One of Omaha’s most distinctive buildings is the old Union Station passenger train terminal, which closed in 1971 and has enjoyed a new life as a history museum since 1975. The Art Deco edifice is a real stunner and its beauty has been preserved through major restoration and conservation efforts. Now called the Durham Museum, the institution is home to some major photographic archives, several permanent displays depicting early Omaha history, and traveling exhibitions from the Smithsonian, of which the museum is an affiliate member. It also hosts many educational and cultural events. My article for Encounter magazine gives a brief overview of the building’s history and how it’s been reinvented from a train station to a museum. Life-like bronze scultpures capture the human stories that played out in that building when it was a busy passenger rail station and actual train engines and cars you can climb aboard provide a sense for what rail travel was like back in the day. A timeline followiing the story helps chart the venue’s makeover from one purpose to the other.
It’s an impressive place to be sure, and if you’re visiting Omaha it’s a must-see stop, as is another Art Deco masterpiece here, the Joslyn Art Museum, which opened the same year, 1931, as the Durham.
Eighty Years and Counting, History in the Making at the Durham Museum
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of the story appears in Encounter magazine
Opened in 1931, the magnificent art deco structure went on to welcome millions of travelers during the heyday of American passenger rail service. At its operational peak in World War II, 10,000 people passed through each day. Open 24/7, this terminal serviced 64 trains and seven railroads daily.
“It was a very busy, active place,” says Bob Fahey, a former red cap (porter) and station master who met his late wife, Jaye, there.
A staff of 60 and a station full of amenities catered to every need. A janitor spent eight hours a day polishing the station’s prodigious brass fixtures.
By the late 1960s, passenger rail travel in the Midwest trailed off to a trickle and the once bustling, gleaming station resembled a dingy ghost town set.
“It was kind of a sad thing to see it dwindling down,” says Fahey.
When Union Station closed in 1971 an era ended. With no further need for it, Union Pacific donated the building to the City of Omaha in 1973. If a future use for the cavernous space was not found, it might have joined other historic landmarks in the demolition heap. Fortunately, preservationists and history buffs repurposed it.
From its 1975 opening as the Western Heritage Museum to its life as the Durham Museum today, the building’s continued to be a magnet, only now the public comes to engage history.
“This building has been serving the community for 80 years, first as a travel-transportation hub and then as a museum,” says director Christi Janssen. “We’re nearing the point where half its life has been a museum.”
After significant restoration, renovation and conservation, a few name changes, and gaining Smithsonian affiliation, the Durham has come into its own as a major arts-cultural institution. It presents exhibitions, lectures, tours and special events.
Union Station veterans like Fahey volunteer to share their stories with visitors.
In this 80th anniversary year, the Durham’s holding joint architectural tours with another Omaha art deco icon turning 80, the Joslyn Art Museum. An August 21 event at both venues promises family-friendly activities for a combined $5.
In 1997 the museum added the Durham name to recognize benefactors Charles and Marge Durham. In 2008 it rebranded simply as the Durham Museum, says Janssen, “to better communicate to the public we’re more than western heritage,” adding, “I think the same can be said about the way we use the building — that it’s more than just a museum where we have artifacts in a case you can look at. In 2009, we changed our mission from preserving and displaying artifacts to being a strong educational-entertainment resource for the community. We want to be a resource for people who enjoy seeing and experiencing history.”
She says the Smithsonian affiliation is something “we’re very proud of because it allows us to bring nationally recognized treasures to Omaha” via traveling exhibits from the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
More of Durham’s own permanent collection treasures will be on view in coming months, including those from its Byron Reed Collection of rare coins and books and from its vast photo archive. “Our curatorial staff is spending a lot of time in our collections areas to be able to present more things,” she says.
The museum, on pace to surpass 150,000 visitors in 2011, “has really evolved,” says Janssen: “We’re able to offer a lot more, and we’re doing it with the same size staff as when I arrived in 2004. We’re finding creative ways to partner. We’re very excited about our 80th anniversary celebration and about what the future holds.”
