By Land, By Sea, By Air, Omaha Jewish Veterans Performed Far-flung Wartime Duties
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
As a group, Omaha’s Jewish World War II veterans performed duties spanning the spectrum of that immense struggle. They served in virtually every military branch and theater of war. They fought in historic battles. They supplied troops with vital war materials. They earned commendations, ribbons, medals.
The men featured here are only a small sampling of Omaha Jews who saw action. Some have siblings that distinguished themselves in wartime. For example, Stuart Muskin is profiled here but his brother, Leonard Muskin, could just have easily been. Leonard, who resides in Calif., received a Navy Cross and a Gold Star for extraordinary heroism as the pilot of a carrier-based torpedo plane during the Battle for Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands.
Lloyd Krasne’s younger brother Bud was a weather observer and his older brother Milton was in the supply division that kept Gen. George Patton‘s 3rd Army fueled.
Every veteran has a trunk-full of stories. In the case of Lloyd Friedman, he was in the presence of three historic figures from WWII: Gen. Patton; Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower; and President and Commander in Chief Harry S. Truman. Friedman, Muskin and Marvin Taxman fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Milt Saylan was present at the formal surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay.
Lloyd Krasne ended up in war-ravaged Tokyo as part of the army of occupation.
Kevee Kirshenbaum served on minesweepers in both WWII and Korea, along the way interacting with Soviets, Filipinos, Chinese and Koreans.
It turns out anti-Semitism was not an issue for most of Omaha’s Jewish war vets.
Some saw loads of combat and others saw none at all. Some were married with children, others were single. All put their lives on hold, however, to answer the call of duty. To a man, they’re grateful to have simply survived.
By Land: The European Theater
Howard Silber, An Infantryman’s Perspective
Howard Silber experienced anti-Semitism growing up in New York City. Early on he learned to stand up for himself with words and fists.
A fair high school athlete and student, he was denied admission to Columbia University when the school met its quota of Jews. He played football and studied journalism at the University of Alabama, where his freshman coach was legend-to-be Paul “Bear” Bryant and the head coach was legend-in-the-making Frank Thomas. A roommate was future Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace.
Silber was a semester shy of graduating when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 at 21. After training with coastal artillery and parachute glider units he ended up a grunt in the 411th Infantry Regiment, 103rd Division, 7th Army.
He encountered bias at bases and camps in the States, but once in southern France his faith didn’t matter in a fox hole. His company’s first action resulted in eight members of his platoon being killed. “A baptism by fire,” he soberly recalled. Years after the war he and comrades paid for a monument to the eight and Sibler and his wife Sissy Katelman visited it.
The push through France went over the Vosges Mountains in the midst of the region’s worst recorded winter The Americans were not properly geared for the conditions and German resistance proved fierce in spots. In early engagements enemy ranks consisted of conscripts — an indication of Germany’s desperation.
“I saw German soldiers who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13,” he said. “I also saw men in their 40s and 50s.”
His company later ran up against a hardened SS outfit. “But we managed to fight our way through,” he said. “I saw some hand-to-hand combat….”
After breaking out of the mountains onto the Rhine Plain, Sibler’s company proceeded around Strasbourg. “Integrated into our army corps,” he said, “was the French 1st Army — made up mostly of North Africans. They had come across the Mediterranean with (Charles) de Gaulle. They were good fighters.”
Heading north, Sibler and Co. approached the Maginot Line, with orders to break through, but the Germans were dug-in behind well-fortified positions.
“We woke up one morning to the sound of artillery high above us, exploding in the trees,” Sibler said. He’ll never forget the bravery of an African American anti-tank unit: “When I think of it I become emotional because they were shot up to hell and kept fighting.” The artillery barrage slowed but then a German tank advanced and with the platoon’s bazooka team knocked out, Sibler took action. “I picked up the bazooka, knelt and loaded it, fired once and missed. The last thing I can remember is that tank lowering its beastly 88 millimeter cannon in my direction. I woke up the next day in an Army field hospital. Apparently the shell was a dud but it half buried me in my fox hole. Our platoon medic got me out of there. Both my arms were broken and my left rib cage was pretty well beat up.”
The Battle of the Bulge erupted the next day. His “million dollar wound” spared him from further fighting. He recovered at a hotel turned hospital in the resort town of Vittel. There, bigotry reappeared in the form of a chaplain who said something ugly to Sibler. After complaints were lodged the chaplain did not return.
