My name is Eli Freundlich. I was 18 and had just graduated Torah Voddath in Williamsburg. America had entered the war a few years before. I wanted to be drafted so was happy when I received my notice. It was July 1943 – July 27, 1943 to be exact – when I was sworn into the American Army.
My parents were not happy. They would have rather me stayed in yeshiva than be in the trenches. In my day you either went to college or went to work after high school. The yeshivas, though, set up a system where you could register as a divinity student and that way get out of being drafted.
On August 18, I reported to Camp Upton in Long Island. We received our inoculations and uniforms and then we were sent to Camp Croft boot camp in South Carolina. This is where I received my basic training. I learned things like how to fire a gun, get around at night, dig foxholes and how to march.
Our day started with reveille at 6:00 a.m. – roll call, exercises and clean up. But I would always manage somehow to hole myself up in a corner to daven before breakfast. After breakfast, we “fell out” in formation.
There was another religious soldier in my barrack. He was a German refugee named Yitzchak Goldschmidt. He didn’t carry his weapons or any muktza item on Shabbos and did his training over on Sunday, which was our day off. He also made an arrangement with the guys in the barrack. Every Friday night we had to spotlessly clean the barracks, with a toothbrush, we would joke. We called it the “floor show.” Yitzchak agreed to clean all the windows by himself throughout the week so that Friday night he could go to chapel.
At the end of the training period, he came over to me and said, “They offered me an honorable discharge because my religious practices are incompatible with the army. I don’t want to take it because it might cause a chillul Hashem. The goyim will think I used this shtick to get out of the army.”
Later he was sent overseas to Europe. The last letter I sent to him was returned – killed in action. He stepped on a booby trap set by the Germans. I believe he was an only child. Yehi zichro baruch.
The army didn’t supply kosher meals in those days so I did not eat any meat and tried to stay away from anything mixed with meat. This was difficult as everything was fried in lard. I also made it my business to daven every day and put on my tefillin. As a matter of fact, once overseas, I spent a lot of time in the jungles of the Philippines looking for a quiet, private place to daven. I finally found it at the end of the war, in Japan. I asked the Catholic chaplain there if I could use his office to pray.
“By all means.” He said.
So I covered the crosses and finally got my privacy!
After 4 months of basic training, we were sent overseas. I hoped to be assigned to Europe but was sent to Asia instead and so I resigned myself to thinking that wherever Hashem would send me, that’s where I would fight.
Why was I so bent on being in the army in the first place? It’s true that I and most Americans had no idea at that time the extent to which the Jews in Europe were being exterminated. We just knew there was a lot of anti-semitism and sporadic Jew killings. Nevertheless it was enough for me; I wanted my chance for nekama– revenge.
Up until then I had been regularly sending letters home. I knew as long as my mother thought I was safe in South Carolina, she wouldn’t worry about me. So I prepared a batch of letters to be sent out weekly by a fellow soldier who was staying behind so she would continue to think I was in the States. I’m not sure how long she was fooled but I know it did work for a while.
In March of ’44 we were sent to Milne Bay, New Guinea. I was assigned to the 81mm mortar squad in the 19th infantry regimen, 24th division. My job was ammo carrier – I carried 6 rockets, 3 in a vest in the front and 3 in the back (along with my backpack and rifle). We fed the rockets to the soldier shooting them. We could never see if we hit our target because the job of the mortar squad was to shoot over the heads of our riflemen on the front line to the enemy. Well, put it this way, if we did see our enemy we were in big trouble because that meant he had crossed into our lines, killing all our soldiers in front. The set up was as follows: we were in a big circle with the foot soldiers in the front all around and 2 mortar squads in the middle, short distance mortar and the 81mm. We were in regular contact with the “site man.” He was also in the front and he was the guy who radioed to us in which direction we should shoot.
The first time I saw action was at the end of ’44. We were ordered onto ships that took us to the Philippine Islands. When we reached the beach of Leyte, the landing crafts were lowered into the water. With all our gear, we climbed down a net made of manila rope to the little boats that would take us close to the beach. We waded in the water to get to dry land. The idea was to make a dash for the treeline as the beach was open target for enemy fire.
