For a long time and even today the University of Nebraska at Omaha was best known for its large Bootstrapper program for military personnel. The school is vastly different than it was when the program launched during the Cold War but it’s impact remains. The following story from a half-dozen years ago or more is about an original play written by the Omaha husband and wife team of Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill that takes a nostalgic look at the program’s beginnings, and those beginnings involved two strong leaders, then-Omaha University president Milo Bail and Strategic Air Command head and hawk of hawks Gen. Curtis LeMay, who some suggest was the inspiration for the character of Gen. Buck Turgidson that George C. Scott plays in Dr. Strangelove. A Midwest academic and a military reactionary may seem to have made strange bedfellows but then again it’s not hard to imagine that two powerful middle-aged white men should come together in right wing solidarity “for the boys.”
A Homage to the Bootstrapper by the Grande Olde Players
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The Grande Olde Players Theatre pays homage to Omaha’s deep military ties with the new play Bootstrappers Christmas, now through December 17. Written by the theater’s Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill, the nostalgic 1954-set piece tells a fictional story amid the trappings of history. The relationship between then-Omaha University and the former Strategic Air Command in Bellevue, Neb. is at the center of this holiday-themed dramadie.
Early in his stint as commander of the newly formed SAC, Gen. Curtis LeMay, architect of U.S. bombing campaigns in Europe and the Pacific and overseer of the Berlin Airlift, identified the need for a more professional corps of college-educated personnel. After World War II the U.S. Air Force had a glut of officers. Many had some college prior to the service and once “on the line” accrued credits at schools near where they were based, but few ever got their degrees.
LeMay, an American hero whose reactionary, right-wing views later tarnished his reputation, broached Operation Bootstrap with his egg-head friend, the late Milo Bail, then-president of what’s now the University of Nebraska at Omaha. By helping commissioned officers finish their degrees, the program would aid their climb up the ladder as well as better prepare them for post-military life. The idea of men and women “lifting themselves by their bootstraps” gave the program its name.
Bail and fellow UNO officials recognized the school was well-poised to serve military folks by virtue of a large adult education unit and Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) program that allowed nontraditional students to individualized studies in subjects of interest or deficiency. “Omaha University was really the first school in the country to offer” the BGS, said William Utley, former UNO College of Continuing Studies dean. More appealing still, he said, were the “earned life credits” granted officers for experience gained in the field, which cut by a semester their degree track.
The school’s extensive night courses offered yet more flexibility. Besides the cache of this partnership, school officials craved the extra money derived from the higher non-resident tuition bootstrappers paid. Between Offutt’s close proximity and Omaha’s central location, the military could feed students there not just from Offutt but from bases all over the U.S. and the world.
That’s what happened, too, as an influx of mostly Air Force but also Army soldiers and Marines made UNO the nation’s largest on-campus education provider for bootstrappers. Officers rotated in on active duty or TDY. Utley, director of the UNO program, said at its 1960s peak 1,200 to 1,500 “boots” attended school there at any one time. “There were any number of commencement exercises when over half of the graduating class was bootstrappers,” he said.
Alumni officials estimate 13,000-plus active duty military personnel attended UNO from the early ‘50s to the ‘80s.
Utley said UNO prided itself on being responsive to officers’ needs and interests by “developing” a system to stay in “constant communication” with them, no matter where their assignments took them. He said both active and prospective students received “counseling and advising” services to facilitate their education.
The presence of so many boots changed the dynamic of the school, especially in those early years, when it was a small, financially strapped municipal university, not yet a part of the University of Nebraska system.
“The Bootstrap Program was a major factor for several years in keeping the university afloat with the revenue” it generated, Utley said. “It was a very important element in the survival of the university during that period, when the university was really hard up.”
UNO Alumni Association President Emeritus Jim Leslie said bootstrappers were “a tremendous boon” to UNO’s finances. For a while, he said, UNO enjoyed a near monopoly in serving the bootstrap population. “It was a big deal,” he said. “For a while we claimed we were second only to West Point in the number of general officers that had graduated from our institution.” Some were stars like Johnnie Wilson, a four-star general. Other schools eventually cut in on the action.
Utley said the infusion of so many “highly motivated” students changed the academic culture at UNO. “They were a very serious group. Very good students,” said Leslie, who had boots as classmates there in the early ‘60s. “They were here to gain an education and most of them were older and more mature. Professors loved those guys because they asked the best questions.”
“A lot of students viewed them as ‘curve busters’ who made it harder to compete in the classroom or set a higher standard in the classroom. And no faculty member is going to complain about that,” said retired UNO professor Warren Francke, who had his share of boots. “And its true in general they were solid students because they were all business. They were there to do well in the classes.
“I thought they were certainly an asset. There were times when probably the undergraduates had a legitimate complaint that maybe they dominated things so much. But mostly,” Francke said, the boots “added a dimension to what” otherwise “was a commuter campus without a lot of people who had been all over the world…I thought their addition was sort of a valuable thing to have.”
While Bootstrappers Christmas is a slight, sentimental romp filled with a mix of ‘50s-era rock and traditional Christmas music, writer-director Mark Manhart does anchor the story in the real symbiosis between UNO and Offutt. The flamboyant Curtis LeMay and the non-nonsense Milo Bail are characters. The plot revolves around a boot who befriends a Cold War widow coed and other students in remodeling the campus Snack Shack in time for putting on a holiday show. The fun is tinged with the sadness of separation and loss, but hope prevails.
The play’s also about making new starts, something the bootstrap program epitomized. Ex-Air Force pilot Jim Hughes spoke for many boots when he said, “The university was the first milestone in my growth with the Air Force and I attribute any success and all successes I’ve had to that little development. I owe a debt of gratitude to the university…It introduced me to education oriented to my needs.”
The Iowa native and current Magnolia, Ark. resident said his general education degree catapulted him “up the ladder.” In 1973 he retired from active duty as a decorated colonel. He earned the Bronze Star, four distinguished Flying Crosses and five Airmedals. He received two Purple Hearts for injuries suffered as a POW.
NOTE: Operation Bootstrap supplanted Operation Midnight Oil. In 2002 the Air Force replaced the Bootstrap Program with the Educational Leave of Absence Program (ELA), although many in the service still refer to it by its old name.
Very rarely do I write anything that even edges up on hard news. This story from 2000 is one of those exceptions. It had to do with complaints filed against the Omaha VA Medical Center and the watchdog role local veteran activists assumed in agitating for change and monitoring government responses and remedies. The Department of Veterans Affairs has a spotty even inglorious and sometimes infamous track record in attending to the medical needs of servicemen, past and present, and horror stories abound of poor conditions and treament experiences in veterans’ facilities. Of course, much good is done as well. But given that problems persisted before the last solid decade or more of returning combat vets requiring care the problems have, from I gather, only mutiplied in the crush of patients overwhelming the system.
From the Archives: Veterans Cast Watchful Eye on the VA Medical Center
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
A Call for Action
Last September saw the release of a long-awaited federal report stemming from an investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General into complaints about the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) program at the Omaha VA Medical Center. The investigation followed requests by Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to examine complaints made to them, many in impassioned letters and phone calls, by veterans.
After the October 1999 investigation, nearly a year passed before the inspector general issued a 50-page report substantiating such concerns as insufficient staff, poorly coordinated services, long scheduling delays, inadequately administered drugs and a weak patient advocacy program. Other beefs, including allegations about negligent care, were not supported. Kerrey characterized the findings as showing “there are serious problems…inside an organization that is for the most part dedicated to high quality care.” The report made 16 recommendations for addressing the problems. Concurrent with the PTSD review the entire medical center was the subject of a routine comprehensive inspector general assessment, the timing of which may have been pushed up given the heat coming down from Washington, and its report surfaced more concerns and remedies amid overall good health care practices. In what was described as a coincidence, the center’s director and chief medical officer retired in June.
A hospital spokeswoman said the center has already implemented several changes and is on pace to complete others by target dates. Veterans who called for the initial study are pleased with some changes but assert old problems still persist. Todd Stubbendieck, legislative assistant in Kerrey’s Washington, D.C. office, said,
“Our understanding is everything is being implemented there. We’ve heard no additional patient complaints.”
The reports, written in the cold, clinical language of bureaucratic Washington, mute the rage some veterans express at the insensitive and unresponsive manner in which they insist they’ve been treated. David Spry, vice president of the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, has become a mouthpiece and advocate for their discontent. His own experiences as a post traumatic stress disorder patient (in Lincoln), as a veterans legal custodial aide and as a past Veterans Advisory Committee member at the Omaha VA facility put him in a unique position to assess center practices and to glean feedback from the veterans community. Much of the discord has centered on a few key staff members and administrators and their perceived arrogance toward veterans. “They treated us with disrespect and that’s what a lot of the complaints are about,” Spry said. “It’s like, They’re the system, and we’re only veterans. What do we know? They thought we had no brain, no mouth, no nothing once we left their building, but we were comparing our notes about this place with other veterans groups.”
Spry turned veterans’ dissatisfaction into a cause that eventually got lawmakers and government oversight bodies to take action. For Spry, a Vietnam combat veteran, the process of getting officials to finally take seriously the red flags he and others originally raised more than three years ago has been an odyssey akin to battle. The role of whistle blower has taken its toll, too. “It hasn’t been easy. In 1997 we started to complain vigorously to VA management about this. We got nowhere. Our complaints never even got into the minutes of the meetings of the Veterans Advisory Committee. The things we were concerned about were problems we didn’t seem to be able to get corrected internally, so we went to a congressman,” he said, referring to former Rep. Jon Christensen (R-Neb.). Veterans aired grievances to Christensen and VA officials but, Spry said, little headway was made. “Then, when Christensen became a lame duck, we were kind of at a loss.”
Making the Case
That’s when, in 1998, Spry and fellow Vietnam Veterans of America service officers brought complaints, which grew in the wake of a national hospital accreditation survey, to the inspector general office, the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs and Kerrey. Spry said a year elapsed before Kerrey’s office took serious interest. Then, at the request of top Kerrey aides, Spry and his comrades were asked to gather veterans’ gripes and, once Kerrey saw the more than 100 letters of complaint, he asked the inspector general office to get involved. At the time, Kerrey said, “…this Vietnam Veterans post has made a persuasive case that something’s going on here that’s not good.” According to Spry, “This organization of ours really became quite passionate about this. We really pushed very hard. We had a lot of people looking into this and we finally got somebody to listen to us. It helped tip the scales when Sen. Kerrey came on board.”
Long before the inspector general weighed-in, the VA Medical Center followed-up its own internal program review by inviting the director of the VA system’s National Center for PTSD, Fred Gusman, to conduct an on-site assessment of the Omaha PTSD program in July 1999. Hospital spokeswoman Mary Velehradsky said, “We recognized we did have some systems problems as well as some patient care issues, and our inviting Mr. Gusman was a way to have another set of eyes look at that and to fix the problems and to make it a stronger program.”
Gusman’s findings of a “systemic problem” was confirmed by the inspector general, which included Gusman’s data in its report. He has made a follow-up visit to the hospital and, with inspector general staff, is overseeing program modifications.
By the time the inspector general took a hard look at the Omaha facility, Spry said he was persona non grata with hospital officials. “I became a little too much of an irritant and they banned me from the facility except for medical treatment for my own service-connected disabilities. But that wasn’t good enough. They took away my freedom of speech, too. I am to have no contact with anyone or anyone with me. They’re doing anything they can to shut me up.” Veteran Tom Brady, who worked with Spry to document complaints about the center, said Spry has been singled-out: “Certainly, there are consequences to exposing practices that are subject to sanctions. He’s been one of the driving forces behind a lot of things and now they treat him like he’s a dangerous person.” Velehradsky confirmed the restrictions but added, “There are reasons people can be banned from a facility and I can guarantee you there was nothing connected to the IG (inspector general) incident.” She did not specify the reasons in this case.
As unofficial watchdogs, Spry and Brady chart the center’s progress in making changes. “We’re trying to monitor what’s going on, but we’re limited in going up there. From what we can tell, they have implemented a number of things that we’re really happy about. We’ve seen improvements in scheduling, in medications and in one-on-one therapy. We’ve seen a considerable difference in staff morale. The hospital is a lot happier.” But he and Brady remain critical of some program staff they feel lack expertise in working with PTSD patients. A psychologist whom the majority of complaints was filed against remains while a popular social worker has left. The two veterans also continue to be disenchanted with what they feel is the distant voice veterans have there. “We’re still not a cooperating partner — not because we don’t want to be,” Spry said.
According to Velehradsky the center has long had in place mechanisms for veterans to speak out with management and has recently increased these feedback avenues. She said the PTSD program has been strengthened with new procedures and the addition of specialized staff. She added recent patient surveys indicate high approval ratings and that veterans not wishing to be treated in the Omaha program have the option of being seen in a Lincoln clinic.
It is perhaps inevitable disenfranchised veterans and entrenched VA Medical Center managers see things differently. Where Spry feels “it’s kind of a shame we had to go to this extent to push the bureaucracy around to get them to look at things,” Velehradsky said: “When you have an outside set of eyes look at your program and make recommendations it does make you stronger. We welcome it. It’s been very helpful and we continue to make improvements.”
While Kerrey has termed the VA episode a victory for veterans, the ever vigilant Spry remains wary and vows to carry on the fight if need be. His never-say-die attitude was formed as a Marine in Vietnam while under siege from overwhelming forces at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive in 1968. “I kind of made a commitment to myself and to the 1,500 of us who died at Khe Sanh that I don’t ever want to lose another battle again. And that’s why I’ve fought this (VA) thing. Have I been tenacious about this? I certainly have. All I want to do is make things better.”
