ardennes Forest proved to be the largest engagement between American and German forces in the European Theater. At one point in the battle, commanders sent Dick’s unit on a mission where it suffered a casualty rate of 84%.  

Don Jackson served as an Army combat engineer. As such, he represents those who “cleared the way” for the infantry by eliminating obstacles such as mines and booby-traps. Don also helped to build bridges over rivers that Allied soldiers had to cross. After landing in North Africa, Don participated in the invasion of Sicily, Italy, and Southern France. By the time his regiment had crossed the Rhine, Don recalls his unit’s belief that, “We knew what war was all about. We had seen it all.” That confidence disappeared in April 1945 when Don and his fellow engineers entered the German concentration camp at Dachau outside of Munich. American troops had liberated the prisoners the day before. Miles before they reached the camp, Don vividly remembers that he and others “could not believe their nostrils.”  Outside of the camp, they found, by Don’s count, forty-two freight cars, each filled with the starved, dead bodies of Jews. And, as Don adds, “That was just an inkling of what we found inside of the camp.” To avoid the spread of disease, commanding officers ordered the combat engineers to quickly dispose of the bodies. Furious at the inhumanity of what they found, Don’s unit forced local Germans in the town to help bury the dead. Don took photographs at Dachau, including one of a tractor digging a trench. In recent years, that picture and others helped the staff at the Dachau camp to locate the mass grave. More than any combat horrors Don saw, what he witnessed at Dachau defines his military service.

David Roderick grew up with five brothers, but in his teen years he lost both of his parents within fifteen months of each other. Dave joined the Army in June 1940 at the age of sixteen for a simple economic reason; there were simply “too many mouths to feed.” Four years later, he held the rank of a staff sergeant, responsible for the lives of men under his command. In his first combat action, Dave led soldiers onto Utah Beach in the famous D-Day landings in Normandy. As a member of the 4th Infantry Division, Dave experienced one hundred and ninety-nine days of continuous combat as his division fought its way across northern France, Belgium, and then into Germany. Among his campaigns after D-Day was a little know battle in the Hurtgen Forest in western Germany. Men who fought in that campaign never forgot what Dave called the “total slaughter” American forces confronted. Handicapped by a dense forest with some trees measuring one hundred feet in height, with no hope for air cover, soldiers held out for weeks in freezing temperatures. After Hurtgen, Dave had enough “points” to return home, but he wanted to stay with his men. He was thus with them one month later in the Battle of the Bulge.

Jack Port’s father had a firm rule about guns--none were allowed in the house, not even a bb gun. Jack points to the irony of that order since he became very familiar with firearms during his World War II service as an Army rifleman. Jack first used a gun in combat on June 6, 1944 as part of the landing forces at Normandy. As his landing craft approached Utah Beach, Jack admits to being afraid. When asked how he managed those fears, Jack honestly replied, “I didn’t,” meaning the fears were always with him. They were there when he helped liberate Cherbourg and Paris. They followed him through not only D-Day, but also the fighting in the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. In these last major confrontations with the enemy, Jack saw German soldiers as young as fourteen and fifteen years old. He also saw something else that haunts him, the memory of a German pushing a wheelbarrow that carried the bodies of five and six year old boys. The children had been killed in an Allied bombing raid. These two recollections explain Jack’s response to a question on his most vivid memory of his military experiences--the loss of life of both young soldiers and civilians.  Read more of Jack's story in our book "Following Orders: The Story of a WWII 4th Division Infantryman"    Read the introduction to Jack's story here.

