May 8th marks the 78th anniversary of the end of the war against Nazi Germany. As V-E Day approaches, it’s worth remembering how the Jewish immigrant experience of the early 20th century gave rise to a new generation of heroes.
Jews emigrated from Europe in pursuit of the American dream. Years later, many of their sons, with a copy of Holy Scriptures for Jewish Soldiers and Sailors tucked into their backpacks, made the reverse voyage, returning to the continent to fight in World War II to ensure the preservation of that dream.
One such soldier was my father, Allan Galfund. His journey, which took him from Brooklyn to combat in the Battle of the Bulge and the advance into Germany, had its origins in a Russian shtetl. My grandfather, aware that Cossacks, pogroms and rampant antisemitism did not bode well for the future, left for America. Two years later, he had saved enough money to send for his wife and infant son, who joined him in Brooklyn.
They had six more children, four girls and two more boys, Allan being the sixth of seven. His colorful childhood included helping my grandfather at his Turkish bath in Coney Island; running errands for his small Prohibition-era bootlegging operation; delivering betting slips for numbers rackets; and encountering Jewish gangsters such as Louis Buchalte, an early leader of Murder, Inc.
He went into the Army in 1943, beginning a military career spanning 24 years and three wars.
Although assigned to the infantry, Allan dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot. After passing physical and written tests, he was accepted into the U.S. Army Air Forces. Meanwhile, planning for D-Day was underway, and decision-makers decided they needed more GIs than pilots.
Consequently, Allan was sent back to the infantry, but, in a wartime vagary of fate, he was assigned to a different company. A few months later, his original company boarded the Leopoldville for Cherbourg, France. The ship was sunk by a German U-boat, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of soldiers. In sharing this recollection with me, he mused, “You never know what’s going to happen. If I hadn’t applied for flight school, I would have been on that ship.”
Instead, Allan arrived in France in December 1944. His division was sent to the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, just in time for the massive German surprise attack known as the Battle of the Bulge. Lasting from December 16 – January 28 and fought in brutal winter conditions, it was a catastrophic defeat for German forces, resulting in over 120, 000 casualties.
Now a platoon sergeant commanding a heavy machine gun unit, Allan was awarded the Bronze Star during the fierce battle for destroying a German machine gun position that had pinned down American forces. The accompanying inscription praised his “meritorious achievement in ground operations against an armed enemy.”
Marching into Germany, his division helped seize the Schwammenauel Dam before German troops could blow it, flooding the Roer River and blocking the Allied advance. For their role in securing the dam, Allan’s entire division received the Presidential Unit Citation.
Moving deeper into Germany, their next victory came at the Battle of Remagen, capturing the only intact bridge crossing the Rhine River, even as two Messerschmitts swooped in to stop them. The achievement gave the Allies a direct path to Germany’s industrial heartland.
As it advanced, his division encountered columns of German troops seeking to surrender. The commander of one group, an oberst (colonel) asked Allan to point him towards an officer of similar rank, deeming it incorrect to surrender to a sergeant. Allan pointed his weapon at the oberst and said, “How about if I shoot you in the head instead?” Thus ended the protocol discussion.
Wounded in the final weeks of WWII, he received the first of two Purple Hearts, the second being awarded a few years later in Korea. Returning to action as a lieutenant, he remained in occupied Germany two more years, with duties that included commanding a POW camp.
Decades later, after serving not only in World War II but also Korea and Vietnam, and retiring as a lieutenant colonel, Allan attended the March 29, 2004 dedication of the WWII Memorial in Washington, DC. As he walked the grand memorial wearing an Army cap and uniform, Allan was frequently stopped by well-wishers expressing appreciation, shaking hands, and posing for photos with him.
Just over five years later, Allan went, as he used to refer to it, to “the big PX in the sky.” He was buried with full military honors in the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery. If he was looking down from above, he would have been pleased to see his gravesite was within view of the U.S. Air Force Memorial, a reminder of his first aspirations when he joined the fight against Nazi Germany.
Summing it all up, he once told me, “I’m very grateful for surviving three wars. Obviously, luck played a role. Ultimately, I persevered and I’m very proud of what I did for my country.”
And this soldier’s story of valor and courage, like that of so many other Jewish GIs of my father’s generation, began with a fateful decision to set sail from Europe in pursuit of the promise and potential of the American dream.
(All photos courtesy of the family of Allan Galfund)