- Suicidal veterans may not be getting help they need (pri.org)
- Disabled vets increasingly cheated by fund managers (sfgate.com)
- Inspector General Report: VA Understates Delays In Handling Veterans’ Mental Health Claims (theveteransdisabilitylawfirm.com)
- Bill proposed to change PTSD military programs (thenewstribune.com)
I love proving the enduring truth that everyone has a story, especially when it comes to older individuals. It’s all too easy to dismiss an old man like Sol Bloom if you only choose to look at his wrinkled features and his stooped posture and don’t take the time or interest to learn something about the life he’s lived. Sol’s lived an unusually full blooded life that, among other things, saw him work as a scientist, soldier, and Zionist in the independence of Palestine. He’s a wonderful racanteur and writer who related his story to me in a series of interviews he gave me at his home and through several written reminiscences he shared. My profile of Sol, who was still going strong when I wrote the piece about three years ago, appeared in the Jewish Press.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
|Sol Bloom, center, celebrates as Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, left, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, awards Rabbi Jack Bloom his doctorate.|
Sol Bloom doesn’t believe in accidents. It’s why he’s sure he was destined to make his way to Palestine as a young, idealistic Zionist 62 years ago. Inflamed with passion to help secure a Jewish state, he left America for service in the Haganah militia.
The Omaha resident is equally sure a higher power saved him from almost certain death on at least three occasions; once, when scratched from an armed patrol whose entire ranks were decimated by an Arab ambush in the Judean Valley.
He’s convinced something beyond mere circumstance has guided his five-decade career as a dairy nutritionist, leading him to work with fellow Jews in a field where Jews are a rarity. He’ll tell you his parents’ brave immigrant journey from Romania and a cousin’s pioneer efforts settling Palestine inspired him to beat his own adventurous path — to Israel, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Zambia and the Philippines.
For Bloom, rhyme and reason attend everything.
The scientist in him methodically studies things to identify patterns and processes. The believer in him finds the hand of fate or God behind incidents he can’t ascribe to mere chance. He’s always been curious about the grand design at work. An ever inquisitive hunger drives his lifelong search for order, meaning and variation. He appreciates life’s richness. It’s no coincidence then he’s sought out foreign posts and immersed himself in indigenous cultures.
At age 84 he still savors life’s simple wonders, whether a Brahms symphony, a good book, a bountiful crop, a cow producing milk from rough silage, his family, his daily prayers, his research, his travels, his memories. A good batch of fu-fu.
Far from an unexamined life, Bloom’s charted his times in voluminous journals. Both the good and bad. He writes-talks with pride about his parents making a comfortable life for the family in America. He grew up in West New York and Palisade, N.J., a pair of bedroom communities outside New York City.
His reminiscences refer to a “dominant” and “disciplinarian” father pushing him and his two brothers. Despite little formal education Sam Bloom kept a complete set of Harvard classics and a Webster’s unabridged dictionary at home. On Sundays Papa Bloom held court in bed, where he regaled the boys with the florid prose of advertisements. He instilled a love of learning in Sol, Norman and Jack.
The patriarch also made sure his sons were exposed to, as Sol puts it, “the finer things.” He made them take music lessons — Sol plays the fiddle — and attend Jewish school. He took the family to Central Park for band concerts, Second Avenue for vaudeville shows and Yiddish theater productions, Coney Island for the amusement park rides and the Catskills for Borscht Belt retreats.
It was at Esther Manor near Monticello, N.Y., where the family vacationed summers, that Sol, the city boy, got his first exposure to farming. The hotel owner kept dairy cows out back to supply guests with fresh milk and Bloom made it a habit to help bring the herd in from pasture. He didn’t know it then but fattening calves and boosting milk cows’ production would take up a large part of his adult life.
Sol sees divine intervention in the Bloom boys coming from such humble roots to achieve professional heights. Besides his own exploits as an animal nutritionist, Norman became a biochemist and Jack a rabbi and psychologist.
|Sol and Helen Bloom are married at Kibbutz G’vat in 1947 as his cousin, Epharim Katz, next to the rabbi, acts as a witness.|
The stories of old times roll off Bloom’s tongue. The words precise and poetic. The recall uncanny. He expresses disappointment, not regret, about his failed first marriage, ended when his oldest children were already grown. He acknowledges a weakness for the flesh led him to take a mistress in Nigeria and that the romantic in him led to a love affair in Manila with a woman who became his second wife, Erlinda. He and Elinda share a home together in Millard with their son Jesse.
He candidly describes a history of mental illness in his family. His late older brother Norman descended into schizophrenia, believing he was the second coming of Christ. Bloom said his younger brother Jack sought psychiatric help for a time. Their mother received electric shock treatments. Bloom himself has had problems. Jesse now struggles with his own brainstorms.
Then there’s Bloom’s once sturdy body, now severely stooped, wracked by various maladies. It doesn’t stop the former competitive swimmer from taking daily laps in the Jewish Community Center pool.
No hint of judgment or bitterness in Bloom. He accepts what life gives, both the sweet and the sour. He awakes each morning eager to meet the day, ready to make some new connection or association or insight. Whether it’s a laboratory with four walls or the larger lab of living, he approaches life as a much anticipated experiment. Discovery always just around the corner.
His brother Norman would get in manic, obsessive moods trying to prove God’s existence in numerical coincidences. He caught the attention of the late astronomer and popular science writer, Carl Sagan, whose book Broca’s Brain devotes an entire section to Norman’s belief that he was a messenger of God.
Sol isn’t his brother but when considering certain matters, such as the proposition Jews are God’s chosen people, he assumes a slightly messianic manner himself.
Speaking as a scientist, he told a guest at his home: “I don’t know if God actually exists.” However, Bloom suggests Jews’ disproportionate impact on everything from world religion to art to politics to moral tenets is a testament to some divine plan.
“So when I go back to the fact that a good part of the western world goes by Isaac’s basis” for righteous living, “and what the Jews presented to humanity, maybe even though I’m a scientist there’s something in there that is not just completely random,” he said. “The eternal thread of Jewish survival over 3,000 years is a strong thread. That thread’s metaphorically wrapped itself around historical periods and around the throats of Egyptian, Persian, Asyrian, Greek and Roman empires and left them all lifeless — as the Jews moved on small but strong to the present day. It’s a very thin fiber, but it’s so.
“If little people like we have been able to maintain these basic moral foundations to the whole world and still exist when all these empires have gone down, then even though I’m a scientist and I have to go by hypotheses, I don’t think it’s just random. I’ll leave it at that.”
Sol Bloom just leave it at that? Impossible. Invariably, one theory begets another.
“When I lived in the Philippines (1970-’81) Manilla already was a city of 7-8 million. In Israel maybe you had at that time 2 1/2 million. And how many times did you read about that big city of Manilla in the newspaper? Maybe when there’s a typhoon or maybe when they found all those shoes in Imelda’s closet. But how many times was there something to do with that tiny fragment of humanity in Israel?
“Today, you have 6 to 7 billion people on the face of the earth while the whole population of Jews in the world is about 16 million. It works out to be about .018 percent of the total population. And yet there’s always something going on about them. Mexico City alone has 16 million. How often do you hear about Mexico City? But you will hear about the Jews being in this, doing that — out of all proportion to their numbers. That tiny fleck of humanity in six billion.
“Why for such a long time are we always hearing something about them? Isn’t that interesting?”
He’s confident the weight of evidence demonstrates Jews hold a special, even anointed place in the scheme of things. “That’s one of the things that sort of helps me maintain my faith,” he said.
All this musing leads Bloom to his own variation on the law of attraction.
|Helen Bloom, right, is among the crowd of British soldiers in Palestine as partition is announced on Nov. 29, 1947.|
“The first (formal) agricultural experience in my life was with a Jew. I started at 21 with my father’s cousin, Ephraim Katz, in Palestine. And now at this point, 60 years later, I’m working with a fellow by the name of Steven Silver, who owns International Nutrition in Omaha. He’s from the same tribe as I am. Now, imagine this, OK? How many Jews are in American agriculture? Not many. How many are in the professional feed milling business? Even fewer. How many Jews do you find in the feed business in the north central area — Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri? One. Do you follow me?”
For Sol, it’s more than coincidence he and Silver found each other. “Random, or as we say in my Yiddish, betokhn (faith)? Isn’t that interesting?”
Like Bloom’s parents, Katz, the pioneer in the family, was a Romanian emigre. Unlike them Katz felt the call to Palestine strongly enough that he became a settler there, raising a family and farming. Katz, an academic by training but a man of the soil by inclination, appealed to Bloom’s sense of wanderlust and earthiness. Tales of Katz’s contributions to the aspiring nation state fed Bloom’s imagination.
“My cousin in Palestine is growing wheat and has oranges and pears and apples. He’s growing oil seed crops for the factories in Haifa,” is what Bloom recalls thinking about this man he admired. “I mean, at that time Ephraim Katz was the leading light of our entire family. He was the one doing it.
“When he was in Bucharest, Romania he was a professor of English. Because he was a Jew he was still considered an alien and he couldn’t have citizenship, so he left and farmed in Israel, in the northern part of Haifa, near the port. He planted crops. He had wheat, sorghum, citrus.”
There were hardships and tragedies, too.
“In 1929 there were bad riots by the Arabs and they burnt his wheat and cut down all his citrus. His first wife, Sabena, died from typhus. He went into depression.”
The neighborhood where Katz’s place was located was named for Sabena. But Katz and his farm and the settlement that grew up around it survived. He remarried and raised a second family there.
Letters from Katz to Bloom’s father “about all of these adventures in Palestine” were much anticipated. When his father read the letters aloud it sparked in the “impressionable” Sol a burning desire to emulate Cousin Katz and thereby break from the prescribed roles many Jews filled then. Sol’s aptitude for science already had him thinking about medicine. Katz’s example gave him a new motivation.
“Since I was already a socialist — I was going to a Jewish socialist school — I thought, I’m going to break this Jewish commitment to being a merchant. I am going into agriculture. I am going to bring right out from the earth. So that was my raison detre.”
The promise of helping forge a new nation enthralled Bloom. “I was struck by the idealism of these people in Palestine struggling building a new frontier.”
However, at the urging of his parents, who feared for his safety in conflict-strewn Palestine, Bloom enrolled at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. He was still a premed major. America was at war by then and in ‘43 his draft number came up. He wound up in the 99th Infantry Division but when the unit began preparations to join the fight in Europe his poor eyesight and flat feet got him transferred to guard duty at a stateside disciplinary barracks. As it turned out, the 99th’s ranks were decimated in the Battle of the Bulge.
Providential? Sol believes so. “Perhaps something else was meant for me,” he said.
After the war he worked as a counselor at a summer camp, where he met Helen, a nice Jewish girl from the East Bronx. He once again set his sights on Palestine when he learned he could study agriculture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem under the GI Bill of Rights. He went first in 1946 and Helen followed six months later.
Cousin Katz greeted Bloom in Haifa. For Sol, it meant finally meeting the hero whose spirited example led him to make the long voyage. Katz took Sol to the rural compound of houses he’d built and to the fields he’d planted.
“He brought in new ways, new machinery, new breeds from America and he built this pioneer-type house of rough-hewn blocks and iron bars on the windows,” said Bloom, “and that’s where Helen and I were married in 1947.”
The kibbutz Sol and Helen were assigned, Gvat, “was a completely communal settlement. You never saw any money,” he said. “It had begun in 1925 with Jews from Poland and Russia. There were about 400 members and about 300 ‘illegals’ from displaced persons camps (in war-ravaged Europe). Bloom began training at the kibbutz ahead of Helen’s arrival. He worked the corn and wheat fields and the vegetable gardens. He helped harvest the fruit crops. Mucking out the poultry house and cattle pens convinced him cows were preferable to hens.
“The first silage I made was on the kibbutz — a combination of cow pee and citrus rinds-peels. It was a pit silo, layered with silage we packed down with a tractor. If you want it to ferment properly you have to extrude all the oxygen,” he said. “I fed it out (to cattle) and I’m telling you it was nice stuff, but the flies…” Oi vay!
The fertile country impressed Bloom.
“I remember the secretariat showing me the place. They were in a valley with the richest soil in all of Israel,” akin to Iowa’s rich black earth, Bloom said. “When they got there in ‘25 there were some swamps, a few cows. The settlers erected tents. If you ever want to know what Palestine looked like before the Jews started coming back in, get Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, and you’ll understand the transformation that came about. It’s completely described there. Dismal, desolate.
“By the time I got there they’d built concrete barracks with manicured lawns. It was a mixed farm of dairy, poultry, a vegetable garden, a fruit orchard, a vineyard, forage crops for cattle and sheep, eucalyptus and field crops — sorghum, wheat, corn. They’d done all that in 20 years. It was a lovely place.”
Even then, he said, the region “produced beautiful oranges exported to Europe.”
Bloom reveled in the daily routine of kibbutz life.
“You got up about 5:30. You got your coffee and milk. I would go to work in the vegetable garden. Then about 8 o’clock you’d come into the communal dining hall, with its big bowls of porridge, and there’d be sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, vegetables, thick baked bread. You had a choice of a hard egg or a soft egg.
“After breakfast I’d go back and work. I was called in Hebrew a bakbok — cork. In other words, you’re used wherever you’re needed. I’d come back for lunch — a cold fruit soup made from harvested plums, apples, grapes. It’s hot in the summertime, so we would rest until about 1:30. When the heat would break we’d go back and finish our work. About 4:30 you’d shower and change your clothes. You had a set of khakis to work in and a set of khakis for the evening.