Back home, Sibler was a reporter for New York newspapers before joining the Omaha World-Herald. In his 34-year Herald career he covered the Starkweather murder spree, he went to the South Pole, he reported from Vietnam and he became the first journalist to fly in a B-52 bomber. He interviewed Joint Chiefs of Staff commanders and senators, but may be proudest of his Band of Brothers legacy.
Louie Blumkin, The Long, Slow Slog
It sounds like a legend now, but when Louie Blumkin was away in the U.S. Army his mother Rose, worried by slumping sales at the furniture store she’d opened a few years before, wrote her son she was thinking of selling it. He persuaded her to stick it out until his return, and the rest is history. Under his management the Nebraska Furniture Mart became a phenomenon of folklorish proportions.
But there was no guarantee Mrs. B’s boy would make it home. A state diving champion at Omaha Technical High School, Blumkin was considered an Olympic-caliber athlete. That dream faded as America drew closer to entering the war against the Axis powers. Blumkin enlisted in 1941. After field artillery training and serving as a gunner on a 155 millimeter howitzer he was promoted to corporal and battalion company clerk. The work suited his inquisitive mind.
His battalion was en route to the Pacific Theater, with a planned stopover in Hawaii, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. His ship was turned around to return to the west coast, where he received orders to go to Fort Lewis, Wash. There, he became junior warrant officer of his battalion. He transferred to the 974th Field Artillery and went overseas with his unit in 1942. After training in Belfast, Ireland and in England, he awaited orders for the invasion of Europe.
To help ease the tedium and tension until D-Day, he put on diving exhibitions at Chaltham, England for his fellow GIs.
His group landed on Omaha Beach a few days after the invasion and in the teeth of still stiff German defenses moved inland, first east and then south. In a 1984 interview he gave his niece, Jane Kasner, he described the slow, bitter slog.
“Many times we met with very tough resistance, but we overcame all of our obstacles…For several months, although our progress was slow, we liberated several French cities” and “received a very warm welcome from the French people.”
In one action a fragment from an explosive injured his hand.
By year’s end the weather turned and for a time so did the campaign’s fortunes. By then his unit was assigned to Patton’s 3rd Armored Division.
“Winter set in while we were in Southern France” and to the north “the Germans were making their counterattack, known as the Battle of the Bulge, in a maneuver which was supposed to drive our forces to the English Channel. Our organization was called to help relieve the Americans in their plight against the Germans…”
When the weather finally cleared enough for Allied planes to attack enemy positions the German offensive was stopped and its last gasp effort to reverse the tide turned back. Blumkin saw first hand the enormous concentration of Allied war materials flooding into the region and recalled thinking, “There is no way the Germans are going to win this war.” He was part of the contingent that crossed the Remagen Bridge, a key link between France and Germany. His unit went toward Austria while others went to spearhead the push into Berlin.
Along the way, Blumkin and his mates came across Dachau concentration camp survivors.
“It was an extremely emotional experience for me, one which I will never forget because of the conditions of both the camp and the individuals,” he said.
His wartime experience ended with Displaced Persons duty — transferring Italian refugees or DPs from Innsbruck, Austria to Riva, Italy. He returned home in time for Christmas in 1945 and after reuniting with his “street smart” mother at the Mart, he became president and CEO during a period of remarkable growth.
Marvin Taxman, D-Day
As a U.S. Army Reserve Corps member, Marvin Taxman was allowed to remain in school at Creighton University until called to active duty in early 1943. He was 22.
He wound up in a glider company, 327th infantry 101st Airborne Division — the Screaming Eagles — and by September sailed to England. In April 1944 his unit was part of a secret D-Day landing rehearsal on English shores. The maneuvers turned lethal when German torpedo boats attacked, killing hundreds of American soldiers and sailors. The incident was not made public for years.
On D-Day itself his company hit Utah Beach aboard landing crafts — with the objective of moving inland to relieve paratroopers who jumped overnight and to secure bridges across the Douve River. Mission accomplished. Things turned hairy the next morning when, he recalled, “on a patrol my platoon attempted to cross the river on rafts and were repulsed by machine gun fire.” That’s when Taxman got in the water and swam back to shore. He and another American directed mortar fire on the German position as cover for their comrades — saving lives.
His exploits made Yank, the Army news magazine, and Omaha newspapers.
Fighting ensued amid the awful, impenetrable hedgerows.
“The Germans would be dug in behind those hundred year old hedgerows and until you knocked out their machine guns they could move to the next…It wasn’t easy,” he said.
The 101st’s next major action came during Operation Market Garden in September. Taxman recalled “serious foreboding” at this airborne invasion of Holland happening between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The operation failed.
