A German Jew who served the U.S. at Utah Beach
“Col. James Van Fleet took me aside and said, ‘Bodlander, since you speak both French and German, I want you on my boat when we go ashore. And, incidentally, I will be the first person to step onto land; you’ll be the second,’ ” Walter Bodlander said in a recent interview.
“Land,” in this case, was Utah Beach in Normandy, France. The date was June 6, 1944.
Nearly 71 years later, on May 8, 2015, Capt. Walter Bodlander was awarded the French Legion of Honor in a ceremony aboard the USS Iowa, in San Pedro.
Born in Breslau, Germany, in 1920, Bodlander didn’t know he was Jewish until he was 12. “My father, Franz Bodlander, mistrusted all organized religions, so he didn’t tell me, until the Nazis came to power. Then he wanted me to understand our vulnerability and to feel pride in my Jewish heritage. I went from being a proud German to becoming a proud Jew.”
The Bodlanders sent their son to study in Switzerland, at Ecole de Commerce, in 1935. The next year, Franz suffered a fatal heart attack, which his son thought was a result of the stress under the Nazis. “With great difficulty and financial loss, my mother sold our business. She was anxious to leave Germany, and, fortunately, a wealthy uncle procured visas to Palestine for us both. Immediately after Kristallnacht, my mother left.”
Bodlander, who is also the author of “The Unauthorized Autobiography of W.B.: The War Years (1933-1945) (Twentieth Century, 2012), graduated in June 1939. Over the following months, he tried to join France’s army, was rejected for being German and was threatened with internment. Bodlander joined his mother in Palestine while awaiting a visa to the United States. Finally, after four months on an Egyptian merchant ship, he arrived in New York in January 1941.
The young Bodlander felt strongly that America should join the war. “After Pearl Harbor was attacked, Congress passed a law allowing resident aliens to volunteer for service, and I immediately joined the Army.”
Bodlander went from basic training to officers training to military intelligence training. In June 1943, he was given command of Interrogation of Prisoners of War Team 34, consisting of six men and two jeeps. They reported to the 8th Infantry Regiment in Exeter, England.
“We knew that we’d be the assault regiment in the invasion of Europe. In July of ’43, we started training, which included physical exercise, waterproofing all vehicles for immersion in saltwater, then undoing the waterproofing once on land so the vehicles wouldn’t overheat.
“Once out on the LCVP, the landing craft that carried the vehicles and men to shore, we jumped into deep water, holding rifles overhead as we made it to shore. We did all of this over and over again. Every time we went through our maneuvers, we hoped that this would be the actual invasion. It never was.”
“Then, in early June 1944, we got orders to move out. “The convoy stopped in a camouflaged field, divided into units. The officers were summoned to a tent with huge tables covered with relief maps. That’s when we discovered that our divisions were to land at Utah and Omaha beaches. We studied the relief maps and were briefed: ‘You’ll land here. Notice the trees over there and the two windmills to the left. Here’s the road.’ ”
It was when Bodlander was leaving the tent that he recalls Van Fleet informed him that they would be the first two people on Utah Beach.
On June 4, the convoy moved onward to the embarkation point. “Local townspeople were along the road, shouting and throwing flowers, as if they knew something was about to happen. How they knew before we did is still a mystery to me.”
Bodlander recalls that the plan was to land the next morning, June 5. “The weather couldn’t have been worse — pouring rain and cold. There was no shelter. Through that day and night, and the next day and night, the seas were rough, the rain unrelenting. Everyone was soaking wet and miserable. Many of us were seasick.”
Bodlander was reaching his limit. “I thought, I’d rather be shot than spend another hour on this boat.”
Early on the morning of June 6, they saw the first Allied bombers overhead. Bodlander was relieved and excited. “I knew it was history — that this was going to be on the radio everywhere! And yes, Van Fleet was the first to step on land, and I was the second.”
Unfortunately, Bodlander said, nothing in the terrain resembled the maps they’d seen. No trees. No windmills. No road. The storm had pushed their boat two miles from the intended landing site.
“Nobody knew where we were, and it started raining artillery and mortars. Things went from exciting to very unpleasant and frightening. Several people were killed or injured. I had only a pistol and a rifle with me. My machine gun was on my jeep, and my jeep was somewhere else. There was little I could do; I gave my morphine to one of the injured men.”
The first German prisoners were soon brought to the beach for Bodlander and his team to interrogate. “They were scared like we were, with no protection from incoming shells. I was able to get some information from them, and then I was to return to my unit. But it was dark and raining, and I was lost. All I could do was hide under some hedgerows with the mortar and artillery around me.”