“We stopped working about noon on Friday for the Sabbath, whose observance lasted till Sunday morning. You had two weeks vacation.”
The enterprise of reclaiming an ancestral homeland moved Sol, who witnessed the settlement’s first high school graduation ceremony. He liked being part of a glorious historic tide. He couldn’t help but get caught up in what he called “that sense of purpose of destiny — of recreating something that had been hibernating for 1,800 years.”
“There was something completely mystical about it,” he said. “The land I was working on, the plums I was harvesting, they were planted by Jews, tended by Jews, plucked by Jews. The Jews had been persecuted, separated, driven from place to place for 1,900 years and here they’d gone back to the same place from which they were driven. Here they were graduating their first set of kids back on the lands where ancient Israelis had plowed and enjoyed the fruits of that land. Back in the land of Joshua and the prophets and all the greats of Israel,
“These pilgrims’ kids were training to begin life there again. You have to have a pretty strong memory in order to do that. To have lived a year in that type of community among these people who had settled, built the place, who knew why they were there, what they were doing and where they were going” was everything Bloom had hoped for and more.
He left before Israel’s formation in mid-‘48 but was there when the United Nations declared Palestine would be partitioned to allow a Jewish state amid Arab neighbors. “This was the first time in history a group made the decision that Jews, after being dispersed all over the world in ghettos, would have a place of their own,” he said. Photos he snapped then picture jubilant crowds in Jerusalem. He and Helen joined the celebration. “We danced, we sang, we drank. It was something very uplifting, something quite marvelous.”
Israel’s independence was not won without a fight and Bloom volunteered to do his share there, too. He and other Americans studying abroad joined the Haganah. Unlike most of the green recruits, who lacked any military experience, Bloom was a U.S. Army veteran familiar with weapons. But he’d never seen combat. Outside Jerusalem he went through training with fellow enlisters under the command of Haganah officers. They made simulated night patrols in the hilly terrain.
His training complete, he went on recon missions to gauge the location-strength of guerrilla Arab units. Assigned to a unit guarding the perimeter of a Jewish enclave, he wrote, “we kept guard during cold nights and moved weapons secretly by taxi cab.” He and his mates quartered in residents’ homes, staying out of sight of British peacekeepers and hostile Arab forces by day and manning rooftops at night.
He was selected for a strike force of 35 soldiers tasked with engaging the Arab Legion laying siege to the Jewish settlement of Ramat Rachel. At the last minute, he said, an officer scratched him from the operation due to his marital status. A bachelor friend and fellow American, Moshe Pearlstein, replaced him. Moshe and his comrades were cut down in an ambush. There were no survivors. Bloom’s journal commented:
“I will always remember how formidable — yes, how heroic — the ‘35’ appeared in all their battle gear as they assembled on the edge of Beit Hakarem. They were the Yishuv’s best…” Their loss, he wrote, “was a terrible blow to the Haganah…The sweet soul Moshe became, as far as I know, one of the first Americans to fall in the war of independence for Israel. His sacrifice has given me a long and eventful life.”
His life was spared another time there when a bus he and Helen were on took sniper fire. Only the vehicle’s side armor plating shielded him from the rounds.
With the couple’s parents pressing for their return they came back to the U.S. While studying at Iowa State University Bloom met Israeli emissaries who were visiting American ag colleges “to talk enthusiastic ideas to young Jewish fellows like me” he said. It was a recruitment tour designed to attract Zionists in serving the newly formed Jewish nation. Bloom was ripe for the picking. “I knew one thing — I wanted to study a profession that I could go back to use in Israel.”
He asked the visitors, “What should l study to help the State? Should I become a veterinarian?” “We need nutritionists,” he was told. That’s all he needed to hear. Besides, he said, “I liked very much working with cattle when I was on the kibbutz.” From ‘50 to ‘55 he earned his bachelor’s degree from Iowa State, his master’s from Penn State and his Ph.D. from ISU. All in dairy applications.
His scientific inquiries in that period proved fruitful. At PSU, he said, “the first feed grade antibiotics were in use. I worked with oromycin — I got beautiful gains. I got the sense of how powerful biological (compounds) are.” Of how 20 grams “of this yellow powder in a ton of feed” could increase milk production. Magic dust. He went back to ISU, he said, “where this line of study was more advanced. I worked with very good people. The work I did gave off papers in three different fields. I was elected to Sigma Xi, a scientific honorary society. I won the Borden Award.”
Longing to apply his expertise in Israel he was frustrated when no position was immediately available. Thus, in ‘56 he followed his nose for adventure to Puerto Rico, where he worked on dairy cattle feeding trials and introduced high molasses rations for swine. When a post finally opened in Israel the next year to conduct a Ford Foundation study at a research station, the Suez Canal crisis erupted. The U.S. government issued stiff warnings to Americans to avoid travel there but a little war wasn’t going to stop Bloom “I went anyway,” he said. “They (the American consulate) called me in and slapped my wrists.”
These were heady times for Bloom.
“It was exciting. In the Suez campaign all the agronomists had gone into the Sinai Peninsula and had just come back, so the first seminars I heard were all about their findings in that area. When I did my research the agronomists there wanted us to use more pasture. We didn’t have that much. Security was a problem.”
The study compared cows feeding in pastures to those feeding off silage in enclosures. The herds “were then hit by foot and mouth disease,” he said, “which cut off some of the work I did over there.”
He was just happy to be back in a flourishing, independent Israel. He was, in many ways, home again.
“There’s a deep Jewish cultural connection,” he said. Not to mention “the beauty of living as part of the majority. There’s a certain sweetness, a certain pleasure in that that even today with our liberal (tolerant) attitudes you don’t quite have here (in the U.S.).”
He and Erlinda traveled to Israel in 2003. He hadn’t been there since 1962 and he marveled at how a once dreary stretch of road outside Tel Aviv “was green all the way to Jerusalem. That is my road. It’s built by Jews.” The whole country’s transformation from dusty outpost to verdant oasis satisfied him. “Israel’s a beautiful place, and it means so much,” he said. “There’s a personal connection.”
|Sol Bloom and his daughter Ruthie play a duet while living in Manila, the Phillipines, in 1979.|
His much-traveled life-career has taken intriguing turns outside Israel. For example, in 1964 he was hired by the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. He said it marked “the only time in my life I worked in the medical profession. I worked with many oncologists and cardiologists in helping them design their studies. In the building there were about 30 prima donna medical and biological researchers and I learned how to get things done” in terms of landing research grants.
He did well but was frustrated. “My marriage was on the brink of breaking down,” he said, “and I was looking to get back into my field. The only opportunity I had to get back was in Nigeria as a swine nutritionist” with the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1967. He introduced adaptive feeding-breeding techniques for the swine industry, advised the government and Peace Corps, lectured, conducted feeding trials and penned extension bulletins for livestock producers. Helen did not accompany him.
Nigeria was in the throes of a civil war, making difficult living conditions even harder. Bloom was largely untouched by the conflict. “The only way USAID people felt this war was in the many checkpoints on the roads, the frequent searches of our vehicles and the presence of troops in training,” he wrote.
A memorable experience was leading a convoy of trucks loaded with 15 tons of seed corn across Nigeria to impoverished Biafran farmers. Despite bad roads, devastated villages, chaotic assundry delays, the delivery was made.
Bloom spent four conflicted years there. The affair he carried on with his housekeeper, Rose, came in the wake of “the powerful loneliness” he felt so many miles from home. “Combined with my own mental anxieties,” he wrote, “it endangered my ability to function, and so it was to the journal I turned to record daily activities to maintain sanity and stability.” To numb the pain there was plenty of Star Beer and dancing under the starlight to the sound of talking drums.
|Between marriages to Helen and Linda, there was Rose, in Africa in 1967.|
He took an extended R & R in Spain, where the bull fights both intrigued and repulsed him. Like most in the crowd he rooted for “the majestic creature.”
In 1970 the USAID sent him to Zambia to advise/study the local swine industry. He wrote, “Mind you, you find Jews almost anywhere in the world, but I didn’t expect to find any in Zambia.” But he did in the Shapiro family, who adopted him. “I have found Jews in the most exotic places,” he wrote in his African memoirs.
That same year he began his longest overseas idyll, in the Philippines, where he stayed through 1981. He went in the employ of the USAID but eventually became a free agent. He was a nutrition consultant for swine operations and feed mills, he created and marketed his own Rose-N-Bloom brand livestock feeds with another American expatriate and worked for the American Soybean Association and corporate giants Cynamid and Monsanto.
He became close with an American ranch family, the Murrays. Bloom loved riding out on their high grass tropical range. Pastures gave way to jungle. The ranch was accessible only by boat or plane. Getting the steers to market was a big operation.
The Philippines is also where Bloom met and married Erlinda, “my Oriental package.” They started a family together there.
“I came back from the Philippines in ‘81 — to Richmond, Ind. Erlinda had a cousin living-working there. God took me to a place, the Midwest, with corn, soy, cattle, pigs, where I could begin my work again,” he said,
|Erlinda Bloom, Sol’s second wife, lights the menorah with their children Jesse and Ruth, in the Philipines in 1977. Jesse lives with Sol and Linda today.|
Over the next dozen years his work necessitated more moves. Vigortone Ag Products in Marion, Ohio. Dawes Laboratories in Chicago. At Dawes he developed vitamin-mineral fortifiers for animal industry species. Omaha-based I.M.S. Inc. brought him to Omaha in 1989 as its senior nutritionist.
He stayed here after hooking up with Steve Silver’s Omaha-based International Nutrition in 1990. Meeting up with another Jew in the goy ag field only confirmed Bloom’s belief that far from “purely chance” it was “supposed to happen.” At least he chooses to believe so. The very thought, he said, “is a comfort to me.”
Silver said Bloom brought “a wealth of experience. He worked in helping develop products for use in our overseas markets.” Though mostly retired now, Bloom said, “I’m still working a little bit. “I’m doing something on the co-product or residue from ethanol production and how to make it more amenable for pigs and poultry and so forth and so on. It’s interesting”
Away from work Bloom enjoys “the little pleasures of the day.” Listening to his beloved Brahms. Praying/socializing at the synagogue. Doing mind exercises.
When reviewing his life, he said, “Sometimes I think, Did I do all these things? It’s hard to imagine.”
Here is a story I did in 1996 in the flood of refugees coming to America from war-ravaged Bosnia and Serbia. I tell the story of two families from Saravejo whose lives were turned upside down when the city fell under siege. Rusmir and Hari stayed behind to fight, as their wives and children narrowly escaped, eventually to the West. The men were eventually reunited with their families and ended up starting new lives in America. In my hometown of Omaha no less. I came across this story when I learned about a music and dance performance that a local choreographer organized as a way of commemorating the experience of these Bosnian refugees. The cathartic performance served as a bridge between the war that changed everything and the peace they had to flee their homeland to find.
War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horror’s in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The forum for this unusual intersection of cultures was the finale of an October 25-26 Omaha Modern Dance Collective concert. The closing piece, “Day of Forgiveness,” featured a melting pot of dancers and musicians, but most poignantly, local Bosnian refugees performing as a five-piece band
The work incorporated vigorous Bosnian folk dances and songs symbolizing the relative harmony in Bosnia before the war and the healing so sorely needed there now. Ironically, a dance whose context was an ethnic war, joined Croats, Muslims and Serbs in a unifying celebration.
The refugees are among a growing, diverse Bosnian colony that has sprung up in Omaha since 1993. They say the Bosnia they knew was free of ethnic and religious strife until Serb nationalism began rearing its ugly head. Many are natives of Sarajevo, where they enjoyed an upscale, Western European lifestyle. Since escaping the carnage to start over in America, they’ve forged a tranquil Little Sarajevo in Omaha.
“Bosnia was like a small United States, where many different cultures, many different religions lived together,” says the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Rusmir Hadzisulejmanovic, 41, formerly a marketing manager with a Sarajevo publishing firm. Today, he works as a handy man and attends Metropolitan Community College. “We prepared a good life in our country. We had nice jobs. We made good money. But somebody from outside tried to destroy that. And we lost everything in one day.”
Fellow refugee and musician Muharem “Hari” Sakic, 39, a friend of Rusmir’s from before the war, was an import-export executive and now works odd jobs while attending Metro. Hari says, “In Sarajevo we never cared what religion you were. And none of us care about that now. It doesn’t matter. We only care what kind of person you are.”
Both men are Muslim. Rusmir’s wife is Serb; Hari’s, Croation-Catholic. They say mixed marriages such as theirs were typical.
The two men fought side-by-side defending their beloved Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital devastated by Serb aggressors. Talking with Rusmir and Hari today, surrounded by loved ones in their safe, comfortable southwest Omaha apartments, it’s hard to imagine them as fierce soldiers engaged in a life and death struggle with forces who outnumbered and outgunned them. But then Rusmir passes around snapshots of he and Hari in camouflage fatigues, armed to the teeth, outside the burned-out shell of a train station. A later photo shows Rusmir, usually a burly 240 pounds, looking pale, drawn and shrunken from the near-starvation war diet.
War Hits Home
Although Serbia invaded Croatia by late 1990, beginning the pattern of pogroms and atrocities it repeated elsewhere in the former Yugoslav Republic, most Bosnians never suspected the conflict would affect them. But it did, beginning, shockingly and viciously at noon, April 4, 1992, when Serb artillery units dug in atop the hills overlooking Saravejo launched an unprovoked, indiscriminate attack on the city’s homes, streets and businesses.
