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.