Portraits of veterans
Just a boy from Bayonne
|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.
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