Thursday, November 11, 2010

WWII and Back Again (Is you is or is you ain't my war hero?)

Studying WWII has always been a hobby of mine. My great uncle Seymour, for whom I am named, was a bombardier on a B-24.  He was the only member of my family to ever serve in the military until I came along. My dad was born just 9 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor so perhaps it was the proximity of the date, or for whatever other reasons there may be, I have been compelled to study the circumstances of those days.
 One of my favorite movies as a kid was Tora Tora Tora...the original one, of course. Go figure? 

Although I never knew him, I feel connected to my uncle Seymour in some interesting and strange ways... 
  My uncle Seymour was not drafted in the Army Air Corp. He volunteered at age 22.  He didn't have to. As the youngest son of a widow, he could have sought a deferment.  Most Jews do not, (except for Israeli's)  then, or now, generally join the military.  In fact, while I was in the Air Force, I had a conversation with an F-15 fighter pilot that I'd met on base.  He told me that not only was his family not impressed that he was a fighter pilot, but that they had practically disowned him because he'd joined the military rather than become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant.   It was as though, to them, serving one's country was a lowly, contemptible position in life.

Uncle Seymour was a member of the 450th  Bombardment Group, 721st Squadron based out of Manduria, Italy.  They were known as the Cottontails because of the splash of white painted on the tail of the plane. 

He was killed by flak on a bombing run that was headed for some marshaling rail yards near Linz, Austria on  Feb. 25, 1945... less than 3 months before the Germans finally surrendered in May. His plane, was the only one lost that day.  Ironically, Linz is noted for the following: 

  Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889 near Linz, Austria in Braunau Am Inn just outside of Bavaria, where one day the Nazi movement would take root and grow. Hitler was so fond of the city of Linz that he wanted the city to become one of the five Fuhrer Cities of the Third Reich. 

I have some amazing details that I've managed to compile from various websites, including the debriefing notes, maps and reports from the surviving crew members of his plane.  I've always been interested in what his experience as a bombardier was like.  When I saw the movie Memphis Belle I figured I had learned a bit about what life was like even though it was about a B-17 and not a B-24. 
I was impressed, but was sure there was much more to the story... The book by Stephen Ambrose, The Wild Blue, was even more informative.  As I read about Mcgovern and the others in the book, I realized I was reading my uncle's story as well. 

After his plane was struck by flak and damaged, most of the crew managed to bail out. Prior to jumping out, other members of the crew came down to the nose to check on Seymour. If you aren't familiar with where the bombardier sat in a B-24, this picture should provide some reference.  The bombardier was positioned by the plexiglass below the nose turret.       

Note that the entire front portion of the nose is made of nothing but glass. Enough said.  Just sitting there took amazing courage.  According to their debriefing notes, the crew had commented to the effect that there was not much left of him or the navigator, to rescue or worry about. I was strangely comforted knowing that he probably died instantly and had never been thrown into a concentration camp. His plane was found by the Germans near the town of Steyr, in Austria.  The German soldiers questioned the captured crew members and showed them my uncle's dog tags as proof that at least parts of him remained.  The surviving members of the crew were taken prisoner, but only briefly as all hell was breaking loose and the rapidly retreating Germans didn't have the energy or the resources to worry much about prisoners at that point.  Not sure if he was actually buried there, or anywhere, but his name is on a plaque in France at the Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial.

I also believe that being raised Jewish set me on the path to wanting to better understand the Holocaust.  How could it have happened? WWII ended less than 20 years before I was born, My grandparent's generation lived it, and their lives touched mine so somehow I felt that through them, it touched me too. 
I wondered why the Jews didn't stand up for themselves better, why didn't they fight back more? To my childhood perception it was because they were such wimps; always more concerned with education than anything physical.  It seemed to me, growing up in New York, that being healthy or athletic was frowned upon.  As a youngster I loved and participated in sports and karate but it generally wasn't something that was encouraged, especially for girl.

