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Ed Koch and New York’s Fighting Generation

Most obituaries on Ed Koch paid scant attention to his military service in World War II.

Ed Koch

Ed Koch

The last sentence on Ed Koch’s tombstone reads: “Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America, in whose armed forces he served in World War II.”

The preceding two lines engraved on the headstone of the former New York City mayor, who died on February 1 at the age of 88, declare that “He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York, and he fiercely loved its people.” The stone also includes the first line of the Shema in Hebrew and English.

Unfortunately, the Koch obituaries in New York City’s three major daily newspapers devoted just one or two flimsy sentences to his pivotal wartime experiences (1943-46), and none even mentioned that he fought in the outstanding 104th (Timberwolf) Infantry Division for a month in the fall of 1944.

Additionally, at his funeral at Temple Emanu-El on February 4, none of the eulogists, who included former president Bill Clinton, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Israeli consul general in New York Ido Aharoni, discussed Mayor Koch’s World War II service. Only Koch’s law partner, James F. Gill, said in passing that Koch served “as a soldier in World War II.”

Ironically, an “appreciation” of Koch in the Forward by Jonathan Soffer, a history professor and author of Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, erroneously stated that he “joined the 104th Infantry Division, and fought against the Wehrmacht in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany in the spring of 1944.”

In reality, the only fighting in the “spring of 1944” in northwest Europe occurred during the season’s last two weeks beginning on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Americans, British and Canadians stormed ashore in Normandy.

But the Allies were then bottled up in northern Normandy until the last week of July 1944, when the American-led breakout (Operation Cobra) occurred, and the Second, Third, Fourth and Sixth Armored divisions swept down the Cotentin Peninsula and demolished the entire left flank of the Wehrmacht’s defenses. By early September, in conjunction with the Franco-American invasion of the French Rivera on August 15, 1944, the American-dominated Allied armies had liberated most of France.

Ed Koch’s 104th Infantry Division, commanded by the highly competent General Terry de la Mesa Allen, first entered combat in late October 1944, when it was assigned to the Canadian First Army. In Citizen Koch, a 1992 autobiography, Koch provides a brief and confusing account of his combat record, writing that his “frontline duty was curtailed after about three months by another accident.”

But since the 104th Infantry Division entered combat on October 23, 1944, and since Koch said his “combat duty” ended in November 1944, he could not have been on the frontlines for more than five weeks. It’s important to realize, however, that many 15,000-soldier American infantry divisions suffered severe casualty rates in their battles with the highly skilled Wehrmacht in northwest and central Europe between June 6, 1944 and May 8, 1945. The website of the 104th Infantry Division’s Veterans Association states that 34,000 men served in this division, which means it had 19,000 replacement soldiers.

The commanding officer of the Timberwolves, General de la Mesa Allen, was even more intense than General George Patton, his superior officer in North Africa and Sicily. In these campaigns between November 1942 and August 1943, Allen ably led the fabled First Infantry Division, and his assistant division commander was Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who would win the Medal of Honor for his uncommon bravery and competence with the Fourth Infantry Division on Utah Beach on D-Day.

A month after D-Day, General Roosevelt, son of the 26th president, died of a heart attack and is buried in the Omaha Beach Cemetery next to his brother Quentin Roosevelt, who was killed twenty-six years earlier flying for the U.S. Army Air Service in World War I. Another great New York City mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, also flew in General John J. Pershing’s Air Service in World War I. (My maternal grandfather, David Schneiderman, and his brother Reuben, born on the Lower East Side in 1892 and 1894, respectively, were among the 250,000 Jewish Americans who served honorably in World War I.)

The Koch obituaries in the major New York dailies also omitted the fact that on April 11, 1945, the Timberwolves and their brother division, the sterling Third Armored Division, liberated the notorious Nordhausen/Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp, where the Nazis built the V-1 and V -2 rockets that wreaked such human and physical devastation on London in 1944 and 1945.

About the Author: Mark Schulte has written about World War II and the liberation of the concentration camp for two decades for The Jewish Press, New York Post, Weekly Standard, New York Daily News and other publications.


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2 Responses to “Ed Koch and New York’s Fighting Generation”

  1. Anonymous says:

    re: “joined the 104th Infantry Division, and fought against the Wehrmacht in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany in the spring of 1944.” You are obviously correct that there was no fighting in the Low Countries and Germany at that time. I regret the error. The sentence is not completely erroneous, as Koch did indeed join the 104th Infantry division in the spring of 1944. However, as I point out in my book, Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York, the Timberwolves did not disembark until Sept 7, 1944, and later that fall entered combat in the Low Countries. Koch was not serving with the 104th Division when they liberated Nordhausen. He returned to the US in November 1944 after falling down a cellar stairs and breaking his leg during the occupation of Aachen sometime after that city's capitulation on Oct. 21 after heavy fighting. Koch did not return to the European theater until after VE day when he served in a Civil Affairs unit in a Bavarian village, interestingly his first experience in municipal administration. –Jonathan Soffer

  2. Would be great to have a data base of New Yorkers that fought in WW2 for the future generations, 900,000 New Yorkers, the contribution was huge.

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