Looking back at war on Memorial Day

In the name of the president of the French Republic, Consul General of France in Los Angeles Christophe Lemoine inducted me on March 9 into his country’s Legion of Honor, a distinction established by Napoleon in 1802.
May 26, 2016
Tom Tugend, center, holding his City Council proclomation at the Legion of Honor induction on March 9. Second row, from left: daughter Orlee Raymond; wife Rachel Tugend; grandson Zachary Austgen; granddaughter Maya Raymond; daughter Ronit Austgen. Third row: French Consul General Christophe Lemoine. Photo by Astrid Le Moine

In the name of the president of the French Republic, Consul General of France in Los Angeles Christophe Lemoine inducted me on March 9 into his country’s Legion of Honor, a distinction established by Napoleon in 1802. As a result of this, I now hold — with some pride and considerable disbelief — the rank of Chevalier, or Knight.

The honor harks back more than seven decades, to World War II, when my unit, the U.S. 254th Infantry Regiment, fought alongside the First French Army in the liberation of France. We’d fought through the sub-zero winter of 1944-45, reputedly the coldest in Europe in 50 years, not a pleasant season to spend in icy foxholes atop the Vosges Mountains.

As Lemoine pinned the medal onto my lapel, however, I found myself flashing back some 77 years to a rather different scene.

The date was April 20, and my mother, my sister and I — a 13-year-old in shorts — were leaving Berlin, the city where my ancestors had lived for generations. It was then, as now, the capital of Germany, the nation in whose army my father, a prominent pediatrician, had served for four years in World War I.

On the taxi ride to Tempelhof Airport, we looked out at the streets festooned with gigantic swastika banners marking not our departure, but Adolf Hitler’s 50th birthday.

I had observed my bar mitzvah the previous year in one of the city’s synagogues — a sanctuary that, only a few months afterward, was torched during Kristallnacht.

cov-wwiiSix years after our departure, I returned to Germany, in January 1945, this time wearing the uniform of an American soldier. My unit entered the country of my birth unceremoniously by breaking through its defensive Siegfried Line from southeastern France after the bitter battle against elite Wehrmacht units at the Colmar pocket in Alsace.

Curiously, I was not even an American citizen when I enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 1944. On the contrary, the U.S. government classified me as an “enemy alien” because I had been born in Germany. But unlike those of ethnic Japanese descent, including U.S.-born citizens living mainly on the West Coast, my family was not interned for our alien status. We were, however, required to have a permit to travel any long distances within the country and had to give up our shortwave radio. (I remember baby-sitting for some neighbors and sneaking in some overseas broadcasts.)

I spent my three months of intensive basic training at Camp Blanding, in northern Florida, which offered another type of education. My barrack mates were mostly rural Southerners, and for the first time I came face to face with unvarnished segregation and racism in America.

Most of the guys had never met a Jew, but, like most Americans of that time, had suckled more or less overt anti-Semitism in their mothers’ milk. One day, a fellow GI asked me about my religion, and when I answered “Jewish,” he refused to believe me, assuming that a Jew must have horns on his head and always talk about money.

Finally, when I convinced him, he paid me his highest compliment. “Tom,” he said, “you’re a white Jew.”

Just before embarking for overseas, an officer addressed our company and lifted everyone’s spirits by saying, “Take a look at the man on your left, and then on your right. One of you isn’t coming back.”

About a month before the war’s end, someone figured out that I spoke German fluently, and I was transferred — first to regimental headquarters and then to the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps.

That assignment compensated for the bitter winter. We lived in a “liberated” mansion overlooking the Neckar River and wanted for nothing, with eager Germans bowing and scraping. Heady stuff for a 19-year-old only a few years past refugee status.

There was a myth abroad at the time that retreating Germans would leave behind in each village a die-hard Nazi to organize sabotage and resistance to the occupation. My job was to go from village to village and find that elusive Nazi.

In every town, whoever I interrogated, the story was the same: “I was never a National Socialist, indeed in my heart I was against the Hitler regime. But my neighbor, my brother, my cousin, my boss, they were all Nazis, and I’ll show you where they live.”

Finally, in one village in southwest Germany, I was told of an 80-year-old blind poet who was an ardent admirer of Adolf Hitler. So I went to the man’s home and told him of the accusations by his friends and neighbors. Yes, said the man, “I have always been a loyal follower of the Fuhrer, and I will love him until I die.”

I returned to my headquarters and told my commanding officer, “I believe I deserve a decoration. I have found the only Nazi in all of Germany.”