He was among a fraction of men in his glider company to ground safely amid heavy fire. Surrounded by German units, the GIs were in a tight fix until British tanks arrived. His platoon advanced on a target bridge when shrapnel from a mortar round cut him down. The officer who assisted him to safety was killed. Taxman was taken to an Antwerp field hospital and then onto a regular hospital in England.
By late December he rejoined his decimated company in Bastogne just as the Allies broke through at the Battle of the Bulge. In April he attended a seder prepared by French Jews. “They proudly announced the plates we ate from were fashioned from the wings of a downed German aircraft,” he recalled.
In liberated Paris he ran into several Omaha chums, including Warner Frohman, Lazer Singer and future brother-in-law Nick Ricks.
“Together we toured the Louvre, the opera and the Folies Bergere. Those were not to be forgotten days.”
Across the Rhine into Germany Taxman’s outfit was moving toward Munich when they encountered Dachau survivors.
“It was gruesome, but we had no idea of the enormity of it,” said Taxman, who was detailed to help sift out German soldiers among the flood of refugees on the roads.
By mid-May the war in Europe was over but more adventures awaited Taxman. He visited Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Eagle’s Nest. He filed reports for a division newspaper. He was put in charge of a troupe of Hungarian singers and dancers. Redeployed to France, he took a class at the University of Grenoble in the French Alps, where he was befriended by French Jews who escaped the Nazis by hiding in the mountains. He listened to their tales of woe and attended Yom Kippur services with them at a theater.
He married and raised a family after the war and he continues to enjoy a career in the wholesale optical business.
Stuart Muskin, In Patton’s 3rd
When America entered World War II Stuart Muskin enlisted in the U.S. Army while still a University of Nebraska senior. He was able to complete his degree before reporting for basic training.
He got the cushy job of regimental clerk and saw what looked like a good deal: volunteering for overseas duty earned 30 days leave. He got his leave alright but still owed Uncle Sam So, with the war at its peak, he shipped out in late spring 1944 as part of a light machine gun squad in Company C, 3rd Infantry Division.
En route to England the D-Day invasion had commenced. Upon landing in Liverpool the wounded from Normandy were being brought in from across the Channel, the dull booms and thuds of artillery barrages thundering in the distance.
After one day on the island the Yanks headed for France. Aboard the landing craft Omaha he arrived on already secured though badly scarred Omaha Beach.
“It was still torn up from just a week ago when the Allies invaded,” he said.
Before he knew it his squad squared off in the Battle of Saint Lo, fighting Germans hedgerow to hedgerow. The combat was costly to both sides.
“I wrote a letter to my mom telling her, ‘Goodbye, you’re never going to see me again,’ but then I thought to myself, That’s dumb to say that, so I tore it up and wrote another letter back to her telling her everything is fine.”
The brave front didn’t change the fact he feared for his life. “I was by myself, I didn’t know anybody, a Jewish kid, and I was scared as hell.”
He ended up in a Nebraska unit of Gen. George Patton’s 3d Army.
“You’d think a guy like Patton you’d never see him — we saw him all the time, he was always around,” said Muskin, “and people would yell out and call him every name in the world and he would smile because he liked a soldier that was mad.”
Patton kept his troops on the go.
“One day we walked 28 miles with packs on because we were moving and we were not getting any resistance, and that went on for maybe two or three weeks,,” said Muskin. “Finally we got to Nancy, France, the trucks rolled in and the French girls jumped all over us and all of a sudden snipers up in the buildings were shooting at us, and it emptied out just as fast.
“The next day we crossed the Meurthe River and the Germans flew over us like they did a lot of times broadcasting that our wives and girls are getting screwed back home and we ought go home. That was the first time we knew there was a big resistance by the Germans.”
Taking the high ground was crucial to breaking through, but the enemy wasn’t giving up anything without a fight.
“They started throwing mortars down,” said Muskin.
While he could tell by the sound where an artillery shell would land, a mortar round was too unreliable to predict. In late September a mortar-fired projectile exploded near him, fragments and splinters hitting him “in a lot of different places — my arm was the worst, and my leg.” “Fortunately,” he said, “I got picked up and brought to a big tent hospital.” It was there he had a fleeting but surreal encounter.
“There was a guy walking around with fatigues on tapping guys on the shoulder and asking, ‘How you doin’ soldier?’ and I look around and it’s Bing Crosby. He was visiting the troops.”
