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Portraits of veterans

Just a boy from Bayonne

 
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Army service and a landmine changed everything for Fort Lee man
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Huertgen Forest, November 1944; the battle there was both devastating and inconclusive. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J28303 / CC-BY-SA

It’s easy to say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Sometimes it might even be true.

Martin Weinberger, who now lives in Fort Lee, was born in Bayonne on November 28, 1923; he turns 90 at the end of this month. Although his father came from New York, his mother, too, was born into the once-vibrant Hudson County Jewish community.

In 1939, the 16-year-old Martin entered NYU. He was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps for his first two years — an NYU requirement for male students in the immediate prewar era — and then he chose to continue in ROTC through graduation.

“I majored in liberal arts, but as the time grew closer to senior year, all that any of us ever thought about was going into service,” Mr. Weinberger recalled. “We didn’t pay much attention to our studies. Some of us were premed or prelaw, and they did, but not the rest of us.

“This was a just war — later it turned out to be the last just war,” he continued. “Everyone was gung-ho about going to war.”

Normally, four-year ROTC students would graduate college as second lieutenants, but by 1943 that had changed, and Mr. Weinberger found himself at Fort Benning, Ga., in basic training; he was not commissioned until he had completed it. Three months later, training done, he was assigned to the 75th Army division, which was on maneuvers in Louisiana.

Basic training was the first time he had ever lived away from home; the only times he’d slept out of his house was when he’d visited his grandparents. He had lived at home throughout college — it was a major trek to go between Bayonne and NYU’s uptown campus, in the Bronx, but he could sleep in his own bed every night.

And then there was the strange authority of his position.

“You have to understand that I was a second lieutenant at 20 years of age,” Mr. Weinberger said. “Everybody was much older than I was. I had people who were 30 years old, and older, coming to me with their troubles.

“I didn’t even know those troubles existed, much less how to deal with them,” he added ruefully.

Instead of staying with the 75th division, Mr. Weinberger was sent to England as a replacement to fill an opening in the 8th Infantry Division. The invasion of Omaha Beach was on June 6; three weeks later, the 8th went in.

“There was a lull between the time we landed and the middle of July, and then a big push started,” he said. “On the first day of that push, I was shot by a German soldier who I thought was surrendering.

“He was a lone soldier in the middle of the field, walking toward us, holding a rifle over his head.

“I assumed he was surrendering.”

Weinberger was wrong.

“I turned to my radio operator, and said, ‘When he comes in, take his rifle and bring him back to headquarters.’

“The next thing I knew, he shot me.”

The wound, to his buttocks, normally would have been painful, but not dangerous, but because the bullet first hit and then ricocheted off a dirty shovel Mr. Weinberger had been carrying before it penetrated him, doctors were worried about infection. He was sent to England — there were no closer surgical facilities. He later rejoined his unit in Luxembourg.

And the German who shot him? “He didn’t last for more than a few seconds,” Mr. Weinberger said. “Everybody opened fire. My whole platoon was lined up along the hedgerow, and as soon as he shot they fired.”

A few months after he returned to active duty, his division replaced the 29th division in Huertgen Forest in Germany.

“It was one of the worse campaigns of the war,” Mr. Weinberger said. “There is very little mention of it, because the Battle of the Bulge was shortly after it, but it was terrible. There was terrible loss of life; incredible loss of life. The division we replaced was decimated — no, it was more than decimated. And we took a terrible beating as well.”

The battle, in fact, was the longest fought on German soil during World War II. It was also the longest single battle that the U.S. Army has ever fought. Reports say that 33,000 Americans and 28,000 Germans were killed or wounded. It is not clear who won; the fact that the fight was inconclusive and the death toll astronomic has led to the conclusion that the Allies lost.

That soon became academic for Mr. Weinberger.

“Right after Thanksgiving we were ordered to advance,” he said. “We had been ordered to advance three or four times, and each time we met very heavy fire. This time, it was incredibly bad. It is hard — it is impossible — to describe the constant bombardment. And this is in heavy forest.

“We took terrible casualties.

“My company was down 50 percent by the second week. The whole operation was ill-conceived. There was no reason to be fighting in the forest. We should have bypassed it, and let the Air Force bomb it — but that’s not how it works.

“A day or two after Thanksgiving, we were ordered to advance, and my forward squad called back, saying they had reached barbed wire,” he continued. “I said, ‘Let me come up.’

“And as I walked up, I said, ‘Be careful. There might be mines.’