Historic Timeline of Union Station-Durham Museum
May 29 marks the start of construction of Union Station by Peter Kiewit Sons on the site of the old station. Gilbert Stanley Underwood‘s art deco design infuses every aspect of both the exterior and interior.
After 20 months and $3.5 million, the 124,000 square foot Union Station is completed and opened. The dedication ceremony is held January 15.
The station enjoys its peak years of use.
Passenger rail service declines.
The facility closes.
The structure is donated by Union Pacific to the City of Omaha.
The former station is reopened as the Western Heritage Museum.
The Bostwick-Frohardt Collection is accepted on permanent loan from KMTV.
A portion of the John S. Savage Collection is donated by the photographer.
The Rinehart-Marsden Collection is donated by Alan Baer.
The Byron Reed Collection is transferred to the museum, on loan from the City of Omaha.
The remainder of the John S. Savage Collection is bequeathed upon the photographer’s death.
A $22 million project refurbishes the Great Hall, adds interactive sculptures and builds the 22,000 square foot Trish and Dick Davidson Gallery over Track #1.
The institution’s renamed the Durham Western Heritage Museum in honor of major restoration project benefactors Charles and Marge Durham.
The museum welcomes its one millionth visitor. The Durham gains Smithsonian affiliation.
The 12,500 square foot Velde Gallery of American History is constructed and opens.
The Robert Paskach Collection is donated by his widow, Frances Paskach.
The 1899 boiler house, dating back to the original Union Station, is renovated into the 256-seat Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall.
The institution’s new focus is reflected in its new name, the Durham Museum.
Digitization of the photo archive proceeds.
- El Museo Latino in Omaha Opened as the First Latino Art and History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Fulfilling a $10 Million Promise (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- Pay your way into Smithsonian’s ‘Art of of Video Games’ exhibit (gamesradar.com)
Magdalena Garcia is one of those one-woman bands whose all consuming devotion to her passion, art, is so complete that one finds it hard to imagine how the museum she founded and directs, El Museo Latino in Omaha, would ever survive without her. She is hands-on involved in virtually every aspect of the place, which for its relatively small size presents a tremendous number of exhibitions and programs. The museum is a real jewel in the city and was one of the redevelopment anchors that signaled to others the promise of the South Omaha community it resides in. When she opened the museum 18 years ago South Omaha was in decline but she stuck it out, found a great new site in the heart of the South O business district and she’s seen the area around it transition from nearly a ghost town look and feel to a vibrant, bustling hub of largely Latino owned and operated businesses. I did the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) a few years ago. Maggie, as she’s known, had already grown the museum into a first-rate arts venue of high quality exhibits and programs by that time, and she’s taken it to even greater heights since then.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As preparations for Cinco De Mayo festivities continued earlier this month at El Museo Latino, founder and executive director Magdalena Garcia seemed to be everywhere at once in the sprawling brick building housing the museum at 4701 1/2 South 25th Street. Now in its eighth year, the museum is very much a one-woman show.
With a small staff and a meager budget its survival depends on Garcia, whose formidable drive brought it from concept to reality in five short weeks in early 1993. She does everything from unpacking crates to framing works to leading tours to presenting lectures to schmoozing at fundraisers to writing grants to giving dance lessons. She even locks up at night. It’s her baby. And, despite protests to the contrary, she would not have it any other way. Her work is her life’s mission.
“It’s definitely a passion. I’m totally immersed in it. It’s never, never boring. There’s always something new to do and learn, and that’s exciting,” said Garcia, a Mexico City native who has kept close to her heritage since emigrating with her family to Omaha in the early 1960s. Such devotion is typical for Garcia.
She had an epiphany serving as a Joslyn Art Museum Docent during a 1984 exhibition of art and artifacts from the Maximilian-Bodmer collection on permanent loan to Joslyn from her then employer, Northern Natural Gas, where she was human resources manager. Her experience then inspired a desire to dig deeper into that world and eventually led her to reorder her life around art, something she’d only dabbled in before.