Once Muskin registered the unmistakable face and voice he remarked what an unusual circumstance this was, whereupon the crooner-actor replied, “It’s no big deal — what you guys are doing is.”
From there Muskin was slated to be flown to a hospital in England but Operation Market Garden tied up all available air transport. Instead, he went by train to a Paris hospital. After three months recouping he rejoined his unit on the front lines, still in France, teasing them, “Can’t you guys move without me?”.
His last major action came in the Battle of the Bulge, when a last ditch German offensive cut off thousands of Allied forces amid the harsh winter in the Ardennes Forest. His squad got pinned down by German machine gun and tank fire. As Muskin and his men pulled back a tank shell exploded near him and metal shredded his bandolier and bloodied him but only slightly wounding him.
Muskin, a staff sergeant, announced to the squad, “Boys, I’m going to get home alive if I can get through that.” His unit advanced as far as the Elbe River, where aside from a skirmish they waited out the end of the war in relative calm. Hordes of captured German soldiers marched past them.
Back home, Muskin was a traveling salesman before he bought into a children’s wares business that took off as Baby Town, later renamed Youngtown. He married, raised a family and feels grateful to have lived the good life at the ripe age of 88.
Lloyd Friedman, In the Presence of Ike, Old Blood and Guts and Give ‘Em Hell Harry
Lloyd Friedman’s five-year military odyssey began in late 1940. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln ROTC graduate helped oversee a black regiment in the 25th Infantry at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He returned to Omaha ready to resume civilian life when Pearl Harbor put him right back on active duty.
The next three years he was assigned units tasked with patrolling and defending the west coast. He went from the 134th National Guard Regiment of the 35th Infantry Division to the 137th Infantry Regiment.
As D-Day neared in June 1944 Friedman, by then a captain, became regimental adjutant under Col. Grant Layng, which entailed being “his gofer or shadow.”
Friedman was one of two Jewish officers in his regiment. While in England his unit was inspected by Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
His outfit hit Omaha Beach in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion but they discovered an area still hot with enemy activity.
“The Germans had the cliffs fortified,” he said. “That was pretty rough, We fought a little bit there but we got out of that. Normandy, above Saint Lo, was made up a lot of hedgerows. You couldn’t see what you were shooting at.”
In an account for the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, Friedman wrote:
“On the first day of combat we lost the colonel to machine gun fire. I was not with him. It was tough to see friends wounded and die. The lines did not move very fast.”
Then, he wrote, “I saw in the air the most bombers ever. They practically leveled Saint Lo, and even a few stray bombs landed on our troops.”
Every time the regiment got orders to move, Friedman went with the advance party.
“My worst job,” he wrote, “was reconnoitering for the new headquarters as the lines moved forward. There were times I got ahead of the front lines. On one occasion my jeep driver and I were going up a road, dodging brush and debris. After passing, we looked back and saw that they covered mines…We breathed a sigh of relief.”
More relief came with the break out across France. His company was attached to Patton’s 3rd Army. He got to see the irascible, flamboyant commander up close.
“He was a buddy of our new colonel and visited us for so-called ‘lunch’ one day. I will never forget his two pearl handled pistols.”
At times Patton’s forces moved so fast they outstripped their supply lines.
“As we neared Germany things slowed down,” Friedman wrote. “We had some fierce fights across the border (Mosel River). By Christmas…we were sent to Metz for what we thought would be a well-earned rest. We were so wrong. Immediately we were moved north to outside Bastogne (Battle of the Bulge). Those were horrible days. Between the cold and driving the Germans back, it was miserable.”
“We were near Berlin when VE Day came in May (1945). Our regiment was sent to Boppard on the Rhine for occupation duty. On July 11 we assembled near Brussels and were picked for the honor guard for President Truman who was en route to the Potsdam Conference.”
Friedman, who was never wounded, won five battle stars, including the Bronze Star.
During an R &R stint on the French Riviera he ran into Omahan Stanley Slosburg and upon returning to the States he met another Omahan — Stuart Muskin, who served in the same division but in a separate regiment.
After the war Friedman married and became a buyer and merchandise manager for Herzberg’s before making his career in insurance.
By Sea: The Pacific Theater or Bust
Milt Saylan, On the Battleship USS South Dakota
When Milt Saylan entered the U.S. Navy in 1944 he was 24, married, a father and the owner of his own grocery store in Charter Oak, Iowa. The Omaha native developed a taste for the food business working summers at an uncle’s store.
Compared to many he served with in the Navy, he said, he was “an old man. I was a little different than some of the young punks that went in. We called ’em kids — they were young, single, with no responsibility.”