I don’t remember being particularly nervous when we landed the first time or any time although I guess I should have been. I do remember that they woke us up at 5:00 a.m. for a good, solid breakfast. Unfortunately, it consisted of pork and beans. So there went my fortifying breakfast.
There was one time we were surrounded on all sides by the Japs. After the war I heard we were nicknamed “The Lost Battalion.” The fact was we were not lost at all. We won that round at the end. But it did get pretty hairy while we were going through it. We ran out of supplies and the army tried to drop new ones into our lines but most of the time they missed and the Japs got them. Some of the soldiers were getting so hungry, they were stripping the trees to eat the bark. However, at the end, our reinforcements were able to break through the enemy lines and get to us.
Now somewhere in the middle of that experience, I was hospitalized for jungle rot, a kind of tropical skin disease. When I was released, they took me and other ex-patients back to our unit. We took a circuitous route through the jungle in order to avoid the enemy. We walked in single file and were loaded up with supplies to bring to the men. I was so exhausted and weighted down, that I kept throwing off supplies as we went along.
When we were in the fighting area, we generally slept nights in the foxhole. One night we crossed a creek and were ordered to dig our foxholes. The problem was it was too near the water and my foxhole kept filling up. So I sat on my metal helmet to keep myself off the wet ground. Every time I fell asleep, though, I would topple off the helmet! One night lying in my foxhole, I saw bolts of fire streak across the sky crisscrossing each other. It was shooting going on between both sides. My unit was not involved so I was able to lie there simply watching this awesome sight.
There were no religious soldiers in my unit. However, I met a few who were not in my unit. One guy named Manny Waldman was a fellow I kept up with for many years afterward. We initially met when the chaplain organized the yearly Pesach seder. It wasn’t much of a seder, just eating matzoh and drinking wine. So there in the deep jungles of the Philipines, we decided to conduct our own completely authentic seder. There was another guy, Lieberman, I think his name was, from Boro Park. We used to get together every once in a while to commiserate on how difficult it was trying to follow halacha in the jungle. Speaking of halacha, I had an interesting experience with my tefillin that wouldn’t happen in New York. They rotted. I guess from the heat and the jungle conditions. I knew we were closest to the Australian continent and Brisbane was a large city there. So I addressed a letter to the rabbi of Brisbane, (I didn’t even know if there was a rabbi in Brisbane!) explaining who I was and requesting a pair of tefillin. I had no idea how much it would cost so I enclosed five dollars. Believe it or not, I received my tefillin!
On Rosh Hashanah the army would drive all the Jewish guys to a hospital where they held services. The problem was they’d drive them back and forth on Rosh Hashanah – both days. I managed to wangle a pass from the chaplain to let me stay at the hospital for those 2 days. The following year, however, they held services in two different hospitals. So a pass to one of them wouldn’t help. I had to make a decision then. Should I stay on base and be forced to mechalel yom tov and have no prayers or take the truck ride? I opted for the truck ride. At the end, I don’t think I was mechalelanything because it was a group ride. The driver was going anyway, not stopping and starting just for me. But I’m not a rabbi so I can’t say for sure. It just seemed the right thing for me to do. So that was my “soul” career in the army. Oh yes, I did try getting together a minyan for Friday nights but the most I could gather were 9 men. So that didn’t work out.
I didn’t feel any anti Semitism. There was one guy, I called him the Mule Skinner – he was a huge southerner with bulging muscles. He would make anti-black remarks all the time. Those were my liberal days when I defended the blacks so I always came back to him with a retort. One time I could see the veins bulging in this forehead, he was so mad, but he never laid a hand on me. He would often say in his southern drawl – “Mah minister always says – anybody who messes with the People of the Book, will come to no good end.”
After V-J Day, I went to Hiroshima. The devastation was complete. I could see from one end to the other. There were just a few walls of one building left standing in the entire city. After that we were shipped back to the States via San Francisco and from there to Boro Park. I didn’t remain home too long because I soon enlisted with the Irgun to fight for Palestine. But that’s another story.
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