“I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to be that close to real art every day. That was an exciting prospect to me. After the exhibit ended I stayed on as a volunteer in the Joslyn’s art library. Then I found myself taking vacations to see exhibits in Boston, Los Angeles, Europe. As I saw more art I found traveling to exhibitions a few days a year wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted to make art my profession. To work in a museum. I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.”
Her first step on that journey was to switch her major from business to art history while a part-time University of Nebraska at Omaha student. The next step came when her company downsized in 1988 and she accepted a severance package. She used the money to enter graduate school at Syracuse University, where she embarked on a dual master’s program in art history and museum studies. After a fateful decision to change her focus from Renaissance to Latin American art, her research on Mexican muralists took her to New York, Los Angeles (where she completed an internship at the L.A. County Museum of Art) and Mexico City. “It really brought me full circle,” she said.
When New York’s illustrious Guggenheim Museum courted her to head-up its Latin American Art Department it confirmed her marketability as a bilingual woman with art and business expertise. “That was an eye-opener,” she said. “It showed me I could be a tremendous resource to an institution wanting to reach the growing Hispanic population.” She turned the Guggenheim down, however, because she could not justify stopping short of completing the academic path she had worked so long and hard to follow.
Then, in the fall of 1992, something happened to derail her conventional museum track. While in Omaha for a one-day Hispanic Heritage program and exhibit she was struck by the “overwhelming” requests she received to speak to school and community groups and by the “need for a space where we could show art year-round.” That’s when she got the idea of starting an Omaha Hispanic museum.
Bringing a Vision to Life
Her plan from the outset was for a museum to be based in its cultural center — South Omaha. When her search for a space turned-up a former print shop in the basement of the Livestock Exchange Building, she negotiated a one-year lease with eight months free rent in lieu of her cleaning up the ink, grease and smoke-stained site.
Armed with pledges of donated supplies from individuals and businesses, work proceeded at a fever pitch, especially once Garcia and her board decided to open in a mere 34 days to kick-off that year’s Cinco De Mayo celebration. Volunteers worked day and night to convert the space, putting-on the finishing touches minutes before the doors opened at 4 p.m. on May 5, 1993.
Only a few years later, with the museum having quickly outgrown its space and the future of the Livestock Exchange Building and surrounding stockyards in doubt, Garcia looked for a larger, more permanent site and found it in the former Polish Home at the corner of 25th & L, a fitting symbol for the changing makeup of South Omaha’s ethnic community. In Garcia’s mind it was providence that led her to the building, which, with its brick walls, red tile roof and U-shape design framing a courtyard, resembles a Spanish colonial structure. “It probably was meant to be,” she said.
She believes that when El Museo Latino opened in its new digs it became the first Latino art and history museum and cultural center in the Midwest.
The eclectic museum is a reflection of her wide interests in and deep feelings for Hispanic art. What it lacks in polish or panache it makes up for in serious presentations of textiles, pottery, carvings, paintings, drawings and photographs revealing the breadth and depth of a rich culture. “Hopefully, anyone who comes to the museum will get a little glimpse or flavor of how varied Latin American art is. It’s not one thing. It’s not just cactus and mariachi. It’s not just a Mexican thing. It’s a variety of periods, countries and styles,” she said. “The thing I’ve been most pleased with is sharing this diversity not just with our community, but with the rest of the community and sharing how WE see our culture rather than someone else translating it and telling us what our culture is.”
Finding a Niche
Garcia feels the museum is taking hold in the mostly Hispanic district. “I’ve noticed people taking more ownership. That this is ‘our museum’ versus, the first years, this is ‘Maggie’s museum,’ and that’s great. There’s more of a community embrace and it’s grown out of a collaborative effort. Our people look to see what’s happening here and the wider community looks to us to see what the Hispanic community is doing.”