Rusmir was eating lunch in a cafeteria when the first explosions rocked the city. He was trapped there until morning. “I saw many, many damaged houses and cars and dead people in the streets. It was the first time in my life I saw something like that,” he recalls. It was the start of a three-year siege that killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.
At the family’s apartment he found his wife Zorana, 39, and their children Ida and Igor, then ages 8 and 2, respectively, unharmed, but “very scared.” He immediately set about finding a safe way out for them. Escape was essential, since Ida suffers from a serious kidney disease requiring frequent medical treatment, and his family’s Muslim surname made them targets for invading Serbs. As for himself, he had no choice but to stay – and fight.
The roads and fields leading out of town were killing zones, manned by roaming Serb militia. Air service was disrupted. With the help of Jewish friends he finally got his family approved for a flight to Belgrade, Serbia several days later. On the day of departure Zorana and the kids boarded a bus for the tense ride to the Serbian-held airport. As it was too dangerous to be seen together, Rusmir followed behind in a car.
The scene at the airport was chaotic. Hundreds of people milled about the tarmac, frantic not to be left behind. When a mad dash for the plane began, Zorana, carrying Igor in one arm, felt Ida being pulled away by the surging crowd. She grabbed hold of her daughter and hung on until they were aboard.
From a distance Rusmir watched the plane lift off safely, carrying his family to an uncertain fate. It was the last flight out for many months. Three-and-a-half years passed before he saw his family again.
While in Belgrade, Zorana and the kids stayed at a hotel. Zorana made Ida promise (Igor was too young) never to say their Muslim name aloud, but only her Serb maiden name, Vojnovic. Zorana says she felt “shame” at denying her true identity and “guilty” for what some Serbs were doing to Muslims. “It was very hard.”
“You had to say some Serb name to save your life,” notes Hari, whose family took similar precautions. Like Rusmir and Zorana, Hari and his wife Marina were desperate to get their daughter Lana out, as she has a kidney condition similar to Ida’s. Marina and Sakic’s kids eventually fled to Croatia.
In Belgrade Zorana often confronted Serb enmity, such as when a hospital denied Ida treatment fate learning her real name. From Belgrade, they fled to norther Croatia, staying with relatives and friends.
Life in Croatia had a semblance of normality until Croat-Muslim hostilities erupted. Then Zorana was denied work and Ida expelled from school and refused care. A human rights organization did fly Zorana and the kids to London, where her brother lived, but they were denied residency and returned to Croatia. Growing more desperate, she pleaded her family’s case at every embassy, to no avail.
With few resources and options left she heard about the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a humanitarian agency offering visas based on medical need. After her first entreaties were rejected she went to IOM’s offices “every morning for three months,” before finally getting the visa that eventually brought them to Omaha in October, 1993. Zorana was among the first group of Bosnian and Croatian refugees to arrive here.
Omaha – A New Home, A New Life
Why Omaha? Dr. Linda Ford, a local physician affiliated with IOM, was matched with the family as a medical caseworker and mentor. Zorana says Ford was her “main moral support” when she first arrived. “She showed me how to live on my own. She was a great help.”
Ford arranged for the family to live at the home of Dr. Dan Halm and at her urging Zorana, an attorney in Saravejo, earned a para-legal degree at UNO while working part-time jobs. Zorana now works full-time at Mutual of Omaha. Ford says the contacts Zorana made here as a result of her own refugee experience have aided other Bosnians in settling here, including Rusmir’s sister and brother-in-law. Since moving her family to the Woodcreek Apartments, Zorana has guided 12 other refugee families there.
Barbarism, Heroism and Sacrifice
Meanwhile, Rusmir, who as a young man served in the Yugoslav equivalent of the CIA, had joined Hari and others in mobilizing the local Bosnian Army, It was a civilian army comprised of Muslims, Croats and Serbs, They lacked even the most basic supplies. Uniforms were improvised from sleeping bags. Many soldiers fought in athletic shoes. Shelling and sniper fire continued day and night. The streets and outlying areas were a grim no-man’s land. The only respite was an occasional cease-fire or relief convoy.
As the siege progressed conditions worsened. Rusmir’s and Hari’s homes were destroyed. But life went on. “In war it’s not possible to keep a normal life, but we tried,” says Rusmir. For example, school-age kids who remained behind still attended classes, and Hari’s wife Marina gave birth to their son, Adi, on May 22, 1992.
“At that time the situation was terrible, especially for babies. No food, no water, no electricity , no nothing,” Hari recalls.
Somehow, they hung on. Marina and their two children got out as part of a Red Cross convoy that fall.
Hari and Rusmir fought in a special unit that took them behind enemy lines to wreak havoc, do reconnaissance, collect intelligence and capture prisoners. Miraculously, neither was wounded.
“I was many times in a very dangerous position,” says Rusmir. “I know how to use a gun and a knife. That helped me to survive. I’m lucky, you know? I survived.”
Two of his best friends did not – Dragan Postic and Zelicko Filipovic.
Rusmir witnessed acts of barbarism, heroism and sacrifice, An artillery shell landed amidst a group of school kids during recess, killing and maiming dozens. “That was very awful.” In the heat of battle, a comrade jumped on an enemy tank and dropped hand grenades inside the open turret, killing himself and the tank’s crew. Despite overwhelming odds and losses the city held. “We stopped them…we survived,” Rusmir says.
By the time a United States-brokered and NATO-enforced peace halted the war in 1995, Rusmir, who’d stayed gallantly (“Stubbornly,”says Zorana) on to protect his homeland and care for his ill father, felt very alone. Except for his father, there was nothing left – no home, no job, no family, no future. Hari was gone, too, escaping on 1994 on foot via a tunnel dug under the Saravejo airport, and then over the mountains into Croatia, where after a long search he was reunited with his family.
The Sakics emigrated here in January, 1995.
Music – Celebration and Mourning
Every refugee has a story. The Bosnians’ story is of suddenly being cast as warriors and wanderers in an ethnically-cleansed netherworld where borders and names suddenly meant the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between living or dying.
It all happened before – to their parents and grandparents in World War II. It’s a story burned in their memories and hearts and told in stirring words, music and dance.
Their music inspired choreographer Josie Metal-Corbin to create “Day of Forgiveness.” The professor of dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha first heard the music when a former student and Bosnian emigre brought the band to her class. They played about 10 minutes and right away I knew I had to do something with this music,” Metal-Corbin recalls. “I was very taken by it, I’m part Italian and part Slovak, and this music really spoke to me. It’s very passionate.”
After months of working with the musicians and UNO’s resident dance troupe she directs, the Moving Company, Metal-Corbin grew close to the refugees and their families, particularly Rusmir, Zorana and their children, now ages 12 and 6. Zorana acted as the project’s interpreter and cultural guide.
During the Creighton concert, which marked the dance’s premiere, Rusmir and the other, all-male musicians exuberantly accompanied the rousing dance from a rear corner of the stage.
Rusmir, who grew up singing and playing the romantic tunes that accompanied the dance, says, “I feel the songs in my heart, in my soul, in my blood.” Song and dance are a big part of Bosnian celebrations, which can last from evening through dawn.
A Gypsy song – “Djurdjevdan” (“Day of the Flowers”) – was chosen by Metal-Corbin to give the dance its thematic design. The song, like the dance she adapted from it, tells of a holiday when people go to a river to cleanse themselves with water and flowers as an act of atonement and plea for forgiveness. According to Rusmir, the song and dance reflect Bosnians’ forgiving nature.
“What is very hard about the war is that we lost so many friends. We lost neighbors. We lost family members. And for what? Really for nothing. We tried to keep Bosnia in Bosnian borders. But I can forgive,” Rusmir says, “because my wife and kids are alive. My father is alive. It’s time for forgiveness, for one reason – the war must stop, always, I cannot live with hate. My people are not like that. You can kick me, you can beat me…I will always find a reason to forgive you. That is the Bosnian soul.”
Hari, though, cannot so easily let go of the memory of Marina and their two children barely escaping a direct artillery hit on their Sarajevo apartment. “Forgive, yes, but forget, no,” he says. “I must try never to forget.” Even now, the whine of a siren and the clap of thunder are nervous reminders of incoming artillery rounds. “That is the kind of sound you can never forget,” Hari says.
He still wakes up in a cold sweat at the thought of the three-finger sign used by Chetnik Serbs in carrying out their terror campaigns. “When they started to use that sign,” he says, “the poison came. It meant. ‘You are not with us.’ Then the killing started.”
As a haunting reminder of what the dance was about, an enlarged news photo in the background pictured the tearful reunion of a Bosnian refugee family. The image had special meaning for Rusmir and Hari, who had only recently reunited with their own families. For them, the dance was their own personal commemoration of loss, celebration of survival, offering of thanks and granting of forgiveness.
Adding further resonance, virtually the entire local Bosnian refugee colony attended out of a deep communal sense of pride in their rich culture, one they’re eager to share with the wider Omaha community they’ve felt so welcomed by.
Zorana was there. “I was real proud, but at the same time I was kind of sad,” she says. “It was the music of our country – but in a different country. I was real touched when I saw Americans feel the same we do. I wanted to cry.”
Zorana, whose journey with her children across the war-torn region took a year before she found safe passage to America, adds that forgiveness must never come at the price of wisdom. “I would not let anybody to that to us again. Yo can trick us one time, but just one time.”
Yes, these Bosnians, are remarkably free of bitterness, but they do feel betrayed by the European community’s delayed, timid intervention. Zorana says, “You cannot wait so long and be so passive. You cannot say, ‘Oh, this is not my war. I don’t want to be bothered – they’re not killing me.’ Because tomorrow they may come to your house and try to kill you.” Hari says, “All the time we waited for a miracle.”
Rusmir decries the Serbs’ targeting of civilians. Hari hopes “world justice catches the war criminals, so that they will never sleep good again.”
With the aid of Neb.Republican U.S. House of Representatives member John Christensen Rusmir finally got permission to immigrate and was reunited with his family last November. Once here there were many adjustments to make. Igor didn’t remember him. Ida was slow to warm to a father she hadn’t seen for so long. Rusmir spoke no English. The family barely got by. But in classic immigrant tradition they’ve adapted and now call Omaha – a city they’d never heard of before – their home.
“It is hard. But step by step, day by day, we make connections, we make new friends we make a good life, too. We feel like Bosnian pioneers in Omaha and Nebraska,” says Rusmir, who hopes to start a construction business with Hari.
The Bosnians like America and feel sure they’ll thrive here. Their children already have, with many earning top grades in school. Ida and Lana are both healthy and doing fine. The Bosnians are deeply grateful to America, which Hari calls “a dream country” for its warm reception.
Hari says, “In America I can once again live like a normal person. There’s no fear that somebody will knock on my door and ask, ‘Who are you?’ and say, ‘You’re guilty.’ We are safe here. Many Americans have helped to give us a chance. Thanks America. We are sure that we will be a success.”
Zorana downplays their heroic struggle, saying, “You need to go on if you think ou have some tomorrow. You need to believe in yourself. Then nothing is impossible.”
America is, after all, the land of opportunity.
“You give me a chance to be equal,” she says. “To work. To be a citizen. I wanted my children to be Bosnian, but now I want them to be American. Here, you can be proud of your last name. You don’t have to feel ashamed.”
- A Long Way from Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Mladic could face two trials for alleged Bosnian war crimes (cnn.com)
- Serbia alert over Mladic protests (bbc.co.uk)
- Bosnia tensions live on despite Mladic capture (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Key dates and events in the Bosnia war (zokstersomething.wordpress.com)
- No closure (bbc.co.uk)
By Land, By Sea, By Air, Omaha Jewish Veterans Performed Far-flung Wartime Duties
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
As a group, Omaha’s Jewish World War II veterans performed duties spanning the spectrum of that immense struggle. They served in virtually every military branch and theater of war. They fought in historic battles. They supplied troops with vital war materials. They earned commendations, ribbons, medals.
The men featured here are only a small sampling of Omaha Jews who saw action. Some have siblings that distinguished themselves in wartime. For example, Stuart Muskin is profiled here but his brother, Leonard Muskin, could just have easily been. Leonard, who resides in Calif., received a Navy Cross and a Gold Star for extraordinary heroism as the pilot of a carrier-based torpedo plane during the Battle for Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands.
Lloyd Krasne’s younger brother Bud was a weather observer and his older brother Milton was in the supply division that kept Gen. George Patton‘s 3rd Army fueled.
Every veteran has a trunk-full of stories. In the case of Lloyd Friedman, he was in the presence of three historic figures from WWII: Gen. Patton; Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower; and President and Commander in Chief Harry S. Truman. Friedman, Muskin and Marvin Taxman fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Milt Saylan was present at the formal surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay.
Lloyd Krasne ended up in war-ravaged Tokyo as part of the army of occupation.
Kevee Kirshenbaum served on minesweepers in both WWII and Korea, along the way interacting with Soviets, Filipinos, Chinese and Koreans.
It turns out anti-Semitism was not an issue for most of Omaha’s Jewish war vets.
Some saw loads of combat and others saw none at all. Some were married with children, others were single. All put their lives on hold, however, to answer the call of duty. To a man, they’re grateful to have simply survived.
By Land: The European Theater
Howard Silber, An Infantryman’s Perspective
Howard Silber experienced anti-Semitism growing up in New York City. Early on he learned to stand up for himself with words and fists.
A fair high school athlete and student, he was denied admission to Columbia University when the school met its quota of Jews. He played football and studied journalism at the University of Alabama, where his freshman coach was legend-to-be Paul “Bear” Bryant and the head coach was legend-in-the-making Frank Thomas. A roommate was future Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace.
