Latest update: February 14th, 2013
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.
The 104th Infantry and Third Armored divisions were part of the VII Corps, superbly commanded by General J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins, the architect of the Normandy breakout in late July 1944 and the future Army Chief of Staff during the Korean War.
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Another native New Yorker who served in the 104th Infantry Division was Hugh Carey, who served as governor of New York State between 1975 and 1982. Carey, who also served in Congress with Koch, died in 2011. After helping vanquish the mighty Wehrmacht, Carey and Koch no doubt found rescuing New York City from bankruptcy in the late 1970s a relatively less arduous task.
Koch and Carey were among the 900,000 men and women from New York’s five boroughs who served in the American armed forces in World War II, accounting for almost six percent of the 16 million Americans in uniform. They hailed from all of the city’s racial, religious and ethnic groups: Jewish, Irish, Italian, black, Hispanic, German, Polish and a dozen other hyphenated nationalities.
The recent bestselling autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World, movingly relates how her mother, Celina, lied about her age and signed up as a teenager in Puerto Rico with the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) in World War II. After basic training in the South, Sotomayor was posted to New York City, where in 1945 she met and soon married the justice’s father, Juan.
Similarly, my late father, Barney Schulte, recipient of the Bronze Star, grew up in Manhattan and Brooklyn and met my mother Florence, a Bronxite like Koch and Sotomayor, at a jazz club on 52nd Street in Manhattan in early 1944. A few months later, he was shipped overseas and was eventually assigned to General Patton’s crack Sixth Armored Division in eastern France in November 1944.
He also fought with the division in Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany. Their most difficult and costly fight came during the first three weeks of January 1945, when they drove six German divisions back from a snowy and frozen Bastogne during the American counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge.
On April 11, 1945, the Sixth Armored liberated Buchenwald and its 21,000 inmates, making it the first large concentration camp freed on the Western front. During the second half of April 1945, post-liberation Buchenwald became one of the biggest news stories of World War II, overshadowing the liberation of Nordhausen and its 1,000 prisoners on the same day by the 104th Infantry Division.
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Ed Koch was also one of the 550,000 Jewish Americans who served in World War II, of whom, approximately 250,000 came from the streets of New York City. The aforementioned Forward article on Koch by historian Soffer claims the future mayor was “born in Crotona Park in the Bronx in 1924.” I doubt Koch was born in a park where a 13-year-old Jewish slugger, Hank Greenberg, the future Detroit Tigers star and Hall of Famer, was busy perfecting his swing.
Greenberg, it should be noted, spent four years in the U.S. Army during World War II while still in the prime of his illustrious career. Mayor Bloomberg should ask that the City Council rename the Bronx River Parkway “Hank Greenberg Parkway,” which would go along with the renaming of the Queensborough Bridge the “Ed Koch Bridge.”
On May 9, 2005, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of V-E Day, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, one of the great generals of the second half of the 20th century, delivered a stirring encomium to the 1.5 million Jewish soldiers, sailors and airmen who had served so bravely in the Allied armies.
“The contribution by Jewish fighters was first and foremost in battle, facing the enemy – in the air, sea and land,” Sharon emphasized.
If a stroke had not permanently incapacitated the prime minister in January 2006, I suspect he would have attended Mayor Koch’s funeral and delivered a salute to the World War II combat veteran on behalf of the Israeli people.
New York City has several impressive monuments to local residents or prominent generals who served in America’s 18th-and 19th-century wars, including the Washington Monument in Greenwich Village, near Koch’s apartment, the Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, and General Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb near Columbia University.
The deaths of Mayor Koch and Governor Carey, two great New Yorkers, should be a catalyst to build a comparable monument to the 900,000 New Yorkers who served so gallantly in World War II. We shouldn’t postpone this critical municipal undertaking too much longer as fewer and fewer World War II veterans are still alive and inspiring us with their incredible achievements not only during the largest and bloodiest war in history but also throughout the nearly seven decades since the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Incidentally, tens of thousands of World War II veterans who were not native New Yorkers moved to the city after the war. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, spent several years in the late 1940s as president of Columbia University. New York City’s many colleges, universities and professional schools enrolled countless World War II veterans under the GI Bill. Koch, who completed two years at CCNY before being drafted in 1943, returned to the city in 1946 and enrolled directly in NYU Law School.
This postwar migration to the Big Apple included many African-American veterans, including Percy Sutton, the Harlem lawyer/politician who lost to Ed Koch in the 1977 Democratic mayoral primary; Dr. Roscoe Brown, the former Tuskegee pilot and president of Bronx Community College; and the dazzling talent who wore number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers while breaking Major League Baseball’s shameful color barrier – Jackie Robinson. Lieutenant Robinson served in the 761st Tank Battalion stateside, but did not deploy to Europe with the unit.
Indeed, the black population of New York City soared from 458,000 out of a total of 7,455,000 in 1940 (6 percent) to 1,088,000 out of 7,782,000 in 1960 (14 percent). (While the U.S. armed forces were segregated during the war, President Harry Truman, a combat-decorated doughboy, ordered their full integration in 1948.)
Mayor Koch’s pivotal role as the rebuilder of New York City has also not received adequate attention. In 1970, the city’s population was 7,896,000, but it plunged to 7,072,000 in 1980 – a 10 percent drop. Koch entered Gracie Mansion on January 1, 1978, and by 1990, the year his 12-year-mayoral tenure ended, the city’s population had grown to 7,323,000, or a 4 percent increase.
By 2000, under the superb leadership of Rudy Giuliani, who took office on January 1, 1994, the population had jumped to 8,008,000. And under the steady stewardship of Michael Bloomberg, who became mayor on January 1, 2002, the city’s population had increased to 8,245,000 by 2011.
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“And you shall teach then diligently to your children,” the opening words of the Shema’s fifth sentence, certainly applies to the tens of millions of Baby Boomers, the overwhelming majority of whom are the sons or daughters of World War II veterans. At Mayor Koch’s funeral I was seated next to Dr. Mona Sobel, a pediatrician in San Diego who is a graduate of Hunter College High School and CCNY.
We talked about her father, Sheldon Sandler, a U.S. Army Air Corps fighter pilot in the Italy-based 15th Air Force who was shot down over Prague in August 1944 and imprisoned by the Germans. Dr. Sobel’s father died in 1956, when she was in elementary school, and she regrets that she doesn’t know more about her father’s wartime record. (I volunteered to try to fill in some of the gaps.)
Three of Mayor Koch’s nephews, one grandniece and one grandnephew spoke very eloquently at his funeral. But none of the five mentioned Koch’s World War II service. This oversight points to the necessity for New York City schools, universities, synagogues, churches, and other organizations to undertake a thorough documentation of the World War II records of the New Yorkers who attended or belonged to these organizations.
The result of such an undertaking will be that on the 100th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the descendants of these great American heroes will not find themselves facing the same predicament Dr. Sobel has endured for more than five decades.
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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