Monday, May 30, 2016

Sam Berman, U.S. Army Air Force, returns to Corsica

My mother's ninety-two year old brother,Sam Berman, served in the United States Army Air Force during World War II. He participated in seventy bombing missions from a base in in Corsica. Forty-five years later he returned to Corsica. This is his story. 
Vivian (my wife) and I have friends in France whom we have known for years and with whom we have made many trips. Roger Blachon, a cartoonist, had been a rugby player. Rugby players remain good friends. We met many of these wonderful, funny guys in many places throughout France.  One of them, François Grimaldi, was actually Corsican. I told him that I always wanted to go back to Corsica where I had been stationed during WWII. So he and his wife, Eliane, invited us to be their guests in May, 1989. Their house turned out to be in the mountains overlooking an area that had once been a U.S. airfield where I had been stationed. It turned out to be a very nostalgic trip.
Corsica was important to me because In December, 1942 I volunteered for the Army Air Force hoping to become a pilot. I volunteered because I knew if I were drafted I would be in the infantry, but if I volunteered I could choose the Air Force.

Unfortunately I did not pass the eye exam to become a pilot. So I was sent to radio and gunnery school instead. In July, 1944 I was sent overseas and eventually to Corsica where I flew in combat missions in B25 bombers over southern France and northern Italy. My unit was in the 12th Air Force and the 321st bombardment group.
The Army Air Force was segregated. We had Hispanic kids, but no black kids.
On the first mission I flew we had 10 planes in formation. When we spotted an enemy plane, German, all of us began firing because everyone wanted to kill. Because we were in formation, many of us were shooting though our own formation. We were more likely to hit our own planes than the enemy, particularly because the German plane was to far away.  I don’t know if any of us hit US planes, but that happened frequently during the war.
Another incident: The first time I went up and saw the anti-aircraft I thought, “Gee they really want to kill me.” We had gone up and I saw a military base below.  I grabbed my machine gun and aimed it at the base. Then I called the pilot through the intercom. I asked.” should I strafe the base?” He said, “For Christ sakes no. That’s where we live. It’s our home base. “
In September, 1944 a shortage of bombardiers developed. Since the B25 air crew required that the bombardier also be trained as a navigator I was given quick training as bombardier and navigator.
On November 10, 1944 I was assigned to a crew that was flying to knock out a railroad station in Ostiglia, Italy in the Po Valley. We were attacked by a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft weapons. Our plane was severely damaged. We lost one of our two engines and several of our crew members were injured.  We dropped our bombs. Our plane was diving toward the ground. I decided it was time to get out. I went to the hatch with a parachute about to jump when I realized that no one else was bailing out. I looked at the pilot’s compartment and saw that both pilots were slumped over. A fragment of an anti-aircraft bomb had shattered their Plexiglas window. They were both stunned. Their faces had so many cuts it almost seemed that they had been skinned. I shook the co-pilot and pointed showing him that we were diving toward the ground. He smiled, tested the controls and the plane responded. He shook the pilot. He also appeared uninjured except for the many cuts on his face.
I was asked to fix a course out of Italy that avoided further anti-aircraft weapons. I looked at my charts which showed known anti-aircraft installations and picked a course that I hoped was ok. Luckily it was good enough to get us back over the coast and headed to Corsica. 
Shortly after we returned safely, a formation was called. We all turned out. The General was there. He went down the line. When he got to me he awarded me the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving the men on my plane.  The General asked me, “how old are you son?” I suppose because I looked very young.  At the time I didn’t realize that this was a major award. I don’t remember talking about it with the other guys either.
I ended up flying 70 missions. The maximum was supposed to be 50. But they were short of replacement men so they asked us if we would agree to continue flying. I agreed because I had volunteered because I believed the war was a fight to save the Jews in Europe and defeat Hitler.  I remember a Woody Guthrie song from that period: “Round and round Hitler’s grave, round and round we go. Gonna lay that poor man down, won’t get up no more.”
In 1989 Corsica was much the same as I remembered it. But there was no sign of our airfields that had been restored to farmland. We asked a farmer if he knew exactly where our airfield had been. He pointed out the location that had been the airfield.
He said that he was a young child at the time of the war; that he and others counted our planes going and coming back to be assured that we all survived each flight. I was moved by that because we thought the locals were indifferent and only tolerated our presence there. After all, they didn’t need us to liberate them; they had driven the German’s out before we got there. Even now I relive the time there when I write about it.
Other members of the family who served were my brother Jack who was in the Merchant Marines, Arnold in the infantry who was wounded in Okinawa, Sam Rosen in the Navy and Irwin Corey who was in the Entertainment Division of the army but got kicked out, section 8. The only one wounded was my younger brother, Arnold.

Monday, May 23, 2016

R.I.P. Pinius Bergmann (1925-2016)

Five years ago I traveled to Copenhagen to meet my mother’s cousin, Pinius Bergmann, his wife, their children, and my Danish relatives.  

Late one afternoon Pinius said, “Come with me, “I have something I want to show you.”

Glorie and I got in his car.  He drove us to the picturesque, fishing village of Gilleleje where homes with thatched roofs sat juxtaposed to more contemporary abodes.

We pulled up to the village’s museum, a small, modern building. Behind it was an old, worn-out fishing boat, the sea and a 20 foot high statue of Gideon blowing his horn, a gift thanking the people of Gilleleje for their WWII heroism.

It was nearing twilight and so quiet you could hear the waves lapping the shore.   “See that boat,” Pinius began. “I have a story I want to share with you.”

“During the war the Nazis occupied Denmark. But, we were a neutral country so we (jewish people) were not being arrested as we were in other European countries.  Every day the Danish King would ride his horse through Copenhagen to assure us that we were safe.”  

All of that changed in early October, 1943, when the Germans began rounding up Denmark’s Jews for deportation to concentration camps and certain death. 

Pinius continued, “One night my father (Hirsch Barosin) came to me and said,’ it’s time to leave.’  He told me go to the harbor where his friend, a fisherman, had a boat. He didn’t say why. But I did as I was told.  I put on my best clothes because you get dressed up to travel. Little did I know what lay store for me.”

“When I got to the harbor, I was told me to get in the boat, a vessel just like the one you are looking at.  He motioned to a hole. It was covered by a hatch, leading into the boat’s hull. The boat was filled with fish guts.  We climbed down into the fish guts which rose around our necks. The hatch closed behind us.”

“It smelled so bad”, Pinius said tapping his nose.  “I can still smell it today.”
Pinius’ father hoped that the rancid smell of fish guts would deter the German soldiers from searching for the hideaways.  And the German soldiers came. But when they opened the hatch the smell was so bad, so putrid, they slammed it down, gagging. assuming no human being could possibly stand the stench. . .   

The little boat with its lights turned off crossed the channel carrying Pinius and three others to freedom. “I took three baths a day for a year to get rid of that smell,” he told us. 

Six percent of Danish Jews were captured. But with the assistance of Denmark’s citizens, 7,200 Jews, including my uncle Pinius and his future wife Gyda, made it safely to Sweden along with 700 non-Jewish relatives.

Gilleleje’s five hundred households cared for hundreds of refugees, hiding them in a local church attic before ferrying them across to Höganäs, Sweden. Pinius reunited with his family in Sweden. Following the war he returned to Copenhagen. Later he married Gyda with whom he had three daughters.  

Pinius died last month in Copenhagen, Denmark, his adopted city, the city whose people had embraced and saved him and thousands of its Jewish residents during the Holocaust.