Saylan had his own store four years by the time he became a seaman apprentice and, he said, that experience naturally “put me in the galley” — first at Shoemaker Camp in Calif. and then aboard the battleship USS South Dakota.
As a meat cutter he readied enough chops, steaks and roasts every day to ensure there was enough for the next day’s chow.
The South Dakota became part of Naval lore through a stunning series of engagements against Japanese forces — sinking several vessels and bringing down multiple planes in major sea and air battles. It was the most decorated ship in WWII. So as not to make it a special target, the U.S. military withheld its name from the press — its exploits chalked up to Battleship X or Old Nameless.
“We were the flagship of the 13th fleet,” said Saylan.
The South Dakota earned battle stars at Guadalcanal and in action in the Coral Sea, Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Midway, before eventually sailing into Tokyo Bay. From the deck of the South Dakota Saylan and his fellow 2,200 crewmen witnessed Japan’s formal surrender on the USS Missouri tied up alongside it.
There were times he wasn’t sure he’d make it through the war. One of those was when kamikaze attacks wrecked havoc on the ship at Okinawa.
“We got hit and we lost 37 men,” he said, the memory still making his voice quiver.
During combat he manned a battle station. His job: help corpsmen tend wounded and get them into sick bay. During the Okinawa attack he went to the forward part of the ship, where the kamikazes struck, and amid the carnage helped carry the wounded away on stretchers.
He wasn’t close to any of the sailors who lost their lives that day but burying that many comrades at sea left its mark.
The South Dakota, which supported carrier strikes against Tokyo, made its way ever nearer Japan in anticipation of the planned Allied invasion. When the atom bombs ended the war the battleship made its way into Tokyo Bay for the formal surrender. As a precaution against a Japanese ambush, said Saylan, the crew was in full battle gear. Nothing untoward happened.
He said the “very somber” ceremony on September 2, 1945 proceeded aboard the Missouri with the assembled crews of the Missouri, the South Dakota and other ships topside to observe the historic moment. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Admiral William Halsey and Southwest Pacific Area supreme commander Douglas MacArthur led the U.S. contingent in accepting the surrender of their Japanese counterparts. It all went off without a hitch. Saylan and his shipmates followed orders by not expressing any emotions that might dishonor the Japanese.
Saylan was discharged as a first class petty officer.
After the war he remained in the grocery business and by the mid-1950s he retired. Bored after a few months, he took over a window wares company that became a big success. His son now has the business.
Saylan’s visited the USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial in Sioux Falls SD.
Kevee Kirshenbaum, C.O. of Minesweepers in WWII and Korea
Kevee Kirshenbaum had the distinction of being assigned six different minesweepers in two separate wars during his U.S, Navy service.
He was a University of Nebraska sophomore when he joined up in 1942. His first assignment came as an ensign aboard a sweeper sent to the Aleutian Islands. At Cold Bay, Alaska he helped train Soviet naval personnel in minesweeping techniques as part of the top secret Project Hula, which was to ready the Soviets to invade Japan from the north.
Once while traversing an igloo-like tunnel on base he ran into an old chum from Omaha — Lee Bernstein. When they see each other today they’re still amused at meeting each other in such a desolate spot.
Kirshenbaum went from one extreme to the other in the Philippines, where he said, “we swept mines all the way along the coast down close to Borneo.” He said sweepers lived by the motto: “where the fleet goes, we’ve been.”
His worst WWII experience came while anchored in Subic Bay during a typhoon. Ordered to get under way, the ship’s fluke caught on the open hatch of a sunken boat. That left the ship riding out the storm like a top on a string.
“We stayed there for 48 hours, just going around in circles. You never saw so many sick people.”
His group made preparations for Okinawa and the planned invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped. It was then he took command of his first ship, the YMS-49, in Shanghai, China.
“My best experience of the war really was when I had command of a ship. The war was already over — what we did was sweep the mines in the Huangpu River. We didn’t find any mines there but we found an awful lot of bodies. You would see Chinese boats going by with a hook picking the bodies up.”
Becoming a C.O. at only 22, he said proudly, “was an accomplishment.”
Some fears he harbored were soon quelled.
“When I went aboard ship I didn’t know what the reaction would be to my being Jewish. The Navy had as a whole very few Jewish personnel. Then there was my age. I knew some of these guys knew more than I did. Half the crew was much older than I was and more experienced. But luckily enough I didn’t have any problems. The crew was very good and respectful.”