It seemed to me that the only time a Jewish kid received any positive feedback was when they got 100% on a test at school.  Sometimes even 100% wasn't good enough... Most parents would just scoff and ask why they didn't get a higher score..."What, no extra credit"? 
  It was no mystery to me why everyone kicked their asses.  
Nothing was ever good enough when it came to academic achievement, but we'll leave that for another day.
  I read Anne Frank's diary when I was about 8, and that was when I decided for certain that I did not want to be Jewish anymore.  I didn't want to be associated with, I wanted no connection to, people like this who chose to hide instead of fight.  I wanted nothing to do with them, as I abhorred weakness (still do).   I didn't really believe in the religious fairy tale anyway as I was way too logical and scientific a child.  I knew one thing for certain-I sure as hell didn't want to die for something I didn't even believe in. I later learned that what I did or didn't believe in would not have mattered to Hitler and his thugs.  Somehow being Jewish is rather complex and has as much to do with genetics as it does worship. I imagine it's not so easy to disinherit your DNA.  I've come a long way, towards better understanding what happened during that period of history, and I'm a bit more forgiving and less harsh about it, but you won't be finding me in Hebrew school anytime soon.  Still, I was fascinated with the details of that war and felt connected to the story on so many levels I struggled to understand everything I could about it.
The multilevel connection is also a part of what deepened my interest in finding out exactly what had happened to my uncle.  Before my research, all I knew was what I had heard of the family story-I didn't know the exact year... 1944 or 1945...He was shot down somewhere over Europe and never returned.  They first heard he was MIA and then 5 months later confirmed, KIA.  Maybe others in the family knew more of the story, but I never got the details from them. Given what I knew about how the Germans treated Jewish POW's, and how the military would instruct Jewish soldiers back then to throw their dog tags away if captured...I had wondered if in fact he had survived the crash, with the rest of his crew, and had been subsequently sent to a concentration camp.  I was determined to find out if a member of my family had been subjected to the horrors of the holocaust.  Many years later, even though the potential battle fields were different, I had atheist stamped on my dog tags.  I wanted to ensure that no one could label me as Jewish.  I was also thankful that my last name wasn't "obviously Jewish" either or I would have changed it before enlisting.  I guess either way, it made me an infidel on the modern battlefield, but at least I wasn't going to die for what I didn't believe in...wait a minute...

The strange connections I mentioned earlier... 
When I joined the Air Force, I worked in intelligence and became a Russian Linguist. Shortly after completing language school, the "Needs of the Air Force" dictated that my security clearance would be put to better use as Photo (Imagery) Interpreter.  What did photo interpreters do?  Well, depending on the technology of the day, they  looked at pictures taken by bombers and reconnaissance aircraft and satellites and picked out things on the ground for the bombers to bomb. Or to make our intelligence agencies aware of things that may be of some consequence to our national security. (think Cuban Missile crisis) After bombs hit the ground,  photo interpreters look at the pictures taken by the gun cameras and other imaging platforms and conduct bomb damage assessment, among many other tasks.  In many respects, it came to pass that I got a peek through the gun sights into Uncle Seymour's world.  If it were 1944 or 1945 someone like me would have been with the pilots and crews during the pre and post-flight briefings with the pointer, the pictures and the maps. You've seen the movies...
One more thing...
A few days before I departed for basic training, I called my grandmother. Seymour had been her much beloved, brother-in-law and here I was, heading off to the military...She asked if I was going to do anything special for my last night at home.  I told her that my boyfriend and I, were going to do a night on the town in the city.  He was an opera singer and huge opera fan. I told her that he was taking me to a special dinner and an evening at the Met, to see Porgy and Bess.  There was an extended silence at the other end of the phone.  Finally my grandmother sounded more like she was scolding me..."You better be very very careful missy"!  I thought that was an odd thing for her to say in that manner.  I asked her what she meant.  She explained, "The last time we saw your Uncle Seymour alive was right before he left for flight training.  He took us all out for dinner and to see his favorite opera at the Met..."
  Porgy and Bess


ehowton said...

I actually don't remember this story. Thanks for sending it along!

cdriggars said...

Fascinating. Thanks for sharing all of these thoughts and stories.

cdriggars said...

ps I particularly found your thoughts on your Jewish heritage to be most interesting. I worked closely with many Jewish lawyers for more than 30 years and although this may sound racist--or at least falling into stereotypes--I found almost all of them to be (1) extremely high energy and high achieving (2) doggedly determined (3) often very funny and (4) "friendly but not familiar" with me. It was clear to me that something in the raising of children in a Jewish household promoted achievement /accomplishment/ scholarship and I was impressed.