Silber was a semester shy of graduating when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 at 21. After training with coastal artillery and parachute glider units he ended up a grunt in the 411th Infantry Regiment, 103rd Division, 7th Army.
He encountered bias at bases and camps in the States, but once in southern France his faith didn’t matter in a fox hole. His company’s first action resulted in eight members of his platoon being killed. “A baptism by fire,” he soberly recalled. Years after the war he and comrades paid for a monument to the eight and Sibler and his wife Sissy Katelman visited it.
The push through France went over the Vosges Mountains in the midst of the region’s worst recorded winter The Americans were not properly geared for the conditions and German resistance proved fierce in spots. In early engagements enemy ranks consisted of conscripts — an indication of Germany’s desperation.
“I saw German soldiers who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13,” he said. “I also saw men in their 40s and 50s.”
His company later ran up against a hardened SS outfit. “But we managed to fight our way through,” he said. “I saw some hand-to-hand combat….”
After breaking out of the mountains onto the Rhine Plain, Sibler’s company proceeded around Strasbourg. “Integrated into our army corps,” he said, “was the French 1st Army — made up mostly of North Africans. They had come across the Mediterranean with (Charles) de Gaulle. They were good fighters.”
Heading north, Sibler and Co. approached the Maginot Line, with orders to break through, but the Germans were dug-in behind well-fortified positions.
“We woke up one morning to the sound of artillery high above us, exploding in the trees,” Sibler said. He’ll never forget the bravery of an African American anti-tank unit: “When I think of it I become emotional because they were shot up to hell and kept fighting.” The artillery barrage slowed but then a German tank advanced and with the platoon’s bazooka team knocked out, Sibler took action. “I picked up the bazooka, knelt and loaded it, fired once and missed. The last thing I can remember is that tank lowering its beastly 88 millimeter cannon in my direction. I woke up the next day in an Army field hospital. Apparently the shell was a dud but it half buried me in my fox hole. Our platoon medic got me out of there. Both my arms were broken and my left rib cage was pretty well beat up.”
The Battle of the Bulge erupted the next day. His “million dollar wound” spared him from further fighting. He recovered at a hotel turned hospital in the resort town of Vittel. There, bigotry reappeared in the form of a chaplain who said something ugly to Sibler. After complaints were lodged the chaplain did not return.
Back home, Sibler was a reporter for New York newspapers before joining the Omaha World-Herald. In his 34-year Herald career he covered the Starkweather murder spree, he went to the South Pole, he reported from Vietnam and he became the first journalist to fly in a B-52 bomber. He interviewed Joint Chiefs of Staff commanders and senators, but may be proudest of his Band of Brothers legacy.
Louie Blumkin, The Long, Slow Slog
It sounds like a legend now, but when Louie Blumkin was away in the U.S. Army his mother Rose, worried by slumping sales at the furniture store she’d opened a few years before, wrote her son she was thinking of selling it. He persuaded her to stick it out until his return, and the rest is history. Under his management the Nebraska Furniture Mart became a phenomenon of folklorish proportions.
But there was no guarantee Mrs. B’s boy would make it home. A state diving champion at Omaha Technical High School, Blumkin was considered an Olympic-caliber athlete. That dream faded as America drew closer to entering the war against the Axis powers. Blumkin enlisted in 1941. After field artillery training and serving as a gunner on a 155 millimeter howitzer he was promoted to corporal and battalion company clerk. The work suited his inquisitive mind.
His battalion was en route to the Pacific Theater, with a planned stopover in Hawaii, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. His ship was turned around to return to the west coast, where he received orders to go to Fort Lewis, Wash. There, he became junior warrant officer of his battalion. He transferred to the 974th Field Artillery and went overseas with his unit in 1942. After training in Belfast, Ireland and in England, he awaited orders for the invasion of Europe.
To help ease the tedium and tension until D-Day, he put on diving exhibitions at Chaltham, England for his fellow GIs.
His group landed on Omaha Beach a few days after the invasion and in the teeth of still stiff German defenses moved inland, first east and then south. In a 1984 interview he gave his niece, Jane Kasner, he described the slow, bitter slog.
“Many times we met with very tough resistance, but we overcame all of our obstacles…For several months, although our progress was slow, we liberated several French cities” and “received a very warm welcome from the French people.”
In one action a fragment from an explosive injured his hand.
By year’s end the weather turned and for a time so did the campaign’s fortunes. By then his unit was assigned to Patton’s 3rd Armored Division.
“Winter set in while we were in Southern France” and to the north “the Germans were making their counterattack, known as the Battle of the Bulge, in a maneuver which was supposed to drive our forces to the English Channel. Our organization was called to help relieve the Americans in their plight against the Germans…”
When the weather finally cleared enough for Allied planes to attack enemy positions the German offensive was stopped and its last gasp effort to reverse the tide turned back. Blumkin saw first hand the enormous concentration of Allied war materials flooding into the region and recalled thinking, “There is no way the Germans are going to win this war.” He was part of the contingent that crossed the Remagen Bridge, a key link between France and Germany. His unit went toward Austria while others went to spearhead the push into Berlin.
Along the way, Blumkin and his mates came across Dachau concentration camp survivors.
“It was an extremely emotional experience for me, one which I will never forget because of the conditions of both the camp and the individuals,” he said.
His wartime experience ended with Displaced Persons duty — transferring Italian refugees or DPs from Innsbruck, Austria to Riva, Italy. He returned home in time for Christmas in 1945 and after reuniting with his “street smart” mother at the Mart, he became president and CEO during a period of remarkable growth.
Marvin Taxman, D-Day
As a U.S. Army Reserve Corps member, Marvin Taxman was allowed to remain in school at Creighton University until called to active duty in early 1943. He was 22.
He wound up in a glider company, 327th infantry 101st Airborne Division — the Screaming Eagles — and by September sailed to England. In April 1944 his unit was part of a secret D-Day landing rehearsal on English shores. The maneuvers turned lethal when German torpedo boats attacked, killing hundreds of American soldiers and sailors. The incident was not made public for years.
On D-Day itself his company hit Utah Beach aboard landing crafts — with the objective of moving inland to relieve paratroopers who jumped overnight and to secure bridges across the Douve River. Mission accomplished. Things turned hairy the next morning when, he recalled, “on a patrol my platoon attempted to cross the river on rafts and were repulsed by machine gun fire.” That’s when Taxman got in the water and swam back to shore. He and another American directed mortar fire on the German position as cover for their comrades — saving lives.
His exploits made Yank, the Army news magazine, and Omaha newspapers.
Fighting ensued amid the awful, impenetrable hedgerows.
“The Germans would be dug in behind those hundred year old hedgerows and until you knocked out their machine guns they could move to the next…It wasn’t easy,” he said.
The 101st’s next major action came during Operation Market Garden in September. Taxman recalled “serious foreboding” at this airborne invasion of Holland happening between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The operation failed.
He was among a fraction of men in his glider company to ground safely amid heavy fire. Surrounded by German units, the GIs were in a tight fix until British tanks arrived. His platoon advanced on a target bridge when shrapnel from a mortar round cut him down. The officer who assisted him to safety was killed. Taxman was taken to an Antwerp field hospital and then onto a regular hospital in England.
By late December he rejoined his decimated company in Bastogne just as the Allies broke through at the Battle of the Bulge. In April he attended a seder prepared by French Jews. “They proudly announced the plates we ate from were fashioned from the wings of a downed German aircraft,” he recalled.
In liberated Paris he ran into several Omaha chums, including Warner Frohman, Lazer Singer and future brother-in-law Nick Ricks.
“Together we toured the Louvre, the opera and the Folies Bergere. Those were not to be forgotten days.”
Across the Rhine into Germany Taxman’s outfit was moving toward Munich when they encountered Dachau survivors.
“It was gruesome, but we had no idea of the enormity of it,” said Taxman, who was detailed to help sift out German soldiers among the flood of refugees on the roads.
By mid-May the war in Europe was over but more adventures awaited Taxman. He visited Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Eagle’s Nest. He filed reports for a division newspaper. He was put in charge of a troupe of Hungarian singers and dancers. Redeployed to France, he took a class at the University of Grenoble in the French Alps, where he was befriended by French Jews who escaped the Nazis by hiding in the mountains. He listened to their tales of woe and attended Yom Kippur services with them at a theater.
He married and raised a family after the war and he continues to enjoy a career in the wholesale optical business.
Stuart Muskin, In Patton’s 3rd
When America entered World War II Stuart Muskin enlisted in the U.S. Army while still a University of Nebraska senior. He was able to complete his degree before reporting for basic training.
He got the cushy job of regimental clerk and saw what looked like a good deal: volunteering for overseas duty earned 30 days leave. He got his leave alright but still owed Uncle Sam So, with the war at its peak, he shipped out in late spring 1944 as part of a light machine gun squad in Company C, 3rd Infantry Division.
En route to England the D-Day invasion had commenced. Upon landing in Liverpool the wounded from Normandy were being brought in from across the Channel, the dull booms and thuds of artillery barrages thundering in the distance.
After one day on the island the Yanks headed for France. Aboard the landing craft Omaha he arrived on already secured though badly scarred Omaha Beach.
“It was still torn up from just a week ago when the Allies invaded,” he said.
Before he knew it his squad squared off in the Battle of Saint Lo, fighting Germans hedgerow to hedgerow. The combat was costly to both sides.
“I wrote a letter to my mom telling her, ‘Goodbye, you’re never going to see me again,’ but then I thought to myself, That’s dumb to say that, so I tore it up and wrote another letter back to her telling her everything is fine.”
The brave front didn’t change the fact he feared for his life. “I was by myself, I didn’t know anybody, a Jewish kid, and I was scared as hell.”
He ended up in a Nebraska unit of Gen. George Patton’s 3d Army.
“You’d think a guy like Patton you’d never see him — we saw him all the time, he was always around,” said Muskin, “and people would yell out and call him every name in the world and he would smile because he liked a soldier that was mad.”
Patton kept his troops on the go.
“One day we walked 28 miles with packs on because we were moving and we were not getting any resistance, and that went on for maybe two or three weeks,,” said Muskin. “Finally we got to Nancy, France, the trucks rolled in and the French girls jumped all over us and all of a sudden snipers up in the buildings were shooting at us, and it emptied out just as fast.
“The next day we crossed the Meurthe River and the Germans flew over us like they did a lot of times broadcasting that our wives and girls are getting screwed back home and we ought go home. That was the first time we knew there was a big resistance by the Germans.”
Taking the high ground was crucial to breaking through, but the enemy wasn’t giving up anything without a fight.
“They started throwing mortars down,” said Muskin.
While he could tell by the sound where an artillery shell would land, a mortar round was too unreliable to predict. In late September a mortar-fired projectile exploded near him, fragments and splinters hitting him “in a lot of different places — my arm was the worst, and my leg.” “Fortunately,” he said, “I got picked up and brought to a big tent hospital.” It was there he had a fleeting but surreal encounter.
“There was a guy walking around with fatigues on tapping guys on the shoulder and asking, ‘How you doin’ soldier?’ and I look around and it’s Bing Crosby. He was visiting the troops.”
Once Muskin registered the unmistakable face and voice he remarked what an unusual circumstance this was, whereupon the crooner-actor replied, “It’s no big deal — what you guys are doing is.”
From there Muskin was slated to be flown to a hospital in England but Operation Market Garden tied up all available air transport. Instead, he went by train to a Paris hospital. After three months recouping he rejoined his unit on the front lines, still in France, teasing them, “Can’t you guys move without me?”.
His last major action came in the Battle of the Bulge, when a last ditch German offensive cut off thousands of Allied forces amid the harsh winter in the Ardennes Forest. His squad got pinned down by German machine gun and tank fire. As Muskin and his men pulled back a tank shell exploded near him and metal shredded his bandolier and bloodied him but only slightly wounding him.
Muskin, a staff sergeant, announced to the squad, “Boys, I’m going to get home alive if I can get through that.” His unit advanced as far as the Elbe River, where aside from a skirmish they waited out the end of the war in relative calm. Hordes of captured German soldiers marched past them.
Back home, Muskin was a traveling salesman before he bought into a children’s wares business that took off as Baby Town, later renamed Youngtown. He married, raised a family and feels grateful to have lived the good life at the ripe age of 88.
Lloyd Friedman, In the Presence of Ike, Old Blood and Guts and Give ‘Em Hell Harry
Lloyd Friedman’s five-year military odyssey began in late 1940. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln ROTC graduate helped oversee a black regiment in the 25th Infantry at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He returned to Omaha ready to resume civilian life when Pearl Harbor put him right back on active duty.
The next three years he was assigned units tasked with patrolling and defending the west coast. He went from the 134th National Guard Regiment of the 35th Infantry Division to the 137th Infantry Regiment.
As D-Day neared in June 1944 Friedman, by then a captain, became regimental adjutant under Col. Grant Layng, which entailed being “his gofer or shadow.”
Friedman was one of two Jewish officers in his regiment. While in England his unit was inspected by Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
His outfit hit Omaha Beach in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion but they discovered an area still hot with enemy activity.
“The Germans had the cliffs fortified,” he said. “That was pretty rough, We fought a little bit there but we got out of that. Normandy, above Saint Lo, was made up a lot of hedgerows. You couldn’t see what you were shooting at.”
In an account for the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, Friedman wrote:
“On the first day of combat we lost the colonel to machine gun fire. I was not with him. It was tough to see friends wounded and die. The lines did not move very fast.”