Bob Watson, when asked his rank in the Navy, likes to reply, “innocence first class.” As a member of a Beach Battalion, Bob lost that innocence on D-Day at Omaha Beach. People usually have a circumscribed image of naval participation on June 6, 1944--the Navy landed the Army infantry. Bob and others in his unit, however, also landed in that first wave. A German shell hit their boat and the men ended up in the water. Bob made it to shore but others didn’t. Once on the beach, Bob took up the various tasks of his battalion. Their primary responsibility was to repair the damaged landing craft, but the sailors also helped secure a position on the beach by moving out the wounded, setting up communications, and demolishing German defenses. At one point, in order to clear the beach for more landings, Bob drove a caterpillar bulldozer to move American bodies into the water. Bob’s battalion originally consisted of 428 men. Within the first hour, casualties reduced it to 250. Bob stayed on Omaha Beach for twenty-eight days. He may have lost his innocence on June 6th, but Bob gained pride in being a Navy man who, with others in his battalion, helped to secure the Second Front in its first hours.

Lillian Swerdlow cared for America’s wounded soldiers as a member of the Army Nurse Corps. Recruited by the legendary Jimmy Doolittle when she was still in nursing school, Lillian was only nineteen when she joined the military. She sailed from New York City aboard the Queen Elizabeth on Memorial Day 1944. Lillian recalls that the ship carried ten thousand soldiers and seventy-five nurses. They all landed in England on June 6, 1944, the day of the Allied invasion at Normandy. From that month through the end of the year, there was “no let up” in casualties that needed to be attended to. Shifts usually lasted between twelve and fifteen hours. Sometimes, after major battles nurses worked “around the clock,” for twenty-four hours straight. Lillian remembers the Battle of the Bulge as one that “overwhelmed” the medical staff. With V-E Day in May of 1945, nurses in the ETO prepared to go home, but only temporarily. The Pacific Theater would need their skills with the planned, land invasion of the Japanese home islands. Hundreds of thousands of American casualties were expected. Lillian had orders for the Pacific, but after her arrival in New York City on Labor Day 1945, she knew that the dropping of the atomic bomb and Japan’s subsequent surrender had saved her any more experiences such as those she had witnessed in Europe.

Jim Felix received his draft notice in December 1942. While he wanted to fulfill his military obligation, he worried about how his family would survive, financially, without him. Jim’s parents, Italian immigrants with five sons to support, struggled to make ends meet. Jim did not attend high school, working instead at various jobs. His family responsibilities increased when, after six months of Army training, he married his sweetheart, Polly. Jim arrived in France as a corporal in October 1944. He became a scout for Patton’s Third Army. Eventually Jim rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant with thirty men under his command. The soldiers nicknamed him “Mom” because of the care he showed for the well being of his platoon. When asked decades later what kept him going during his months of combat, Jim cited his commitment “to get my boys back home.” He recalled orders that sometimes did not make sense, orders to advance when German machine guns clearly awaited them, or when they knew the Germans outnumbered them two or three to one. Even though he disagreed with such orders, Jim moved forward. He fought in the famous German counteroffensive in the Ardennes forest, the Battle of the Bulge. A few months later, Jim led a mission to rescue some wounded men in his platoon. That action earned him the Silver Star.

Denver Sayre saved an amazing collection of memorabilia from his service in World War II. One of them is a small, pocket-sized copy of the New Testament. His father and stepmother gave it to him when he left home after the Army drafted him. Denver carried the Bible in a shirt pocket over his heart. A metal holder encases the New Testament, protecting both the book and the owner. The manufacturer engraved the phrase, “May this keep you safe from harm” on the front cover of the metal case. Inside, “Pappy” and “Peg” inscribed it, “May this little book shield you from harm both physically and morally.” It did, in a symbolic sense. Denver survived some of the most intense fighting in the European Theater--the D-Day landings in Normandy, the little known but horrific months-long campaign in the Hurtgen Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge. Like so many other veterans, Denver seldom talked about the war. That changed when he began attending reunions of the 4th Infantry Division, the first one in 1998. Encouraged by his wife Arvetta and stepdaughter Shawna, Denver picked up the pen and wrote thoughtful, firsthand accounts of his military service. They blend both the facts as he recalls them and the emotions as he remembers them to give the reader just a hint of what war is like.

What follows are Denver’s stories, in his own words, of his childhood, war years, and life after the war. They are unedited by the World War II Experience.  Read more of Denver's story here.