The convergence of Memorial Day and Father’s Day has got us thinking that the veterans we know best are older guys — our fathers, fathers-in-law, and Uncle Herman. An Army paratrooper, Herman jumped out of a plane and landed in Germany, but we know him as the Zayde who impeccably arranged fish trays for Sunday breakfast. It’s hard to reconcile the stories of foxholes and freezing weather in Korea with the suburban dads we know and love.
Joyce’s dad, Irvin Kirschner (nicknamed Whitey), was inducted into the Army in December 1942 after one year of college. He was 19. He was originally set to be a radio operator and tail gunner on a military aircraft, although he had never been on an airplane. In fact, his farthest trip ever had been to visit an uncle on New York’s Lower East Side. Happily, he was transferred to 114thSignal Radio Intelligence Company.
His job was to intercept German military radio traffic. His company set up their radio receivers 10 miles from the front, which moved from Northern France to the Ardennes to just outside of the Czechoslovakian border. Manholes were dug in the ground, and when there was danger, Whitey recalled getting in, scrunching down and fastening the cover so a tank could roll over it. He also remembered crawling on his elbows while machine guns fired over his head.
He would turn all messages over to the cryptographic department for decoding. Whitey and his unit never knew the significance of the messages they intercepted until one day General Patton and his posse showed up and congratulated the men on a job well done.
After the war, Whitey became a podiatrist. Years later, when he was making a house call at a retirement home, he was attracted to a picture on his patient’s dresser: It showed a man in uniform standing on the deck of an army transport ship. It was the same ship that had brought Whitey home from Europe at the war’s end; the man whose bunions he was treating had been the ship’s captain.
Ellen’s father-in-law, Samuel Scolnic, is a rabbi. In 1950, he was newly married and finishing up his studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, when the Korean War broke out. The Army called the school looking for chaplains. It was only five years after the horrors of the Holocaust and Sam, who had been in rabbinical school during World War II, felt a great responsibility to serve his country. He immediately signed up.
When Sam, 26, shipped off to Korea, Judy, just 21, went to live in Japan so she could see her husband when he was on leave. She lived in an apartment all by herself and taught English to Japanese children. Even though her Japanese was limited to “thank you,” “please,” “left” and “right,” in those pre-internet days she was able to ship home a complete set of Japanese Noritake fine china. Luckily, Sam had a very nice commanding officer who knew that his new wife was not too far away. The officer would ask him questions like: “Don’t you have to take this lulav to Tokyo this week?” so the newlyweds could be together.
In the American army, clergy were few and far between. Rabbi Sam sometimes had to say a prayer and minister to non-Jewish soldiers; when they called for clergy it didn’t matter what religion you were. He would travel around, carting his bag of Jewish ritual items, including candles, wine and prayer books. He would conduct Shabbat services for soldiers in one location and then visit wounded soldiers in a MASH unit somewhere else.
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Memorial Day is not only an old-guys story. Conflicts have been raging for more than 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thousands of Americans have been serving their country on the other side of the world. With Memorial Day approaching, we remember and appreciate them all.
When we’re eating barbecued chicken at the shore this weekend, we’ll think of Whitey and Sam and Herman, who had to eat K-Rations. And when we talk to our twenty-something sons, who are pursuing their career goals in the United States, we’ll think of their peers who are fighting overseas for our freedom today.