Back home he finished school, joined the Navy Reserve, went to work and got married. Then the Korean conflict broke out and he was assigned minesweeping duty again. In Sasebo, Japan he served on a ship and transferred to train the South Korean Navy, which helped shake off the rust of four years away from active service. Later, he went to Korea to command the USS Redhead, which swept mines in hostile waters, even past the 38th parallel. The mine fields were thick with danger and his ship and others came under fire by shore artillery batteries.
Mines, especially the magnetic kind, were the main threat. A replacement ship venturing where the Redhead would have been was sunk by one. His most harrowing duty came sweeping Wonsan Harbor at night when the Redhead set off a magnetic device whose blast destroyed the vessel’s mine cutting gear. Luckily, the hull was intact and the ill-conceived operation cancelled.
The small, wooden minesweepers were the runts of the fleet but being small had the advantage of being resupplied every few days, which meant fresh eats.
Looking back on all the responsibility he assumed at such a young age, he said, “I felt good about it.” He’s most grateful for coming out alive. The retired entrepreneur feels fortunate to have had the chance to lead “a successful life.”
Stan Silverman, A Dry Dock Navy Tour
Homefront contributions to World War II often get lost in the haze of history. But the men and women who worked the factories, fields, docks, warehouses and countless other jobs vital to the war effort made it possible for America to execute its battle plans and achieve final victory.
Long before Stan Silverman ever entered the service he worked on a ditch digging crew opening the earth with shovels to accommodate water mains at then Offutt Field on the old Fort Crook base. The site is where the Martin Bomber Plant would be built and where Offutt Air Force Base would house the Strategic Air Command.
His family ran a grocery store on Vinton Street and he and his folks lived above it.
The Central High graduate earned a chemical engineering degree from Iowa State University at a time when quotas limited the number of Jews accepted into higher education and certain career paths. “That irritated me,” Silverman said.
While at Iowa State he said the school’s physical chemistry department secretly played a significant role in the Manhattan Project by purifying the uranium for the atomic bombs ultimately dropped on Japan.
After college he went to work as a chemical engineer for Phillip’s Petroleum Company in Kaw City, Ok., where he fell in with a mix of engineers, Native Americans and roughnecks. He learned to play a mean game of poker there. Oklahoma was a dry state then and Silverman said when he’d come home to visit he’d stock up on liquor to bring back to his parched buddies.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944 and though he looked forward going to sea it never happened. His wartime service consisted of training school assignments from Indiana to Mississippi to Chicago to California. As an electronics technician third class he worked on radar, sonar and radio equipment that was big and bulky in the days before transistors and microchips.
He got married while in the service and his wife Norma, who did clerical work for the 5th Army Corps in Omaha, joined him at various stops.
His arrival on the west coast coincided with VJ Day and the memory of the jubilation over Japan’s surrender is still vivid.
“I was in San Francisco, where they had a helluva celebration. People went wild.”
The war was officially over but he was still Uncle Sam’s property and the wait for his discharge made the time drag by.
“I was sitting there not doing a helluva lot.”
The one time he was assigned a ship the orders were cancelled before he got aboard. He was a statistician on Treasure Island, where a military unit was set-up. The closest he came to shipping out was riding a Navy launch across the bay.
All in all, he said his time in the service was agreeable. He never ran into any any-Semitism and he was able to practice his faith and attend High Holiday services.
After his discharge in early 1946 he worked a variety of jobs the next several years, including men’s furnishings at J .L. Brandeis. Helpjng him get by was a $25 a week stipend from the Servicemen’s Readjustment Allowance fund.
He was with the Container Corporation of America in Chicago before moving back to Omaha to work for the City’s smoke abatement division. He was later at Quaker Oats. He eventually joined his father-in-law Ben Seldin and brother-in-law Ted Seldin in the Seldin Company, a commercial real estate, multi-family management and development organization. At 88 he still goes to the office every day.
By Air – The Philippines, New Guinea, and Stateside
Bernie Altsuler, A Love of Flying
Bernie Altsuler was only 20 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, but he was already a married working man. The Omahan was inducted in the service in Calif. because at 19 he’d gone to Los Angeles with a brother in search of new horizons. His fiance joined him there and the two were married.
As he had some college — he attended Creighton University — he was put in base operations logging flight records. When assigned a training command unit at Kirtland Field in Albuquerque, NM, his wife came with him. Rookie pilots trained in twin-engine Beechcrafts.
He said his only encounter with anti-Semitism occurred there.