“And as I said that, I stepped on one.”

Martin Weinberger’s leg was mangled beyond repair.

“I had to be brought down to the road — we were on top of the hill. It had been raining, and it was cold.

“My medic was two steps behind me, and he gave me a shot of morphine immediately. Still, it was a terrible trip, just getting down to the aid station.

“And that,” he concluded, “is the story of my life.”

He was taken to a hospital in Verviers, Belgium, where his leg was amputated. “That was on November 27,” he said. “On the 28th, I became 21 years of age. That was not a great birthday.”

When he was strong enough to be sent home, the Army sent Mr. Weinberger to Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta for recuperation. “I was to have the Army record for the longest-staying single amputee, because I turned out to be a very slow healer,” he said. “I finally got to go in June of 1946. I was in the hospital longer than some of my doctors had been doctors.

“I was very anxious to get out. I really had had enough of military service, and of the hospital. I wanted to get back and start my life.”

He did. He earned an MBA at NYU, got married, and worked in an advertising agency, Riedel and Freed; among other accounts, the Clifton-based firm worked on Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential campaigns in New Jersey. He and his wife moved to Teaneck; about eight years ago he moved to Fort Lee.

There was nothing particularly Jewish that characterized his Army career, Mr. Weinberger said. He was used to a certain background level of anti-Semitism. “When I lived in Bayonne, on many Mondays I got beaten up because in the Sunday sermon the kids had been told that the Jews killed Christ. And I was a 90-pound weakling as a youngster.

“My company commander and my battalion commander were very anti-Semitic, and made no bones about it, but I gave as well as I got.”

There is no question that the army changed his life. Certainly it changed his body. Much of it was terrible, but some of it was not. “I really had been a weakling. I lived at home. And then I really grew up, very rapidly.

“I learned a lot. It prepared me for life,” Mr. Weinberger said.

 

More on: Portraits of veterans

 
 
 

Veterans day wounds

The day after my 18th birthday, my father took me to a place called the Customs House in Baltimore. It was September 29, 1971, and I was there to register with the Selective Service.

A lady with silver grey curly hair and a darkly colored print dress, whose badge said she was Mrs. Lieb, asked me in businesslike tones why my birth certificate spelled my first name Phillip with two ls but I filled out the SS application as Philip with one l.

I didn’t know that my birth certificate had that error. Neither did my father. Mrs. Lieb raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. I guess she was worried that I was trying in my own way to evade the draft.

 
 

He knew what he wanted

Camp counselor guided Bergen teen to ROTC and an army career

From the time he was in his early teens, Benjamin Glasgall, who grew up in Harrington Park, knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up.

Other kids might have gone through their fireman and policeman stages or aim themselves at law or medicine, or — given that this was the 1980s, at the wads of money wafting from the towers of Wall Street — but not Ben.

He didn’t even want to be politician, even though when he got to high school, at Northern Valley in Old Tappan, the large shadow cast by the fairly-recent-graduate and all-around superman Corey Booker, in defiance of all laws of physics, still was visible.

No, Ben wanted to be a soldier.

 
 

A chaplain’s calling

Pastoral work in the USAF led rabbi into life as a counselor

A certain kind of impersonal authority comes with some positions — just for argument’s sake, say that position is as a Jewish Air Force chaplain.

Then there’s the kind of authority that someone — say, perhaps, a Jewish Air Force chaplain — grows into.

That was the experience of Rabbi Reuben E. Gross — now Dr. Gross, of Teaneck, and then Lt. Gross, of the United States Air Force — as he served as chaplain in the Philippines. His was a peacetime stint — he was in the Philippines just before the just-begun Vietnam war caused the United States to bring what it called advisors there to oversee that conflict.

 
 

Shot down over Belgium

Local man remembers the uncle he never knew

“I saw tracers hitting the front part of our ship,” recounted Sergeant Beverly Geyer in his formal debriefing. “It must have hit our controls, for the plane fell over on one wing. We were heavily hit in the oil tanks. Oil and pieces of wing came flying by me. The navigator called and wanted to know what was popping. The pilot ordered us to bail out.”

And there are the details of the mission.

The B-17 that Bernie flew was known as “The Flying Fortress.” The Air Force had hoped that its defenses — including many machine guns — and its high altitude would let it fly safely through Nazi airspace. The reality was less kind to the pilots.

 
 
 
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

 

Sending socks to the IDF

Teaneck rabbi to bring much-needed supplies to soldiers in Israel

Rabbi Tomer Ronen, rosh yeshiva of Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, and his wife, Deganit, are the proud parents of a son in the IDF.