Day at the beach – Omaha Beach
June 6, 1944, may have been the most important day of the 20th century. The Allied invasion of France breached Hitler's Atlantic Wall and decisively turned the war against the Nazi regime.
The invasion itself was a combination of great leadership, detailed planning and a brilliant campaign of deception to convince the Germans that the attack would come at Calais instead of the Normandy beaches. But the final ingredient was the courage of the invasion forces, of which 75 percent were American soldiers. To the Americans fell the nightmare beach to attack: Omaha. It was the most heavily defended and dangerous beach, and it cost by far the most lives.
Had D-Day failed, what would have happened? Would the war effort in the West have become exhausted? Would the concentration camps have been liberated by 1945? Fortunately, these questions will never have to be answered.
Last month, my wife, my daughter and I went to Omaha Beach. We have been in France since September, and this is a trip that I had longed to take. Each semester I spend a full class session on D-Day, because I think it reveals so much — not only about world history but also about the American character.
The Omaha Beach memorial has three important pieces: a creatively designed museum with audiovisual displays, the American cemetery and a path that winds down to the beach itself. The whole D-Day story unfolded at beaches to the north and south, as well, because the attacks took place for miles up and down the coast at other beaches named Juno, Utah, Gold, Sword.
British and Canadian troops joined Americans on those beaches. Attacks on German installations inland were already under way in coordination with the invasion by the French resistance, alerted by coded radio messages from the Allied command.
The museum traces all the intricacies of the invasion planning and execution. The intense secrecy of the invasion plan was dictated by the need to divert the strongest German forces away from the landing site.
Massive deception fooled the German high command right up until the attack and even in the first few days after. The planning was not perfect; in a training exercise for the full invasion force on the English coast, German submarines sneaked in and attacked, costing the lives of more than 700 Allied soldiers.
Even with these snafus, the depth of the planning and training process comes through. This was a well-led project. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's recorded talk to the troops before the invasion is simple and moving, as are accounts of his visit to paratroopers on the way to Normandy.
The decision to attack (moved from June 5) during a break in the stormy weather on June 6 was critical and was, after all, based on something as tricky as a weather forecast. Bad weather would have doomed the invasion.
From the museum you go down to the beach on a winding path. There you can see some remnants of abandoned equipment left as a visual display.
But the real shock is to see how open the beach is, with no real cover or protection for the incoming soldiers. Looming behind you are the hills where the Germans had their guns, with months to set up their lines of fire.
Despite horrific losses in the first wave, the soldiers just kept on coming and somehow made it up the hills and cliffs to silence the German positions. Bold parachute drops behind enemy lines helped turn the tide, but ultimately young American soldiers led by junior officers (taking over for higher-ranking officers who had been killed) had to get their men off the beaches and up the hills.
The cemetery is extremely simple and quiet, as it should be. In neat rows are crosses and Jewish stars with very simple descriptions, all of Americans buried far from home on the soil they had died to liberate. Some are dated June 6, but others are as late as July, a reminder that it took well more than a month to break out of the region and begin in August the push toward Berlin.
Still to come after D-Day were the awful battles of the French hedgerows and the German counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge. Paris was only liberated in late August.
The French have carefully maintained a network of museums and displays all up and down the Normandy coast. Memories of the American GIs who fought and died to liberate Europe and who marched through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris are still strong.
I thought of all those still with us or who have passed on who served in uniform in that war — including my father, my father-in-law, my uncles (two of whom fought in France and helped liberate concentration camps) — and of my mother, my aunts and the many women who served overseas but mostly on the home front.
Much has happened in the U.S.A. and in the world since that day in June 1944. Our relations with Europe have gone up and down, although our alliance remains strong.
Things may never be quite as crystal clear as they were then, when the fate of the world hung in the balance. I listened again this week to the sober address that President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered to announce the invasion — in the form of a prayer:
“Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.”
No one knew what the outcome would be.
In facing tough times, Americans have historical resources to fall back upon. Those soldiers who fought their way onto French soil had already lived through the worst of the Great Depression. With great leadership, careful planning and a worthy goal to aim for, Americans have a way of getting there.
It is worth remembering.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the Institut Français de Geopolitique at the University of Paris VIII.