“I was working on the line — that’s where they brought planes in — and there was a master sergeant, and boy he laid into me. He gave me all the problems you could imagine, but I was only there six months before I got transferred. I loved Albuquerque but I was sure glad to get away from that guy.”
Altsuler then ended up in Fort Sumner, NM as part of a command training navigators. He was there 15 months and once again his wife accompanied him.
“My wife was a shorthand expert and she became the base commander’s secretary. That’s probably why I stayed there 15 months,” he said.
After another training stop stateside he shipped overseas in 1945 to the Philippines, where fighting had ceased. All the zig zagging his ship did to throw off enemy subs slowed the voyage to a crawl and he remembers “one of the longest craps games there ever was” played out over 39 days.
He said troops from Europe began filtering in as the Allied Pacific force geared up for the anticipated invasion of Japan. The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cancelled the invasion to everyone’s relief.
By now a sergeant, he went from Tacloban, Leyte to Zamboanga and the 18th Fighter Group, which consisted of a P-38 squadron that only months earlier had escorted B-24 bombers in live missions over Japan.
“Our squadron commander was an ace — he had shot down five Japanese planes.”
As part of his duties Altsuler had frequent contact with pilots, whom he admired.
“They were all cocky young kids,” he said. “We got to know them very well.”
Despite no combat, there were still risks. Accidents happened. He remembers a couple planes cartwheeling down the runway and bursting into flames.
He developed a lifelong love of flying in the service, his appetite whetted by junket flights he hopped.
“We had a C-47 in our operation overseas that we’d fly all over the Pacific to many different islands picking up supplies, and I went along.”
Within a few years of his return from the war he earned his pilot’s license and instrument rating in a Piper Comanche along with his friend, Harold Abrahamson.
Ironically, he said during his nearly four years in the service he never bumped into anyone he knew from back home until the day of his discharge. He stayed in L.A. a few years before returning to Omaha, where he opened his own wholesale plumbing, heating and air-conditioning business. He later sold it and retired.
Jack Epstein, A Long Way from Home
The son of an immigrant fruit peddler, Jack Epstein was married and attending then-Omaha University when drafted into the service in 1943, ending up in the U.S. Army Air Corps. As a company clerk in remote outposts, he never saw any action but was a part of the huge logistics apparatus that fed the Allied war machine.
Military life didn’t exactly agree with Epstein, yet he persevered.
“I didn’t take to the Army very good, but I managed to do OK with it because of the fact I knew I wasn’t in danger and I had something to do all the time. I was busy. Time went pretty fast,” he said.
His wartime odyssey overseas began with a voyage aboard a merchant ship from southern Calif. to Brisbane, Australia. From there he went to Milne, New Guinea, where he remained the next 27 months. The only time he laid sight of the enemy was when Japanese surveillance planes flew high overhead.
New Guinea natives were rarely glimpsed.
He never came under fire but he did contract malaria. The rainy season there soaked everything for weeks on end. Mosquitoes had a field day. The oppressive heat rarely let up.
Epstein was part of a unit comprised of two officers and 28 enlisted men. “We took charge of all the 100 octane gasoline on that base for airplanes,” he said. The gasoline came in 150 gallon barrels unloaded from supply ships and then stored and secured on base. Thousands of barrels were stacked on site. The fuel serviced fighter planes as well as troop and cargo planes.
“We serviced all of them,” he said.
Planes came and went all day, every day. “From the Philippines they came, from Okinawa they came, from all over. They were in and out — they didn’t stay,” he said. The roaring engines were a constant companion. “Maybe that’s the reason I can’t hear so good (today), I don’t know,” he ventured.
He was tasked with inventory control.
“I was the company clerk you might say. I kept track of the ins and outs of the barrels that came in and the barrels that went out .”
As staff sergeant, he said, he became “very close to the two officers. We played bridge most of the time we were there.” Finding diversions on an island in the middle of nowhere, he said, was vital for maintaining one’s sanity. Besides playing bridge there was fishing, but reading and writing letters was his main relief.
“I wrote my wife every single day and she wrote me most every single day and it was really great as far as the camaraderie we had with each other.”
He still marvels at how their letters arrived without interruption, as did the air field unit’s supplies of everything from canned foods to typewriter ribbons.
“One reason we won the war was our supply lines,” he said. “No matter what you wanted we had it — about anything you could imagine. Our supply was unbelievable.”
By war’s end he was sent to Okinawa, where he endured two typhoons, and then back to the Philippines. En route home by ship he suffered chills and fever from his malaria. It took two years before he was over the symptoms.