Their son, a 20-year-old who went all the way through SAR in Riverdale and then went to Israel, where he studied at a yeshiva for a year and then joined the IDF exactly a year ago, is in a parachute unit. “For the last three weeks, they were training and training and training,” Rabbi Ronen said. Last Thursday, “he called and said, ‘Abba, Ima, we are out. We are giving away our cell phones.’ So we knew that it was happening that night.”

So now the Ronens are both proud and worried parents; worried enough, in fact, to decide that they could no longer sit at home in Teaneck and worry. “To be the parents of a lone soldier is hard,” Rabbi Ronen said. “To be the parent of a lone soldier and know that he is going in — that is even harder.”

 

Blue and white moon

Israeli lunar mission makes stop in Paramus

In the May 1944, Itzhak Bash and 299 other Jewish engineers were removed from Auschwitz and taken to work at a Volkswagen factory that was assembling the V-1 flying bomb.

He had been a textile engineer in Hungary before the Nazis invaded and deported the Jews, but the Germans didn’t need his specific technical skills; they wanted slave laborers they could trust with careful work. The first V-1s from occupied France landed on London on June 13, 1944. As the Allies pushed into France, Mr. Bash was switched to work on the V-2, the first rocket to reach the edge of space. By the war’s end, more than 3,000 V-2 rockets had been launched.

Mr. Bash was one of the lucky hundred men who had survived from the original group of 300 engineers. Some were killed by Allied raids; others by the conditions at the work camps.

 

‘Come on over…’

As summer starts, we look at the Palisades Amusement Park through the eyes of its longtime publicist, Sol Abrams

“Palisades has the rides... Palisades has the fun... Come on over.

Shows and dancing are free... so’s the parking, so gee... Come on over.”

Suppose, just for a moment, that you might want to take an elephant water-skiing.

(No, don’t ask why. That’s a question for another time. Just go with it.)

Okay. So you’ve got the elephant. You’ve got a body of water big enough for it — the Hudson River.

Oh, and you happen to be on 30 acres that span Cliffside Park and Fort Lee, in southern Bergen County, not far at all from the river — but the direction to the river is less east than it is down. Straight down a jagged cliff. (It’s not called Cliffside Park for nothing.)

 

RECENTLYADDED

Community stands with Israel at bergenPAC

So very many people! So very much energy! So many Israeli flags! So much passion that it sizzled!

Those are the overwhelming impressions from the Israel solidarity rally organized by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey in Englewood last week.

The 1,370-seat bergenPAC theater was, well, packed; so were overflow rooms inside the theater, and unlucky seatless latecomers milled about in the street. Dr. Zvi Marans, the federation’s president, estimated the crowd at about 2,000. The crowd’s size was even more impressive given the short time in which it was pulled together — the rally had been organized in just two days.

Security was formidable — police officers with dogs checked out the area, beginning well before the rally, and visitors’ bags were opened and bodies were wanded as we went in. As the rally opened, the federation’s CEO, Jason Shames, warned us that it was not impossible that there might be some attempts made to disrupt it. If someone started shouting, we were to remain quiet as security dealt with the problem.

 

No light yet

‘Remember – she’s 2’

Although this community does not feel the barrage of rockets, the adrenaline and strain of IDF service, the upside-down-ness of life after a sudden recall to active service, the sleepless worry of parents, the responsibility of hundreds of innocent deaths on the other side, or the uncertainty of the outcome of the situation in Gaza, many of us have deep connections to Israelis, and even more of us want to help in any way we can.

Here are some stories of how this community – and remember that New Jersey is about the size of Israel – is reacting. These stories are just a few of very many, but we think that they are both representative and illustrative.

Please note that we have been careful not to include too much information in these stories. We have not said anything about where IDF members are serving, or what they are doing – or even given their names. We know that the IDF does not think it safe to publicize such information, and we comply with that request willingly.

 

No light yet

‘He meant to live his life’

Ilan Vakhnin, principal of the Shakim High School in Nahariya, is on the steering committee developing policy and programming for th Partnership 2Gether, a sister city relationship between the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and Nahariya, a city in southern Israel.

He was part of a six-person delegation, in town for a few days of meetings, when his cell phone rang.

On the other end, his daughter was crying so hard that he had to tell her to stop it if he was going to be able to understand what she was telling him. Eventually, she was able to get the message out.

 
 
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