Then, he wrote, “I saw in the air the most bombers ever. They practically leveled Saint Lo, and even a few stray bombs landed on our troops.”
Every time the regiment got orders to move, Friedman went with the advance party.
“My worst job,” he wrote, “was reconnoitering for the new headquarters as the lines moved forward. There were times I got ahead of the front lines. On one occasion my jeep driver and I were going up a road, dodging brush and debris. After passing, we looked back and saw that they covered mines…We breathed a sigh of relief.”
More relief came with the break out across France. His company was attached to Patton’s 3rd Army. He got to see the irascible, flamboyant commander up close.
“He was a buddy of our new colonel and visited us for so-called ‘lunch’ one day. I will never forget his two pearl handled pistols.”
At times Patton’s forces moved so fast they outstripped their supply lines.
“As we neared Germany things slowed down,” Friedman wrote. “We had some fierce fights across the border (Mosel River). By Christmas…we were sent to Metz for what we thought would be a well-earned rest. We were so wrong. Immediately we were moved north to outside Bastogne (Battle of the Bulge). Those were horrible days. Between the cold and driving the Germans back, it was miserable.”
“We were near Berlin when VE Day came in May (1945). Our regiment was sent to Boppard on the Rhine for occupation duty. On July 11 we assembled near Brussels and were picked for the honor guard for President Truman who was en route to the Potsdam Conference.”
Friedman, who was never wounded, won five battle stars, including the Bronze Star.
During an R &R stint on the French Riviera he ran into Omahan Stanley Slosburg and upon returning to the States he met another Omahan — Stuart Muskin, who served in the same division but in a separate regiment.
After the war Friedman married and became a buyer and merchandise manager for Herzberg’s before making his career in insurance.
By Sea: The Pacific Theater or Bust
Milt Saylan, On the Battleship USS South Dakota
When Milt Saylan entered the U.S. Navy in 1944 he was 24, married, a father and the owner of his own grocery store in Charter Oak, Iowa. The Omaha native developed a taste for the food business working summers at an uncle’s store.
Compared to many he served with in the Navy, he said, he was “an old man. I was a little different than some of the young punks that went in. We called ‘em kids — they were young, single, with no responsibility.”
Saylan had his own store four years by the time he became a seaman apprentice and, he said, that experience naturally “put me in the galley” — first at Shoemaker Camp in Calif. and then aboard the battleship USS South Dakota.
As a meat cutter he readied enough chops, steaks and roasts every day to ensure there was enough for the next day’s chow.
The South Dakota became part of Naval lore through a stunning series of engagements against Japanese forces — sinking several vessels and bringing down multiple planes in major sea and air battles. It was the most decorated ship in WWII. So as not to make it a special target, the U.S. military withheld its name from the press — its exploits chalked up to Battleship X or Old Nameless.
“We were the flagship of the 13th fleet,” said Saylan.
The South Dakota earned battle stars at Guadalcanal and in action in the Coral Sea, Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Midway, before eventually sailing into Tokyo Bay. From the deck of the South Dakota Saylan and his fellow 2,200 crewmen witnessed Japan’s formal surrender on the USS Missouri tied up alongside it.
There were times he wasn’t sure he’d make it through the war. One of those was when kamikaze attacks wrecked havoc on the ship at Okinawa.
“We got hit and we lost 37 men,” he said, the memory still making his voice quiver.
During combat he manned a battle station. His job: help corpsmen tend wounded and get them into sick bay. During the Okinawa attack he went to the forward part of the ship, where the kamikazes struck, and amid the carnage helped carry the wounded away on stretchers.
He wasn’t close to any of the sailors who lost their lives that day but burying that many comrades at sea left its mark.
The South Dakota, which supported carrier strikes against Tokyo, made its way ever nearer Japan in anticipation of the planned Allied invasion. When the atom bombs ended the war the battleship made its way into Tokyo Bay for the formal surrender. As a precaution against a Japanese ambush, said Saylan, the crew was in full battle gear. Nothing untoward happened.
He said the “very somber” ceremony on September 2, 1945 proceeded aboard the Missouri with the assembled crews of the Missouri, the South Dakota and other ships topside to observe the historic moment. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Admiral William Halsey and Southwest Pacific Area supreme commander Douglas MacArthur led the U.S. contingent in accepting the surrender of their Japanese counterparts. It all went off without a hitch. Saylan and his shipmates followed orders by not expressing any emotions that might dishonor the Japanese.
Saylan was discharged as a first class petty officer.
After the war he remained in the grocery business and by the mid-1950s he retired. Bored after a few months, he took over a window wares company that became a big success. His son now has the business.
Saylan’s visited the USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial in Sioux Falls SD.
Kevee Kirshenbaum, C.O. of Minesweepers in WWII and Korea
Kevee Kirshenbaum had the distinction of being assigned six different minesweepers in two separate wars during his U.S, Navy service.
He was a University of Nebraska sophomore when he joined up in 1942. His first assignment came as an ensign aboard a sweeper sent to the Aleutian Islands. At Cold Bay, Alaska he helped train Soviet naval personnel in minesweeping techniques as part of the top secret Project Hula, which was to ready the Soviets to invade Japan from the north.
Once while traversing an igloo-like tunnel on base he ran into an old chum from Omaha — Lee Bernstein. When they see each other today they’re still amused at meeting each other in such a desolate spot.
Kirshenbaum went from one extreme to the other in the Philippines, where he said, “we swept mines all the way along the coast down close to Borneo.” He said sweepers lived by the motto: “where the fleet goes, we’ve been.”
His worst WWII experience came while anchored in Subic Bay during a typhoon. Ordered to get under way, the ship’s fluke caught on the open hatch of a sunken boat. That left the ship riding out the storm like a top on a string.
“We stayed there for 48 hours, just going around in circles. You never saw so many sick people.”
His group made preparations for Okinawa and the planned invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped. It was then he took command of his first ship, the YMS-49, in Shanghai, China.
“My best experience of the war really was when I had command of a ship. The war was already over — what we did was sweep the mines in the Huangpu River. We didn’t find any mines there but we found an awful lot of bodies. You would see Chinese boats going by with a hook picking the bodies up.”
Becoming a C.O. at only 22, he said proudly, “was an accomplishment.”
Some fears he harbored were soon quelled.
“When I went aboard ship I didn’t know what the reaction would be to my being Jewish. The Navy had as a whole very few Jewish personnel. Then there was my age. I knew some of these guys knew more than I did. Half the crew was much older than I was and more experienced. But luckily enough I didn’t have any problems. The crew was very good and respectful.”
Back home he finished school, joined the Navy Reserve, went to work and got married. Then the Korean conflict broke out and he was assigned minesweeping duty again. In Sasebo, Japan he served on a ship and transferred to train the South Korean Navy, which helped shake off the rust of four years away from active service. Later, he went to Korea to command the USS Redhead, which swept mines in hostile waters, even past the 38th parallel. The mine fields were thick with danger and his ship and others came under fire by shore artillery batteries.
Mines, especially the magnetic kind, were the main threat. A replacement ship venturing where the Redhead would have been was sunk by one. His most harrowing duty came sweeping Wonsan Harbor at night when the Redhead set off a magnetic device whose blast destroyed the vessel’s mine cutting gear. Luckily, the hull was intact and the ill-conceived operation cancelled.
The small, wooden minesweepers were the runts of the fleet but being small had the advantage of being resupplied every few days, which meant fresh eats.
Looking back on all the responsibility he assumed at such a young age, he said, “I felt good about it.” He’s most grateful for coming out alive. The retired entrepreneur feels fortunate to have had the chance to lead “a successful life.”
Stan Silverman, A Dry Dock Navy Tour
Homefront contributions to World War II often get lost in the haze of history. But the men and women who worked the factories, fields, docks, warehouses and countless other jobs vital to the war effort made it possible for America to execute its battle plans and achieve final victory.
Long before Stan Silverman ever entered the service he worked on a ditch digging crew opening the earth with shovels to accommodate water mains at then Offutt Field on the old Fort Crook base. The site is where the Martin Bomber Plant would be built and where Offutt Air Force Base would house the Strategic Air Command.
His family ran a grocery store on Vinton Street and he and his folks lived above it.
The Central High graduate earned a chemical engineering degree from Iowa State University at a time when quotas limited the number of Jews accepted into higher education and certain career paths. “That irritated me,” Silverman said.
While at Iowa State he said the school’s physical chemistry department secretly played a significant role in the Manhattan Project by purifying the uranium for the atomic bombs ultimately dropped on Japan.
After college he went to work as a chemical engineer for Phillip’s Petroleum Company in Kaw City, Ok., where he fell in with a mix of engineers, Native Americans and roughnecks. He learned to play a mean game of poker there. Oklahoma was a dry state then and Silverman said when he’d come home to visit he’d stock up on liquor to bring back to his parched buddies.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944 and though he looked forward going to sea it never happened. His wartime service consisted of training school assignments from Indiana to Mississippi to Chicago to California. As an electronics technician third class he worked on radar, sonar and radio equipment that was big and bulky in the days before transistors and microchips.
He got married while in the service and his wife Norma, who did clerical work for the 5th Army Corps in Omaha, joined him at various stops.
His arrival on the west coast coincided with VJ Day and the memory of the jubilation over Japan’s surrender is still vivid.
“I was in San Francisco, where they had a helluva celebration. People went wild.”
The war was officially over but he was still Uncle Sam’s property and the wait for his discharge made the time drag by.
“I was sitting there not doing a helluva lot.”
The one time he was assigned a ship the orders were cancelled before he got aboard. He was a statistician on Treasure Island, where a military unit was set-up. The closest he came to shipping out was riding a Navy launch across the bay.
All in all, he said his time in the service was agreeable. He never ran into any any-Semitism and he was able to practice his faith and attend High Holiday services.
After his discharge in early 1946 he worked a variety of jobs the next several years, including men’s furnishings at J .L. Brandeis. Helpjng him get by was a $25 a week stipend from the Servicemen’s Readjustment Allowance fund.
He was with the Container Corporation of America in Chicago before moving back to Omaha to work for the City’s smoke abatement division. He was later at Quaker Oats. He eventually joined his father-in-law Ben Seldin and brother-in-law Ted Seldin in the Seldin Company, a commercial real estate, multi-family management and development organization. At 88 he still goes to the office every day.
By Air – The Philippines, New Guinea, and Stateside
Bernie Altsuler, A Love of Flying
Bernie Altsuler was only 20 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, but he was already a married working man. The Omahan was inducted in the service in Calif. because at 19 he’d gone to Los Angeles with a brother in search of new horizons. His fiance joined him there and the two were married.
As he had some college — he attended Creighton University — he was put in base operations logging flight records. When assigned a training command unit at Kirtland Field in Albuquerque, NM, his wife came with him. Rookie pilots trained in twin-engine Beechcrafts.
He said his only encounter with anti-Semitism occurred there.
“I was working on the line — that’s where they brought planes in — and there was a master sergeant, and boy he laid into me. He gave me all the problems you could imagine, but I was only there six months before I got transferred. I loved Albuquerque but I was sure glad to get away from that guy.”
Altsuler then ended up in Fort Sumner, NM as part of a command training navigators. He was there 15 months and once again his wife accompanied him.
“My wife was a shorthand expert and she became the base commander’s secretary. That’s probably why I stayed there 15 months,” he said.
After another training stop stateside he shipped overseas in 1945 to the Philippines, where fighting had ceased. All the zig zagging his ship did to throw off enemy subs slowed the voyage to a crawl and he remembers “one of the longest craps games there ever was” played out over 39 days.
He said troops from Europe began filtering in as the Allied Pacific force geared up for the anticipated invasion of Japan. The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cancelled the invasion to everyone’s relief.
By now a sergeant, he went from Tacloban, Leyte to Zamboanga and the 18th Fighter Group, which consisted of a P-38 squadron that only months earlier had escorted B-24 bombers in live missions over Japan.
“Our squadron commander was an ace — he had shot down five Japanese planes.”
As part of his duties Altsuler had frequent contact with pilots, whom he admired.
“They were all cocky young kids,” he said. “We got to know them very well.”
Despite no combat, there were still risks. Accidents happened. He remembers a couple planes cartwheeling down the runway and bursting into flames.
He developed a lifelong love of flying in the service, his appetite whetted by junket flights he hopped.
“We had a C-47 in our operation overseas that we’d fly all over the Pacific to many different islands picking up supplies, and I went along.”
Within a few years of his return from the war he earned his pilot’s license and instrument rating in a Piper Comanche along with his friend, Harold Abrahamson.
Ironically, he said during his nearly four years in the service he never bumped into anyone he knew from back home until the day of his discharge. He stayed in L.A. a few years before returning to Omaha, where he opened his own wholesale plumbing, heating and air-conditioning business. He later sold it and retired.
Jack Epstein, A Long Way from Home
The son of an immigrant fruit peddler, Jack Epstein was married and attending then-Omaha University when drafted into the service in 1943, ending up in the U.S. Army Air Corps. As a company clerk in remote outposts, he never saw any action but was a part of the huge logistics apparatus that fed the Allied war machine.
Military life didn’t exactly agree with Epstein, yet he persevered.
“I didn’t take to the Army very good, but I managed to do OK with it because of the fact I knew I wasn’t in danger and I had something to do all the time. I was busy. Time went pretty fast,” he said.
His wartime odyssey overseas began with a voyage aboard a merchant ship from southern Calif. to Brisbane, Australia. From there he went to Milne, New Guinea, where he remained the next 27 months. The only time he laid sight of the enemy was when Japanese surveillance planes flew high overhead.
New Guinea natives were rarely glimpsed.