After three years of separation he and his wife reunited and raised a family. Epstein ended up in the distillery business. At age 88 he still goes to work every day.
Lloyd Krasne, From Audubon to Tokyo By Way of Leyte
Lloyd Krasne clearly recalls hearing over the radio the news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. He was driving a truck into Omaha to get supplies for his Ukrainian immigrant father’s grocery story in Audubon, Iowa. Krasne soon joined the war effort as a U.S. Army Air Corpsman.
“They needed people very badly, so it was rush rush, rush,” he recalled.
Initially pegged to study cryptography he wound up learning power-operated gun turrets. Seizing an opportunity to apply for Officers Candidate School he put in and made the grade and after completing the course in Aberdeen, MD he was commissioned an officer. He did more schooling in aviation ordinance before assigned a unit in Calif. charged with training B-29 crews on operating the bomber’s state-of-the-art gun systems.
He said as the conflict progressed and America’s production of war materials advanced, the Army Air Corps found itself in a constant state of flux as new planes came on line that required different support.
With his unit scattered to the far corners, Krasne was transferred close to home, first to a base in McCook, Neb. and then to one in Harvard, Neb.
He made second lieutenant. In early 1945 he got overseas orders, prompting he and his fiance to get hitched before his departure. The couple went to Salk Lake City, Utah and then to Calif. before he shipped out to Manilla and then to Hollandia, New Guinea. No sooner did he arrive then new orders sent him right back to Manilla, where he was reunited with a commander in Tacloban, Leyte.
“Across from the house we quartered in was a little hut on stilts. There was a plank from the front door going down to the ground and in the morning here’d come a couple chickens, a pig, a couple kids — that’s the kind of economy it was.”
On Leyte he attended a memorable Yom Kippur service in a cockfighting arena. He learned years later a fellow Jew from back home — Nate Katelman — was there too.
Krasne said anti-Semitism faded in wartime, when differences seemed mute in the face of life-and-death stakes: “You were in this together. You wondered what would come next.” However, he did witness racism toward blacks that disturbed him.
He said his C.O. showed him the plans for the invasion of Japan — kept in a locked safe — that thankfully never had to be executed. After Japan’s surrender he went to Tokyo to serve in the army of occupation.
“We saw a country that was torn up,” Krasne recalled. “The main buildings were made of stone and they were alright but the areas constructed of bamboo and paper the fire bombs had reduced to nothing. Whole blocks were empty.”
After initial distrust, the Japanese warmed to their American occupiers, but persisted in their blind obedience to authority. “It was quite an observation because the people were still oriented that the emperor is god and can do no wrong and whatever he says goes,” said Krasne, who saw citizenry dutifully bow to policemen.
“It brought home the fact these people were oriented differently than anybody we’d ever met. It was quite an experience.”
Though he meant to quit the grocery business when he returned home he found it the only sure thing and remained in the field the rest of his working life.
Old Warriors Never Die, They Just Fade Away
Like veterans everywhere, Omaha’s Jewish vets run the gamut when it comes to how much or how little they’ve invested themselves in things like post-war reunions and commemorations.
Some, like Lloyd Krasne, Stuart Muskin and Kevee Kirshenbaum, have been to numerous reunions. Muskin, Kirshenbaum and Bill Cohen of Omaha traveled on a Heartland Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Some of these same men attended a tribute two years ago honoring Omaha area veterans and Holocaust survivors. Some concentration camp prisoners met their liberators.
Other vets want little to do with any fanfare over those times.
Some have scrapbooks and mementos, others — nothing.
For most veterans, Omaha’s Jewish ranks included, wartime service was something they spoke little of after returning home and getting on with their lives. It’s only in the last two decades, as major anniversaries of the war were observed, they began openly telling their stories.
All lost something along the way. Buddies. Time. Innocence. Their humble attitude about going to war, which Lloyd Friedman summed up with, “somebody had to do it,” helps explain why they are the Greatest Generation.
Several vets get together Mondays at the Bagel Bin. They may be gray and fragile now, but there was a time when they cut dashing figures and did heroic things. As their numbers grow ever fewer, they represent a trove of history not to be forgotten
- What dose the Battle of the bulge and The battle of Britian have in common (wiki.answers.com)
- The Battle of the Bulge (theroadtovictory.wordpress.com)
- Leo Adam Biga’s Survivor-Rescuer Stories Featured on Institute for Holocaust Education Website (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Sisters of the Shoah: Three Survivor Tales, Three Golden Fates, Three Iron Wills (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)