With a broad mission of collecting and exhibiting Hispanic art from the Americas and developing education and outreach programs around all its displays, El Museo Latino has set ambitious goals. To date, it has acquired a small collection of textiles and objects and averaged eight exhibits per year. Garcia hopes to increase acquisitions and add more exhibits, but for now funds are earmarked for renovations to the turn-of-the-century building, including an overhaul of its outmoded electrical and plumbing systems, a major roof repair and the addition of an elevator and dock. Then attention will turn to fully conditioning the former social hall into museum quality classroom and gallery spaces.
To meet those needs and allow for the building’s purchase, the museum is three-quarters of the way to reaching a $1 million fund drive goal. Meanwhile, Garcia said museum-sponsored classes and workshops overflow with students learning paper cutting, weaving and mola-making. Traditional Mexican folk dancing classes are also popular. Garcia, a dancer herself, leads a youth performance dance troupe. Lectures and concerts draw well too. Combined attendance (for exhibits, classes, concerts, etc.) is also up — to 52,000 visitors last year from 17,000 three years ago.
While there is always a chance she will take one of those high-profile museum jobs she still gets offered, she’s not going anywhere soon. “I’ve made a commitment to see this museum take off and really get on solid ground. We’re still pretty new. There’s a lot of work yet to be done,” she said. Besides, she finds renewal in the endlessly rich veins of art she explores. “One of the things I find exciting is that there’s so much out there. It’s like, What do we want to exhibit this time? Every time we have something new it’s a learning process. That part keeps me fresh.”
El Museo Latino is currently presenting a traveling exhibition of Alebrijes, brightly colored wood carvings of fantastic animals from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The show continues through August. For more information, visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org or call 731-1137.
NOTE: El Museo’s exhibition schedule through the remainder of 2012 and into early 2013 is:
- OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, A Melting Pot of Latino/Latin American Concerns (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- National Latino Museum Plan Faces Fight for a Place on the Mall (nytimes.com)
- Should We Have a National Latino Museum? (nytimes.com)
- Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native American Survival Strategies Shared Through Theater and Testimony (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Eighty Years and Counting, History in the Making at the Durham Museum (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- When a Building isn’t Just a Building (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Finding the Essence of Omaha in All the Right Places Leads You to Obvious and Obscure Sites (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home is Where the Heart Is for Activist Attorney Rita Melgares (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- El Puente: Attempting to Bridge the Divide Between Grassroots Community and The System (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A South Omaha Renaissance (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award Winner Maria Walinski-Peterson Follows Her Heart (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One
Even though I grew up in North Omaha and lived there until age 43 or so, I didn’t experience my first Native Omaha Days until I had moved out of the area, and by then I was 45, and the only reason I did intersect with The Days then, and subsequently have since, is because I was reporting on it. The fact that I didn’t connect with it before is not unusual because it is essentially though by no means exclusively an African American celebration, and as you can see by my picture I am a white guy. Then there’s the fact it is a highly social affair and I am anything but social, that is unless prevailed upon to be by circumstance or assignment. But I was aware of the event, admittedly vaguely so most of my life, and I eventually did press my editors at The Reader (www.thereader.com) to let me cover it. And so over the past eight years I have filed several stories related to Native Omaha Days, most of which you can now find on this blog in the run up to this year’s festival, which is July 27-August 1. The story below is my most extensive in terms of trying to capture the spirit and the tradition of The Days, which encompasses many activities and brings back thousands of native Omahans – nobody’s really sure how many – for a week or more of catching up family, friends, old haunts.
NOTE: The parade that is a highlight of The Days was traditionally held on North 24th Street but has more recently been moved to North 30th Street, where the parade pictures below were taken by Cyclops-Optic, Jack David Hubbell.
