Photo Credit:
Ed Koch

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.

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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.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. 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

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