Part of the memorial at Omaha Beach
Courage Under Fire
Mort Wolk hadn’t slept a wink in two days. The invasion had been called off the day before due to bad weather, but Wolk had been on edge and too busy to rest. It was 4 a.m., and his plane was over Nazi-held Normandy. The only Jew and the only enlisted man on board, Wolk was part of Task Force A, a group of 40 paratroopers that had four hours to establish and secure a command post for the D-Day invasion.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, God, this is it. I’m not asking any favors. I’ve lived an honest life. Whatever I have coming, I have coming,'” says Wolk, who was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.
Wolk landed in the water just off the bank of the Douve River. Wet and cold, he made his way along the hedgerows. Armed with a rifle and a clicker that made a cricket sound, Wolk shot at anyone who didn’t respond to his cricket call in kind.
After the command post was established, Wolk found a vantage point and watched the invasion.During World War II, Jewish participation in the military was greater than that of the general population. Yet Jewish veterans, who, like Wolk, served courageously, continue to fight an uphill battle against the unfounded anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews haven’t served their country.
In reality, Jewish involvement in the American military dates back to 1654, when Asser Levy, one of the original 23 Jewish settlers, demanded the right to stand guard at the stockade in New Amsterdam. Jews have served in every American war, from the American Revolution to the Persian Gulf War, and thousands have received combat medals.
At the dawn of the 21st century, thankfully, conditions for Jews in the military have improved. With a zero-tolerance stance for religious or racial discrimination, Jewish military personnel can finally focus on the task of being all that they can be without fear of being targets of hate.
“There’s a lot of rules and regulations,” says Paul Kahn, commander of Jewish War Veterans Post 603. “Anti-Semitism is not as bad as it was in World War II and the Korean War.”
Still, the memories of anti-Semitism during wartime run deep, especially for those who served on the front.Wolk says that his commander, a West Point man called away from a successful law practice, was anti-Semitic and specifically picked him for the Normandy invasion.
“I said, ‘Look, lieutenant, no stripes. Get a guy with stripes,'” says Wolk, who was still a private first class despite participation in three previous invasions: North Africa, Sicily and Italy. “He said, ‘You’re the best man for the job. Plus, if we get back we’ll both get stripes.’ Sure: he became a captain, and I became a corporal.”
During the Korean War, Martin Zelcer, now 73, also had an anti-Semitic experience while serving on the front.
A Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor who had lost his parents and three brothers, Zelcer had been in the United States barely a year when he was drafted.
“I was disappointed that they didn’t give me a chance to get to know the country,” he says.
Zelcer had the right to refuse induction, but his citizenship would have been jeopardized. Attached to the Army’s 24th Division, 5th Regimental Combat Team, Zelcer says that going to war on the heels of surviving the Holocaust “was not pleasant. It was out of the frying pan and into the fire.”
“I was used to hardships and suffering,” he says. “So I rolled with the punches. The American kids had a harder time than I had. They were spoon-fed, and I had gone through so much.”
While serving on the front, a Hawaiian staff sergeant took a strong dislike to Zelcer. “If he could have drowned me in a teaspoon of water, he would have,” says Zelcer. “He knew I was Jewish.”
Zelcer mentioned the situation to the company commander, who had taken an interest in his survivor past, and from then on the sergeant steered clear of him.
Vidal Cohen, 31, says that racial and religious discrimination aren’t tolerated in today’s Marine Corps. “We had one racial incident in my unit, and there was some pretty stiff punishment for the people involved.”
Cohen, an L.A. native who joined the Marine Corps out of high school, was one of many in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines who didn’t think they were actually being shipped off to fight in the Persian Gulf War.
“Nobody really believed it until we got on the airplane,” says Cohen. “When they popped the hatch and there was Saudi Arabia, it was like, ‘Uh-oh.'”
Cohen, whose unit was responsible for retaking Kuwait City and occupying the Kuwait International Airport, thought his being Jewish in an Arab country might be a problem. The military did too. But the locals turned out to be more offended by servicewomen in T-shirts than by Members of the Tribe.
Cohen, who now works in the entertainment industry, says he became more observant as a result of participating in the Persian Gulf War. “Going to war makes you reflect,” he says.
While veterans are pleased that anti-Semitism in the military is increasingly becoming a nonissue, they would like to see a return to a time when veterans were honored for their sacrifices, especially within the Jewish community.
Kahn says that outside of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel’s annual dinner, he knows of no other synagogues that go out of their way on Veterans Day to honor those who served.
“Ever since the Vietnam War, veterans are no longer deemed as important to America’s past,” says Kahn. “It would be nice if the various synagogues would be more appreciative of the Jewish war veterans.”