My blog also features many other stories related to Omaha’s African American community, past and present. Check out the stories, as I’m sure you’ll find several things that interest you, just as I have in pursuing these stories the last 12 years or so.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
A homecoming. That’s what Native Omaha Days, a warm, rousing, week-long black heritage reunion, means to the thousands of native sons and daughters coming back in town for this biennial summer celebration. Although the spree, which unfolded July 30 through August 4 this year, features an official itinerary of activities, including a gospel night, a drill team competition, a parade, a dance and a picnic, a far larger slate of underground doings goes on between the many family and class reunions, live concerts and parties that fill out the Days. Some revelers arrive before the merriment begins, others join the fun in progress and a few stay over well after it’s done. A revival and carnival in one, the Days is a refreshing, relaxing antidote to mainstream Omaha’s uptight ways.
North Omaha bars, clubs and restaurants bustle with the influx of out-of-towners mixing with family and old friends. North 24th Street is a river of traffic as people drive the drag to see old sites and relive old times. Neighborhoods jump to the beat of hip-hop, R&B and soul resounding from house parties and family gatherings under way. Even staid Joslyn Art Museum and its stodgy Jazz on the Green take on a new earthy, urban vibe from the added black presence. As one member of the sponsoring Native Omahans Club said of the festival, “this is our Mardi Gras.”
Shirley Stapleton-Odems is typical of those making the pilgrimage. Born and raised in Omaha — a graduate of Howard Kennedy Elementary School and Technical High School — Stapleton-Odems is a small business owner in Milwaukee who wouldn’t miss the Days for anything. “Every two years I come back…and it’s hard sometimes for me to do, but no matter what I make it happen,” she said. “I have friends who come from all over the country to this, and I see some people I haven’t seen in years. We all meet here. We’re so happy to see each other. It’s a reunion thing. It’s like no matter how long you’re gone, this is still home to us.”
As Omaha jazz-blues guru Preston Love, a former Basie sideman and Motown band leader and the author of the acclaimed book A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, observed, “Omahans are clannish” by nature. “There’s a certain kindredness. Once you’re Omaha, you’re Omaha.” Or, as David Deal, whose Skeets Ribs & Chicken has been a fixture on 24th Street since 1952, puts it, “People that moved away, they’re not out-of-towners, they’re still Omahans — they just live someplace else.” Deal sees many benefits from the summer migration. “It’s an opportunity for people to come back to see who’s still here and who’s passed on. It’s an economic boost to businesses in North Omaha.”
Homecoming returnees like Stapleton-Odems feel as if they are taking part in something unique. She said, “I don’t know of any place in the country where they have something like this where so many people over so many generations come together.” Ironically, the fest’ was inspired by long-standing Los Angeles and Chicago galas where transplanted black Nebraskans celebrate their roots. Locals who’ve attended the L.A. gig say it doesn’t compare with Omaha’s, which goes to the hilt in welcoming back natives.
Perhaps the most symbolic event of the week is the mammoth Saturday parade that courses down historic North 24th Street. It is an impressionistic scene of commerce and culture straight out of a Spike Lee film. On a hot August day, thousands of spectators line either side of the street, everyone insinuating their bodies into whatever patch of shade they can find. Hand-held fans provide the only breeze.
Vendors, selling everything from paintings to CDs to jewelry to hot foods and cold beverages to fresh fruits and vegetables, pitch their products under tents staked out in parking lots and grassy knolls. Grills and smokers work overtime, wafting the hickory-scented aroma of barbecue through the air. Interspersed at regular intervals between the caravan of decorated floats festooned with signs hawking various local car dealerships, beauty shops, fraternal associations and family trees are the funky drill teams, whose dancers shake their booties and grind their hips to the precise, rhythmic snaring of whirling dervish drummers. Paraders variously hand-out or toss everything from beads to suckers to grab-bags full of goodies.
A miked DJ “narrates” the action from an abandoned gas station, at one point mimicking the staccato sound of the drilling. A man bedecked in Civil War-era Union garb marches with a giant placard held overhead emblazoned with freedom slogans, barking into a bullhorn his diatribe against war mongers. A woman hands out spiritual messages.