He never came under fire but he did contract malaria. The rainy season there soaked everything for weeks on end. Mosquitoes had a field day. The oppressive heat rarely let up.
Epstein was part of a unit comprised of two officers and 28 enlisted men. “We took charge of all the 100 octane gasoline on that base for airplanes,” he said. The gasoline came in 150 gallon barrels unloaded from supply ships and then stored and secured on base. Thousands of barrels were stacked on site. The fuel serviced fighter planes as well as troop and cargo planes.
“We serviced all of them,” he said.
Planes came and went all day, every day. “From the Philippines they came, from Okinawa they came, from all over. They were in and out — they didn’t stay,” he said. The roaring engines were a constant companion. “Maybe that’s the reason I can’t hear so good (today), I don’t know,” he ventured.
He was tasked with inventory control.
“I was the company clerk you might say. I kept track of the ins and outs of the barrels that came in and the barrels that went out .”
As staff sergeant, he said, he became “very close to the two officers. We played bridge most of the time we were there.” Finding diversions on an island in the middle of nowhere, he said, was vital for maintaining one’s sanity. Besides playing bridge there was fishing, but reading and writing letters was his main relief.
“I wrote my wife every single day and she wrote me most every single day and it was really great as far as the camaraderie we had with each other.”
He still marvels at how their letters arrived without interruption, as did the air field unit’s supplies of everything from canned foods to typewriter ribbons.
“One reason we won the war was our supply lines,” he said. “No matter what you wanted we had it — about anything you could imagine. Our supply was unbelievable.”
By war’s end he was sent to Okinawa, where he endured two typhoons, and then back to the Philippines. En route home by ship he suffered chills and fever from his malaria. It took two years before he was over the symptoms.
After three years of separation he and his wife reunited and raised a family. Epstein ended up in the distillery business. At age 88 he still goes to work every day.
Lloyd Krasne, From Audubon to Tokyo By Way of Leyte
Lloyd Krasne clearly recalls hearing over the radio the news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. He was driving a truck into Omaha to get supplies for his Ukrainian immigrant father’s grocery story in Audubon, Iowa. Krasne soon joined the war effort as a U.S. Army Air Corpsman.
“They needed people very badly, so it was rush rush, rush,” he recalled.
Initially pegged to study cryptography he wound up learning power-operated gun turrets. Seizing an opportunity to apply for Officers Candidate School he put in and made the grade and after completing the course in Aberdeen, MD he was commissioned an officer. He did more schooling in aviation ordinance before assigned a unit in Calif. charged with training B-29 crews on operating the bomber’s state-of-the-art gun systems.
He said as the conflict progressed and America’s production of war materials advanced, the Army Air Corps found itself in a constant state of flux as new planes came on line that required different support.
With his unit scattered to the far corners, Krasne was transferred close to home, first to a base in McCook, Neb. and then to one in Harvard, Neb.
He made second lieutenant. In early 1945 he got overseas orders, prompting he and his fiance to get hitched before his departure. The couple went to Salk Lake City, Utah and then to Calif. before he shipped out to Manilla and then to Hollandia, New Guinea. No sooner did he arrive then new orders sent him right back to Manilla, where he was reunited with a commander in Tacloban, Leyte.
“Across from the house we quartered in was a little hut on stilts. There was a plank from the front door going down to the ground and in the morning here’d come a couple chickens, a pig, a couple kids — that’s the kind of economy it was.”
On Leyte he attended a memorable Yom Kippur service in a cockfighting arena. He learned years later a fellow Jew from back home — Nate Katelman — was there too.
Krasne said anti-Semitism faded in wartime, when differences seemed mute in the face of life-and-death stakes: “You were in this together. You wondered what would come next.” However, he did witness racism toward blacks that disturbed him.
He said his C.O. showed him the plans for the invasion of Japan — kept in a locked safe — that thankfully never had to be executed. After Japan’s surrender he went to Tokyo to serve in the army of occupation.
“We saw a country that was torn up,” Krasne recalled. “The main buildings were made of stone and they were alright but the areas constructed of bamboo and paper the fire bombs had reduced to nothing. Whole blocks were empty.”
After initial distrust, the Japanese warmed to their American occupiers, but persisted in their blind obedience to authority. “It was quite an observation because the people were still oriented that the emperor is god and can do no wrong and whatever he says goes,” said Krasne, who saw citizenry dutifully bow to policemen.
“It brought home the fact these people were oriented differently than anybody we’d ever met. It was quite an experience.”
Though he meant to quit the grocery business when he returned home he found it the only sure thing and remained in the field the rest of his working life.
Old Warriors Never Die, They Just Fade Away
Like veterans everywhere, Omaha’s Jewish vets run the gamut when it comes to how much or how little they’ve invested themselves in things like post-war reunions and commemorations.
Some, like Lloyd Krasne, Stuart Muskin and Kevee Kirshenbaum, have been to numerous reunions. Muskin, Kirshenbaum and Bill Cohen of Omaha traveled on a Heartland Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Some of these same men attended a tribute two years ago honoring Omaha area veterans and Holocaust survivors. Some concentration camp prisoners met their liberators.
Other vets want little to do with any fanfare over those times.
Some have scrapbooks and mementos, others — nothing.
For most veterans, Omaha’s Jewish ranks included, wartime service was something they spoke little of after returning home and getting on with their lives. It’s only in the last two decades, as major anniversaries of the war were observed, they began openly telling their stories.
All lost something along the way. Buddies. Time. Innocence. Their humble attitude about going to war, which Lloyd Friedman summed up with, “somebody had to do it,” helps explain why they are the Greatest Generation.
Several vets get together Mondays at the Bagel Bin. They may be gray and fragile now, but there was a time when they cut dashing figures and did heroic things. As their numbers grow ever fewer, they represent a trove of history not to be forgotten
- What dose the Battle of the bulge and The battle of Britian have in common (wiki.answers.com)
- The Battle of the Bulge (theroadtovictory.wordpress.com)
- Leo Adam Biga’s Survivor-Rescuer Stories Featured on Institute for Holocaust Education Website (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Sisters of the Shoah: Three Survivor Tales, Three Golden Fates, Three Iron Wills (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
For many Nebraskans, myself included, Bob Kerrey has always been a fascinating figure. Unusual for a politician from this state, he exuded a charisma, some of it no doubt innate and genuine, and some of it I suspect the reflected after glow of our idealized projections. As a combat war veteran who overcame the loss of a leg in service to his country, he was a valiant survivor . As a brash political upstart and liberal Democrat in solidly conservative and old-boy-network Republican Nebraska his was a new voice. His good-looks and suave ways gave him a certain It appeal. When he landed in the governor’s office and struck up a romance with actress Debra Winger, who was in state to shoot scenes for the film Terms of Endearment, it only confirmed Kerrey as a rising star and player in his own right. His long career in the U.S. Senate is probably most memorable for the number of times he was mentioned as a possible candidate for the Democratic presidential nominee race. He did end up running but it soon became clear his magic did not resonate with the masses. More recently, he dealt with the unpleasant truth of hard things his unit did during the Vietnam War. He left the political arena for a university presidency only to find himself at odds with faculty and student groups who eventually called for his ouster. As he prepares to leave the world of academics for some as yet unnamed new venture, he seems like a lot of us who come to a point in life where it’s time for reinvention and renewal. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is obstensibly a sampler of his views on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as it relates to active duty military and war veterans, but it also serves as a look into how he approaches and articulates issues. I also have him weigh in on the Tucson shooting. At the end of the piece I address some of the currents in his professional life that find him, if not adrift exactly, then searching for a new normal.
Bob Kerrey Weighs in on PTSD, Old Wars, New Wars, Endings and New Beginnings
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Vietnam war veteran and former Nebraska governor and U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey will be in Omaha Jan. 31 to salute At Ease, an Omaha program providing confidential behavioral health services to active duty military personnel and family members.
Founded by Omaha advertising executive Scott Anderson, At Ease is administered by Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. Kerrey, whose embattled New School (New York) presidency ended January 1, is the featured speaker for the At Ease benefit luncheon at Qwest Center Omaha.
Reports estimate up to one in five Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans — some 300,000 individuals — suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression. Controversy over strict U.S. Veterans Administration guidelines for PTSD claims has led to new rules that lessen diagnostic requirements and streamline benefits processing.
Last summer Kerrey, a board member with the Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America (IAVA), publicly criticized a VA policy banning its physicians from recommending medical marijuana to patients.
“There are doctors who are strongly of the view that marijuana prescribed and monitored can be beneficial for a number of physical and mental conditions,” he says. “And in those states where medical marijuana is legal I think the VA should allow it.
“If a doctor can prescribe medical marijuana for somebody who’s not a veteran, it doesn’t seem to me to be right for that doctor not to be able to prescribe it for a veteran.”
Kerrey, speaking by phone, says he keeps fairly close tabs on veterans’ affairs.
“I would say I stay more current on veterans health and veterans issues than I do on other issues. I’ve made a few calls on the Veterans Bill of Rights that (Sen.) Jim Webb pushed. I get called from time to time to help people that are having problems. It’s much harder to help somebody when you’re not holding the power of a senate office or a governor’s office.”
Kerrey strongly advocates the work of IAVA, founded in 2004 by Paul Rieckhoff, a former Army First Lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq.
“It’s a very good organization for any Iraq or Afghan veteran that’s looking for somebody they can talk to,” says Kerrey. “They’re very careful not to duplicate what the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) and the (American) Legion are doing.
“They don’t have buildings, they just have basically networks of Iraq and Afghan veterans who are trying to help each other.”
He suggests the number of veterans needing help for PTSD is so vast that only a combined public-private initiatives can adequately address the problem.
“You start off with an estimate of 300,000 PTSD sufferers from Iraq and Afghanistan and multiply by it two or three, depending on how many family members are going to be affected, and you’re talking about maybe a million people,” he says.
“This is a difficult thing for the Veterans Administration or other government entities to handle all by themselves. Non-governmental efforts are typically supplemental — all by themselves they’re not going to get the job done (either).”
He views At Ease as a non-governmental response that can help address problems at the local level.
“It’s hard to figure out what to do for a million, but if you’re talking about 50 or 60 or a hundred or just one, there’s something you can do, and that’s what At Ease is doing through Lutheran Family Services. It’s a great example of how when you say, I’d like to do something to help, there are venues, there are ways to help. It’s a terrific story.”
His remarks at the fund raiser will make that very point.
“My focus will be on how possible it is for a single individual, in this case Scott Anderson, a nonmilitary citizen with no direct contact with PTSD, to do something. And his program’ saved lives, it’s made lives better.”
In this belt-tightening era, Kerrey says nonprofit-volunteer efforts can make an especially vital impact.
“We hear so much about things unique to America that there’s a tendency at times to be skeptical. But our nation’s volunteer, not-for-profit efforts are unique in the world. The financial and volunteer time giving that occurs is a real source of strength that doesn’t show up on economic analyses,” he says, adding that veterans’ problems are “not going to be made easier if in a moment of budget cuts we cut back on mental health services.”
Attitudes about mental health disorders are much different now than when he returned from combat in Vietnam, where he led a Navy SEAL team. Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor. Thankfully, he says, the stigma of PTSD is not what it used to be.
“First of all, I think mental illness is seen much differently today — much more mainstream, much more comparable to physical illness. I think you’d probably have a hard time finding somebody in Nebraska that doesn’t have somebody who’s experienced a trauma producing some kind of disability.
“I would say the mental trauma is in a demonstrable way more disabling than the physical trauma. And the two can be connected. I think generally today people accept that. I’m sure there’s still a lot of people who think of PTSD as connected to Vietnam but I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. The rule is it’s seen more broadly as a condition that can affect anybody, both in and out of combat.”
Repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghan, he says, have added new stressors for “guys rotating in and out multiple times. It’s one thing to go over your first time and wonder whether or not an IED is going to take you out, but to have to go over a second, a third, a fourth (time) — at some point it has to harden you when you get home. It has to have a terrible impact on you.”
He believes whatever care veterans receive must be personal and consistent.
“The most important thing is sustained support because what you need is somebody you can call when you’re having trouble,” he says.
Although he never suffered PTSD, he dealt with losing a limb and adjusting to a prosthesis. He endured physical pain and memory-induced night sweats. He says while recovering from his injuries “some of the most important things given to me were by volunteers who would just come in and say, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ It’s extremely important for another human being to be there and demonstrate they care enough about you to spend time with you.”
On other topics, Kerrey says the recent Tucson shooting may hold cautionary lessons. Alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner made threats against his target, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat sharply criticized by the Right. Kerrey says while rhetoric is part of this society’s free exchange of ideas, labeling an elected official a danger may trigger an unstable person to act violently.
Meanwhile, Kerrey, who was to have remained New School president through July, has given way to David Van Zandt. Kerrey remains affiliated with the school. His fate as president was sealed when senior faculty returned a 2009 no-confidence vote. Until last summer Kerrey had been in negotiations with the Motion Picture Association of America to become the trade group’s president.
About his New School experience, he says, “I’m grateful for the chance to have done it. I learned a lot. I got a lot done. I made a lot of friends.” He also ran afoul of vocal student-faculty blocs. His well-known political skills failed him in the end.
“I certainly didn’t expect my term as university president was going to be free of situations where something was going to be upsetting. I was not an altogether cooperative student when I went to the University of Nebraska. I’ve seen university presidents hounded, harassed, criticized before I became one, so it didn’t really surprise me.”
With the MPAA no longer courting him, Kerrey says he’s looking to do “something in public service — something I think is not going to get done unless I do it,” adding, “It’s much more likely I’m going to be spending more time back there (Nebraska).”