In July 1945, two months after the war in Europe came to a close, the idyll ended, and I was shipped back to the States to prepare for the invasion of Japan. At the time, experts estimated 1 million GIs might die on Japan’s beaches, and I had no burning desire to be part of that grisly statistic.

So, with chutzpah and aided by lax security unimaginable now, I, about the lowest of enlisted men, went to the Pentagon and asked to speak to the general in charge of manpower. I was admitted and told by the fatherly general how he envied my chance to fight on the front lines. In turn, I told him that I could be more valuable to the country as an interrogator in Germany than a casualty on the beaches of Japan.

He said he would look into the matter (“Fat chance,” I thought). Then, the next month, Japan surrendered. I was sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where I was taught typing — on a manual typewriter, of course — so I could fill out the discharge papers of returning soldiers.
I figured I would remain in that position until my own discharge, but one day, the first sergeant ordered me to report to his office. I did so and was told that by orders direct from the Pentagon, I was to leave the next day for Governors Island in New York Harbor. “What for?” I asked. “Don’t know,” the sergeant replied. “It’s top secret.”

On Governors Island, I was assigned a bunk and told to report the next day to an office on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. Again, information about the assignment was classified as secret.

At the Wall Street office, the story was the same. My orders were to report to the office every morning, but I could spend the rest of the day as I wanted, including checking in occasionally at the USO for a free front-row ticket to the best Broadway show that evening.

After about two weeks, the good times ended, and I got orders to travel to Fort Eustis in Virginia, near Washington, D.C.

There, the Pentagon, which, its critics charged, knew how to win a war but not the peace, had organized a six-day course to “re-educate” German prisoners of war and, upon graduation, send them to serve as small-town mayors and middle-rank civil servants in the American zone of occupied Germany.

cov-medalThe POWs tagged the course as the “Six-Day Bicycle Race,” and the idea was that the men chosen would be nonpolitical, or even “political unreliables,” who the German army had consigned to a separate, closely watched division.

Though well meant, the concept quickly ran into trouble. During the war, American authorities had left the running of the POW camps (primarily in Southern states) to the inmates, which resulted in the most fanatical Nazis, many veterans of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, taking de facto control.

When those Nazis spotted a political “unreliable,” they frequently threw him out the window or killed him, then made it look like an accident.

So when it came to the selection of participants in the re-education course, there were frequent confrontations, pitting two POWs against each other, one maintaining that another was a vicious Nazi who had murdered his friends, while the accused ardently denied the allegations.

It was now our job as German-speaking GIs to listen to the conflicting versions and decide who was telling the truth. Hoping to find out more, one evening I put on a prisoner’s uniform and, with the help of a “good” German prisoner, was introduced as a newly arrived POW. I learned no secrets, and rather suspect that my “friend” had tipped off his comrades as to whom I really was.

Looking back, it seems strange that I felt no burning hatred for the Germans, beyond that of any soldier toward the other guy shooting at him.

Living in cosmopolitan Berlin was easier for Jews than living in smaller towns. I’d gotten nearly all my education in a Jewish environment, and, as a youngster, my obsession with my soccer team obliterated even the experience of Kristallnacht.

I was too self-absorbed to grasp the agony of my parents, especially of my father, and, perhaps most important, the horror of the Holocaust had not yet sunk in.

After I turned down offers to work as an interpreter for what turned out to be the Nuremberg war crime trials, the U.S. Army and I parted ways, with no regrets on either side, in May 1946.

Thanks to the GI Bill, I enrolled at UCLA — no tuition, no parking fees, but few girls — and then went on to UC Berkeley.

Later, in the summer of 1948, I would become a soldier again, when I traveled clandestinely to the nascent State of Israel to serve as squad leader in an anti-tank unit during the War of Independence.

My motives for that move were, as always, mixed — restlessness, my youthful Zionist indoctrination and a sense that because a new Jewish state arose only every 2,000 years or so, I didn’t want to miss it, as I probably wouldn’t be around for the next time. Also, by this time, some Holocaust survivors were beginning to talk about their experiences, lending weight to the need for a Jewish state. (I have written about this experience in a previous article for the Journal.)

Then, in my third war in six years, I was recalled by the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the Korean conflict in 1950, but this time I lucked out. Instead of being shipped out immediately as cannon fodder at the Chosin Reservoir, my newly minted bachelor’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley got me a cushy assignment as editor of an Army newspaper based at the Presidio in San Francisco.

After all that, I finally settled down and got a job at the San Francisco Chronicle, moving from copy boy to writing obits and shipping news to the police and court beats. I went to Spain for a year, got married, had three daughters, and I’ve reflected only rarely on my wartime years.