Long the crux of the black community, 24th Street or “Deuce Four” as denizens know it, is where spectators not only take in the parade as it passes familiar landmarks but where they greet familiar figures with How ya’ all doin’? embraces and engage in free-flowing reminiscences about days gone by. Everywhere, a reunion of some sort unfolds around you. Love is in the air.
The parade had a celebrity this time — Omaha native actress Gabrielle Union (Deliver Us From Eva). Looking fabulous in a cap, blouse and shorts, she sat atop the back seat of a convertible sedan sponsored by her father’s family, the Abrams, whose reunion concided with the fest’. “This is just all about the people of north Omaha showing pride for the community and reaching out to each other and committing to a sense of togetherness,” said Union, also a member of the Bryant-Fisher family, which has a large stake in and presence at the Days. “It’s basically like a renewal. Each generation comes down and everyone sits around and talks. It’s like a passing of oral history, which is…a staple of our community and our culture. It’s kind of cool being part of it.”
She said being back in the hood evokes many memories. “It’s funny because I see the same faces I used to hang out with here, so a lot of mischievous memories are coming back. It’s like, Do you remember the time? So, a lot of good times. A lot of times we probably shouldn’t of been having as young kids. But basically it’s just a lot of good memories and a lot of lessons learned right here on 24th.”
The three-mile parade is aptly launched at 24th and Burdette. There, Charles Hall’s now closed Fair Deal Cafe, once called “the black city hall,” provided a forum for community leaders to debate pressing issues and to map-out social action plans. Back in the day, Hall was known to give away food during the parade, which ends at Kountze Park, long a popular gathering spot in north Omaha. Across the street is Skeets, one of many soul food eateries in the area. Just down the road a piece is the Omaha Star, where legendary publisher Mildred Brown held court from the offices of her crusading black newspaper. Across the street is the Jewell Building, where James Jewell’s Dreamland Ballroom hosted black music greats from Armstrong to Basie to Ellington to Holiday, and a little further north, at 24th and Lake, is where hep cat juke joints like the M & M Lounge and McGill’s Blue Room made hay, hosting red hot jam sessions.
Recalling when, as one brother put it, “it was real,” is part and parcel of the Days. It’s all about “remembering how 24th and Lake was…the hot spot for the black community,” said Native Omahans Club member Ann Ventry. “We had everything out here,” added NOC member Vera Johnson, who along with Bettie McDonald is credited with forming the club and originating the festival. “We had cleaners, barber shops, beauty parlors, bakeries, grocery stores, ice cream stores, restaurants, theaters, clothing stores, taxi companies, doctors’ offices. You name it, we had it. We really didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood for anything,” Johnson said. Many businesses were black-owned, too. North O was, as lifelong resident Charles Carter describes it, “it’s own entity. That was the lifestyle.”
For James Wightman, a 1973 North High and 1978 UNL grad, the homecoming is more than a chance to rejoin old friends, it’s a matter of paying homage to a legacy. “Another reason we come back and go down 24th Street is to honor where we grew up. I grew up at the Omaha Boys Club and I played ball at the Bryant Center. There was so much to do down on the north side and your parents let you walk there. Kids can’t do that anymore.” Noting its rich history of jazz and athletics, Wightman alluded to some of the notables produced by north Omaha, including major league baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers, jazzman Preston Love, social activist Malcolm X, actor John Beasley and Radio One founder and CEO Catherine Liggins Hughes.
For Helen McMillan Caraway, an Omaha native living in Los Angeles, sauntering down 24th Street brings back memories of the music lessons she took from Florentine Kingston, whose apartment was above a bakery on the strip. “After my music lesson I’d go downstairs and get a brownie or something,” she said. “I had to steer clear of the other side of the street, where there was a bar called McGill’s that my father, Dr. Aaron McMillan, told me, ‘Don’t go near.’” Being in Omaha again makes the Central High graduate think of “the good times we used to have at Carter Lake and all the football games. I loved that. I had a good time growing up here.”