- PTSD Programs for Families (vabenefitblog.com)
- What are the signs of PTSD? (zocdoc.com)
- PTSD Affects Entire Families – Caring for the Caregivers (offthebase.wordpress.com)
- Advice for Parents of PTSD Soldiers (brighthub.com)
- Former SEAL Team Six Member Releases An Incredibly Well-Timed Memoir (mediaite.com)
- Bob Kerrey: Why Washington Isn’t Working for the American People (huffingtonpost.com)
Another of the unforgettable characters I have met in the course of my writing life is the subject of this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com). Jim Hendrickson is a Vietnam combat vet who went from looking through the scope of a rifle as a sniper in-country to looking through the lens of a camera as an art photographer after the war. His story would make a good book or movie, which I can honestly say about a number of people I have profiled through the years. But there is a visceral, cinematic quality to Jim’s story that I think sets it apart and will be readily apparent to you as you read it.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson is one of those odd Omaha Old Market denizens worth knowing. The Vietnam War veteran bears a prosthetic device in place of the right arm that was blown-off in a 1968 rocket attack. His prosthetic ends in pincer-like hooks he uses to handle his camera, which he trains on subjects far removed from violence, including Japanese Butoh dancers. Known by some as “the one-armed photographer,” he is far more than that. He is a fine artist, a wry raconteur and a serious student in the ways of the warrior. Typical of his irreverent wit, he bills himself as — One Hand Clapping Productions.
The Purple Heart recipient well-appreciates the irony of having gone from using a high-powered rifle for delivering death to using a high-speed camera for affirming life. Perhaps it is sweet justice that the sharp eye he once trained on enemy prey is today applied in service of beauty. For Hendrickson, a draftee who hated the war but served his country when called, Vietnam was a crucible he survived and a counterpoint for the life he’s lived since. Although he would prefer forgetting the war, the California native knows the journey he’s taken from Nam to Nebraska has shaped him into a monument of pain and whimsy.
His pale white face resembles a plaster bust with the unfinished lines, ridges and scars impressed upon it. The right side — shattered by rocket fragments and rebuilt during many operations — has the irregularity of a melted wax figure. His collapsed right eye socket narrows into a slit from which his blue orb searches for a clear field of vision. His massive head, crowned by a blond crew cut, is a heavy, sculptured rectangle that juts above his thick torso ala a Mount Rushmore relief. Despite his appearance, he has a way of melding into the background (at least until his big bass voice erupts) that makes him more spectator than spectacle. This knack for insinuating himself into a scene is something he learned in the Army, first as a guard protecting VIPs and later as a sniper hunting enemy targets. He’s refined this skill of sizing-up and dissecting a subject via intense study of Japanese samurai-sword traditions, part of a fascination he has with Asian culture.
Because his wartime experience forever altered his looks and the way he looks at things, it’s no surprise the images he makes are concerned with revealing primal human emotions. One image captures the anxiety of a newly homeless young pregnant woman smoking a cigarette to ward off the chill and despair on a cold gray day. Another portrays the sadness of an AIDS-stricken gay man resigned to taking the train home to die with his family. Yet another frames the attentive compassion of an old priest adept at making those seeking his counsel feel like they have an unconditional friend.
The close observation demanded by his work is a carryover from Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty. “With sniping, you had to look at the lay of the land. You had to start looking from the widest spectrum and then slowly narrow it down to that one spot and one moment of the kill,” he said. “You got to the point where you forced yourself to look at every detail and now, of course, I’m doing that today when I photograph. I watch the person…how they move, how they hold themselves, how they talk, waiting for that moment to shoot.”
Shooting, of a photographic kind, has fascinated him from childhood, when he snapped pics with an old camera his Merchant Marine father gave him. He continued taking photos during his wartime tours. Classified a Specialist Four wireman attached to B-Battery, 1st Battalion, I-Corp, Hendrickson’s official service record makes no mention of his actual duty. He said the omission is due to the fact his unit participated in black-op incursions from the DMZ to the Delta and into Cambodia and Laos. Some operations, he said, were conducted alongside CIA field agents and amounted to assassinations of suspected Vietcong sympathizers.
As a sniper, he undertook two basic missions. On one, he would try spotting the enemy — usually a VC sniper — from a far-off, concealed position, whereupon he would make “a long bow” shot. “I was attached to field artillery units whose artillery pieces looked like over-sized tanks. The pieces had a telescope inside and what I would do is sit inside this glorified tank and I would rotate the turret looking through the telescope, looking for that one thing that would say where the Vietcong sniper was, whether it was sighting the sniper himself or some kind of movement or just something that didn’t belong there. I’d pop the top hatch off, stand up on a box and then fire my weapon — a bolt-action 30-ought-6 with a 4-power scope — at the object. Sometimes, I’d fire into a bunch of leaves and there’d be nothing there and sometimes there was somebody there.” When the target couldn’t be spotted from afar, he infiltrated the bush, camouflaged and crawling, to “hunt him down.” Finding his adversary before being found out himself meant playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game.
“You look at where he’s firing from to get a fix on where he’s holed up and then you come around behind or from the side. You move through the bush as quietly as possible, knowing every step, and even the smell of the soap you wash with, can betray you. I remember at least three times when I thought I was going to die because the guy was too good. It’s kind of a like a chess match in some sense. At some point, somebody makes a mistake and they pay for it. I remember sitting in a concealed location for like three days straight because only a few yards away was my opponent, and he knew where I was. If I had gone out of that location, he would have shot me dead. So, for three days I skulked and sat and waited for a moonless night and then I slipped out, came around behind him — while he was still looking at where I was — and killed him.”
His first kill came on patrol when assigned as a replacement to an infantry unit. “I was the point man about 50 feet ahead of the unit. I heard firing behind me and, so, I turned to run back to where the others were when this figure suddenly popped up in front of me. I just reacted and fired my M-16 right from the hip. I got three shots into the figure as I ran by to rejoin the patrol. The fire fight only lasted two or three minutes, By then, the Vietcong had pulled back. The captain asked us to go out and look for papers on the dead bodies. That first kill turned out to be a young woman of around 16. It was kind of a shock to see that. It taught me something about the resolve the Vietcong had. I mean, they were willing to give up their children for this battle, where we had children trying to evade the draft.”
As unpopular as the war was at home, its controversial conduct in-country produced strife among U.S. ground forces.
“Officers were only in the field for six months,” Hendrickson said, “but enlisted men were stuck out there for a year. We knew more about what was happening in the field than they did. A lot of times you’d get a green guy just out of officers’ school and he’d make some dumb mistake that put you in harm’s way. We had an open rebellion within many units. There was officer’s country and then there was enlisted men’s country.”
In this climate, fragging — the killing of officers by grunts — was a well-known practice. “Oh, yes, fragging happened quite a lot,” he said. “You pulled a grenade pin, threw the grenade over to where the guy was and the fragments killed him.” Hendrickson admits to fragging two CIA agents, whom he claims he took-out in retribution for actions that resulted in the deaths of some buddies. The first time, he said, an agent’s incompetence gave away the position of two fellow snipers, who were picked-off by the enemy. He fragged the culprit with a grenade. The second time, he said, an agent called-in a B-52 strike on an enemy position even though a friendly was still in the area.
“I walked over to the agent’s hootch (bunker), I called him out and I shot three shots into his chest with a .45 automatic. He fell back into the hootch. And just to let everybody know I meant business I threw a grenade into the bunker and it incinerated him. Everybody in that unit just quietly stood and looked at me. I said, ‘If you ever mess with me, you’ll get this.’ Nobody ever made a report. It went down as a mysterious Vietcong action.”
He was early into his second tour when he found himself stationed with a 155-Howitzer artillery unit. “We were on the top of a gentle hill overlooking this valley. I was working the communications switchboard in a bunker. I was on duty at two or three in the morning when I started hearing these thumps outside. I put my head up and I saw explosions around our unit. Well, just then the switchboard starts lighting up.”
In what he said was “a metaphor” for how the war got bogged down in minutiae, officers engaged in absurd chain-of-command proprieties instead of repelling the attack. “Hell, these Albert Einsteins didn’t even know where their own rifles were,” he said, bellowing with laughter. What happened next was no laughing matter. In what was the last time he volunteered for anything, he snuck outside, crossed a clearing and extracted two wounded soldiers trapped inside a radio truck parked next to a burning fuel truck.
“First, I started up the fuel truck, put the self-throttle on, got it moving out of the unit and jumped out. Then I went back and helped the wounded out of their truck and got them back to where the medics were. Then, another guy and I were ‘volunteered’ to put a 60-caliber machine gun on the perimeter fence. We were on the perimeter’s edge…when I saw a great flash. A Russian-made 122-millimeter rocket exploded. The man behind me died instantly. The only thing I remember is the sense of flying.” Hendrickson’s right arm and much of the right side of his face was shredded off.
As he later learned, a battalion of Vietcong over-ran a company of Australians stationed on the other side of the hilltop and attacked his unit “in a human wave.” He said, “They ran right by me, thinking I was dead, probably because of all the blood on me.” The attack was knocked-back enough to allow for his rescue.
“I remember starting to come around as my sergeant yelled at me…I heard an extremely loud ringing noise in my ears. I knew something was extremely wrong with my right arm, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t really see anything because my eyes were swollen shut from the fragments in my face. About that time the medic came along. They put me on a stretcher and pulled me back to a hold. That’s when I was told my right arm was blown off.
“I was just thankful to be alive at that point. Then, the rockets started coming in again and people were running around getting ready for the next human wave attack. I was lying there with the two guys I’d saved. Then I saw this big bright light in the pitch black. It was a chopper coming in to pick us up. The medics carried us up, threw us in and the pilot took off. As we lifted, I could hear bullets ripping through the chopper. We were taken to the nearest hospital, in Long Binh, about 50 miles away.”
While recuperating, Hendrickson was informed by his captain that of the 100-plus-man strong unit, there were only five survivors – the captain, Hendrickson, along with the two men he saved, plus one other man. “Apparently,” Hendrickson said, “the unit had been hit by a combination of rocket and human wave attacks that night and the day after and were eventually wiped off the earth. Years later, the historians said this was a ‘retreating action’ by the Vietcong. If this was a retreating action, I sure as heck would hate to see it when they were serious and advancing.” He said his fellow survivors are all dead now. “Those are four people whose names should be on that wall in Washington. Unfortunately, they’ll never be recognized as casualties of war, but yet they are casualties OF THE war.”
He spent the next several months in and out of hospitals, including facilities in Japan, before undergoing a series of operations at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco. Afterwards, he said, he entered “a wandering period…trying to find myself.” He made his home in Frisco, becoming a lost soul amid the psychedelic searchers of the Haight-Ashbury district. “I tried to resume a life of somewhat normalness, but it was like a whole separate reality.” He enrolled in City College-San Francisco, where he once again felt out of place.
Disillusioned and directionless, he then came under the guidance of a noted instructor and photographer — the late Morrie Camhi. “Morrie made that connection with me and started me on a pathway of using photography as a kind of therapy. It was a really great relationship that evolved…He became like a second father.” Years of self-discovery followed. Along the way, Hendrickson earned a master of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, married a woman with whom he got involved in the anti-war and black power movements and, following years of therapy in storefront VA counseling centers, overcame the alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered from after the war. While his marriage did not last, he found success, first as a commercial artist, doing Victoria’s Secret spreads, and later as an art photographer with a special emphasis on dance.
Helping him find himself as an artist and as a man has been an individual he calls “my teacher” — Sensie Gene Takahachi, a Japanese sword master and calligrapher in the samurai tradition. Hendrickson, who has studied in Japan, said his explorations have been an attempt to “find a correlation or justification for what happened to me in Vietnam. I studied the art of war…from the samurai on up to the World War II Zero-pilot. I studied not only the sword, but the man behind the sword. In the Japanese philosophy of the sword it’s how you make the cut that defines the man you are and the man you’re up against.” He said this, along with the minimalist nature of Haiku poetry and calligraphy, has influenced his own work.
“I try to do the same thing in my photography. I try to strip down a subject to the most essential, emotional image I can project.” He has applied this approach to his enigmatic “Haiku” portraits, in which he overlays and transfers multiple Polaroid images of a subject on to rice paper to create a mysterious and ethereal mosaic. While there is a precision to his craft, he has also opened his work up to “more accidents, chaos and play” in order to tap “the child within him.” For him, the act of shooting is a regenerative process. “When I shoot — I empty myself, but everything keeps coming back in,” he said.
A self-described “vagabond” who’s traveled across the U.S. and Europe, he first came to Omaha in 1992 for a residency at the Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts. A second Bemis residency followed. Finding he “kept always coming back here,” he finally moved to Omaha. An Old Market devotee, he can often be found hanging with the smart set at La Buvette. Feeling the itch to venture again, he recently traveled to Cuba and is planning late summer sojourns to Havana and Paris. Although he’s contemplating leaving Omaha, he’s sure he’ll return here one day. It is all part of his never-ending journey.
“I see photography as a constant journey and one that has no end until the day I can’t pick-up a camera anymore,” he said.
- How Snipers Succeed by Missing Their Targets (theqco.com)
- In the shadow of Vietnam: A close encounter with Karl Marlantes, US marine turned literary giant (independent.co.uk)
- Full Metal Jacket: history unzipped (guardian.co.uk)
- Darpa’s Super Sniper Scopes in Shooters’ Hands by 2011 (wired.com)
- Snipers targeting children in key Libyan city: UN (cbc.ca)