About a year ago, I received an email from a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who had heard, again by random chance, about my wartime service in France.

He told me that the French government had a program to honor and thank U.S. soldiers who had taken part in the liberation of France from the Nazis. Would I be interested in filling out some forms to get the ball rolling?

The forms slowly wended their way from the French consulate in Los Angeles to the embassy in Washington and then to some special presidential committees in Paris.

Finally, I joined nine other grizzled vets at an American Legion post in Pacific Palisades, and, when my turn came, received a very impressive medal and a kiss on the cheek by the consul general, followed by the handout of three handsome scrolls signed respectively by the mayor of Los Angeles, the city council and the Board of Supervisors.

When it was over, my 11-year-old grandson, Zach, expressed his disappointment that my knightship didn’t come with a horse, lance and armor, and went on to ask, “Saba, are you a hero?”

Having thought and written a good deal about the nature of heroism, I quickly answered Zach’s question with a “no.”

Actually, I consider the word “hero” to be perhaps the most misused — and overused — four-letter word in the English vocabulary (well, maybe not the most overused four-letter word).

I consider it ludicrous that every man and woman in uniform, even if the majority of them have never heard a shot fired in anger, are reflexively labeled “heroes.” More obscenely, I keep getting letters from certain fundraising organizations offering me the designation of “hero” if I send $50 to this or that cause.

In general, I’ve found that Israelis are much less given to phony hero-worship or bragging than most Americans. I had known my Jerusalem-born wife, Rachel, for a considerable time before she casually mentioned that she had joined the underground Haganah during the British rule of Palestine — when she was 15.

Most everything in war is a matter of random chance, from the initial assignment to a given branch or company, to who will live and who will die. In my own case, while I happened to be assigned to an infantry regiment that distinguished itself in battle, I was not called upon to perform any particular Hollywood heroics.

I felt more akin to Kilroy — whose name and outsized nose was scrawled on just about every shattered wall and building in the European war zone, with the legend “Kilroy Was Here.”

That’s really the point — to be there when it counts, to do your job, to become a small part of history.

So who are the true heroes? They are those who stand up, day by day, for their beliefs, be it in the workplace or against the convictions of their societies.

By that measure, I would put sincere conscientious objectors to wartime service in that category, such as the Quakers, who enabled my own family to leave Germany for the United States when few other non-Jews were willing to help.

In my lifetime, however, the ones I believe who most deserve to be called heroes have been the righteous gentiles who shielded hunted Jews — complete strangers — during the Nazi era, at the risk of their and their families’ lives.

Back around 1990, I covered a conference at Princeton University attended by leading Holocaust scholars whose assignment it was to determine what had made such rescuers tick. In other words, what were the special characteristics and circumstances that made one average citizen shelter a hunted Jew, while most, under the same circumstances, turned a deaf ear to the pleas, or turned the Jews over to the authorities.

In every town, whoever I interrogated, the story was the same: “I was never a National Socialist, indeed in my heart I was against the Hitler regime. But my neighbor, my brother, my cousin, my boss, they were all Nazis, and I’ll show you where they live.”

Attending the Princeton conference was a middle-aged Polish woman who had worked as housekeeper in a large Polish villa requisitioned by a German major. In Poland, the penalty for helping Jews was the most draconian in all of Nazi-occupied Europe, namely death.

In the cellar of this villa, she hid half a dozen Jews. Day after day, she found ways to smuggle strictly rationed food to the Jews, removed their excrement, found medicine for them when they were sick, and so forth.

One elderly Jewish woman, near death, told her protector she was worried. “How will you get rid of my body after I die?” she asked. “I might give you all away.”

So after the woman’s death, the remaining Jews hacked the dead woman’s body into little pieces, and the housekeeper smuggled out the parts and buried them.

Would you be able to do the same, not one time, but day after day for years? For me, and I suspect for 99.99 percent of the human race, the answer is a categorical no.

After three days of discussion, the participating scholars were unable to define uniform characteristics for those rescuers. They had been laborers and professors, devout Christians and atheists, people from happy and contentious homes, and so forth. There were even a few anti-Semites who told underground rescuers, “I can’t stand the Jews, but if you ask me to hide a Jewish child, I will do it.”

And so, in best academic fashion, the gathered experts came to a tentative conclusion — these rescuers viewed the persecuted not as members of a certain race, religion or nationality, but simply as human beings who needed help.

Despite my disclaimers, I admit to having enough of an ego to enjoy the praise and respect my French medal brings me. But I wear it in the full knowledge that there are levels of true bravery, true moral courage, that I will never reach.

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