For native Omahan Terry Goodwin Miller, now residing in Dallas, being back on 24th Street or “out on the stem,” as natives refer to it, means remembering where she and her best girlfriend from Omaha, Jonice Houston Isom, also of Dallas, got their first hair cut. It was at the old Tuxedo Barbershop, whose nattily attired proprietors, Marcus “Mac” McGee and James Bailey, ran a tight ship in the street level shop they ran in the Jewell Building, right next to a pool hall and directly below the Dreamland. Being in Omaha means stopping at favorite haunts, like Time Out Foods, Joe Tess Place and Bronco’s or having a last drink at the now closed Backstreet Lounge. It means, Goodwin Miller said, “renewing friendships…and talking about our lives and seeing family.” It means dressing to the nines and flashing bling-bling at the big dance and, when it’s over, feeling like “we don’t want to go home and grabbing something to eat and coming back to 24th Street to sit around and wait for people to come by that we know.”
Goodwin Miller said the allure of renewing Omaha relationships is so strong that despite the fact she and Houston Isom live in Dallas now, “we don’t see each other there, but when we come here we’re together the whole time.”
Skeets’ David Deal knows the territory well. From his restaurant, which serves till 2 a.m., he sees native Omahans drawn, at all hours, to their old stomping grounds. He’s no different. “We’re just coming down here to have a good time and seeing people we haven’t seen in years.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as “sitting around and watching the cars go by, just like we used to back in the good old days.”
North Omaha. More than a geographic sector, it is the traditional, cultural heart of the local black community encompassing the social-historical reality of the African-American experience. Despite four decades of federally-mandated civil rights, equal opportunity, fair housing and affirmative action measures the black community here is still a largely separate, unequal minority in both economic and political terms and suffers a lingering perception problem — born out of racism — that unfairly paints the entire near northside as a crime and poverty-ridden ghetto. Pockets of despair do exist, but in fact north Omaha is a mostly stable area undergoing regentrification. There is the 24-square block Miami Heights housing-commercial development going up between 30th and 36th Streets and Miami and Lake Streets, near the new Salem Baptist Church. There is the now under construction North Omaha Love’s Jazz, Cultural Arts and Humanities Complex, named for Preston Love, on the northwest corner of 24th and Lake. The same sense of community infusing Native Omaha Days seems to be driving this latest surge of progress, which finds black professionals like attorney Brenda Council moving back to their roots.
Former NU football player James Wightman (1975-1978) has been coming back for the Days the past eight years, first from Seattle and now L.A., and he said, “I’m pretty pleased with what’s going on now in terms of the development. When I lived here there was a stampede of everybody getting out of Omaha because there weren’t as many opportunities. I look at Omaha’s growth and I see we’re a rich, thriving community now.” During the Days he stays, as many do, with family and hooks up with ex-jocks like Dennis Forrest (Central High) and Bobby Bass (Omaha Benson) to just kick it around. “We’re spread out in different locations now but we all come back and it’s like we never missed a beat.” The idea of a black pride week generating goodwill and dollars in the black community appeals to Wightman, who said, “I came to spend my money on the north side. And I’ll be back in two years.”
Wightman feels the Days can serve as a beacon of hope to today’s disenfranchised inner city youth. “I think it sends a message to the youth that there are good things happening. That people still come back because they feel a sense of family, friendship and connection that a lot of young people don’t have today. All my friends are in town for their school-family reunions and we all love each other. There’s none of this rival Bloods-Crips stuff. We talk about making a difference. It’s not just about a party, it’s a statement that we can all get along with each other.”
“It just shows there’s a lot of good around here,” said Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown, who represents largely black District 2, “but unfortunately it’s not told by the news media.” Scanning the jam-packed parade route, a beaming Brown said, “This is a four-hour event and there’s thousands of people of all ages here and they’re smiling and enjoying themselves and there’s no problems. When you walk around you see people hugging each other. There’s tears in some of their eyes because they haven’t seen their friends, who’ve become their family.”
Family is a recurring theme of the Days. “My family all lives here.” said John Welchen, a 1973 Tech High grad now living in Inglewood, Calif. For him, the event also “means family” in the larger sense. “To me, all of the friends I grew up with and everyone I’ve become acquainted with over the years is my extended family. It’s getting a chance to just see some great friends from the past and hear a lot of old stories and enjoy a lot of laughter.”
Native Omahans living in the rush-rush-rush of impersonal big cities look forward to getting back to the slower pace and gentler ways of the Midwest. “From the time I get off the plane here I notice a difference,” said Houston Odems, who flies into Omaha from Dallas. “People are polite…kind. To me, you just can’t beat it. I tell people all the time it’s a wonderful place to have grown-up. I mean, I still know the people who sold me my first car and the people who dry-cleaned my clothes.”
Although the Days traces its start back to 1977, when the Native Omahans Club threw the first event, celebrations commemorating the ties that bind black Omahans go back well before then. As a young girl in the ‘50s, Stapleton-Odems was a majorette in an Elks drill team that strutted their stuff during 24th Street parades. “It’s a gathering that’s been gong on since I can remember,” she said.
Old-timers say the first few Native Omaha Days featured more of a 24/7, open-air, street-party atmosphere. “We were out in the middle of the street all night long just enjoying each other,” said Billy Melton, a lifelong Omahan and self-styled authority on the north side. “There was live entertainment — bands playing — every six blocks. Guys set up tents in the parks to just get with liquor. After the dances let out people would go up and down the streets till six in the morning. Everybody dressed. Everybody looking like a star. It was a party town and we knew how to party. It was something to see. No crime…nothing. Oh, yeah…there was a time when we were like that, and I’m glad to have lived in that era.”
According to Melton, an original member of the Native Omahans Club, “some people would come a week early to start bar hopping. They didn’t wait for Native Omaha Days. If certain people didn’t come here, there was no party.”
Charles Carter is no old-timer, but he recalls the stroll down memory lane that was part of past fests. “They used to have a walk with a continuous stream of people on either side of the street. What they were doing was reenacting the old days when at nighttime 24th Street was alive. There were so many people you couldn’t find a place to walk, much less park. It was unbelievable. A lot of people are like me and hold onto the thought this is the way north Omaha was at one time and it’s unfortunate our children can’t see it because there’s so much rich history there.”
Then there was the huge bash Billy Melton and his wife Martha threw at their house. “It started early in the morning and lasted all night. It was quite a thing. Music, liquor, all kinds of food. It was a big affair,” Melton said. “I had my jukebox in the backyard and we’d have dancing on the basketball court. Endless conversations. That’s what it’s all about.”
Since the emergence of gang street violence in the mid-80s, observers like Melton and Carter say the fest is more subdued, with nighttime doings confined to formal, scheduled events like the gospel night at Salem and the dance at Mancuso Hall and the 24th Street rag relegated to the North Omahans Club or other indoor venues.
A reunion ultimately means saying goodbye, hence the close of the Days is dubbed Blue Monday. Most out-of-towners have left by then, but the few stalwarts that remain mix with die-hard residents for a final round or two at various drinking holes, toasting fat times together and getting high to make the parting less painful. After a week of carousing, out-of-town revelers wear their exhaustion like a badge of honor. “You’re supposed to be tired from all this,” Houston Isom said. “There’s no such thing as sleeping during this week. I can’t even take a nap because I’ll be worried I might be missing something.” Goodwin Miller builds in recovery time, saying, “When I go home I take a day off before I go back to work.” She and the others can’t wait to do it all over again two years from now.
- Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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- Big Mama’s Keeps It Real, A Soul Food Sanctuary in Omaha: As Seen on ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Community and Coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Once More With Feeling, Loves Jazz & Arts Center Back from Hiatus (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Get Crackin’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Rich Music History Long Untold is Revealed and Celebrated at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Luigi’s Legacy, The Late Omaha Jazz Artist Luigi Waites Fondly Remembered (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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- Soon Come: Neville Murray’s Passion for the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its Role in Rebirthing North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness) (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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)