There are things that Gerald Gersten of Fort Lee doesn’t know, and probably never will know. Some of them are small and personal, and some of them aren’t.
Why did the U.S. Army Air Force pick him?
Why did it decide to train him as a radioman?
Why did the heart murmur that made him undraftable vanish undetected three months later?
Why did the United States, under-airplaned and under-airman-trained and underprepared for an air war, eventually win the war?
Why did 19-year-old Gerry and the eight other men in his team survive?
Why did two of them die young soon afterward?
Why was he able to go on to have a very good, prosperous life, a happy, loving, and still-flourishing marriage, three children who would make anyone proud, and many beloved grandchildren?
There are other things that he does know — stories, and details, and hunches. He knows what it was like to be Jewish in the U.S. Army Air Force; how anti-Semitism revealed itself and how in the end it didn’t get in the way of the bonds unlikely people formed and maintained.
He knows how to live having seen things that no one should ever have to see, much less someone barely out of adolescence.
He knows how to take joy from the moment, particularly when you don’t know what the next moment might bring.
He knows what it feels like to fly a bombing mission over Germany. And well he should — he flew 33 of them.
Mr. Gersten is among the Jewish fliers interviewed in “Bagels Over Berlin,” a documentary film of their wartime experiences. The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly is screening it on Wednesday; Mr. Gersten and its director, Alan Feinberg, will be on hand to talk about it. (See box for more detailed information.)
Gerry’s parents, Sam and Anna, both came from Bukovina, one of the central European places that was traded between more powerful neighbors; in its case, those neighbors included, at different times, Romania, the Ukraine, Poland, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Soviet Union. (It’s now part of Ukraine.) It wasn’t a great place for Jews, so Sam and Anna, like many of their extended family, left.
“One Easter, my father and his friend hid up in a tree, and when they came to beat up the Jews, my father and his friend jumped them and beat them up,” Mr. Gersten said, retelling a family story. His father’s quick removal to the United States followed, not coincidentally.
Anna’s father became a butcher in Boston, and Sam’s father had a newspaper stand on East 116th Street, near Park Avenue, in Harlem. “His customers were all Mafia members,” Mr. Gersten said.
Sam and Anna were distantly related, but they didn’t meet until Anna’s mother met Sam on a train, bound for the same family wedding, determined their relationship and from it his eligibility, and said, “Have I got a girl for you!” (“Have I got a boy for you!” she later told her daughter.)
The newly married couple started their lives together in Boston, where Gerry Gersten was born on October 25, 1924; when he was six months old, his parents moved the family to the Bronx. Sam Gersten became a grocer. The family moved from neighborhood to neighborhood; Gerry started high school at James Monroe and finished at Morris. “I had just finished high school,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. I was at the 92nd Street Y, and somebody yelled ‘Hey, the Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor,’ and I said, ‘Where’s Pearl Harbor?’
“Everyone was dying to join the army,” he added.
Mr. Gersten always wanted to be in the Air Force; from the time he was a kid, “I would rather fly than anything else,” he said. He took a course the Air Force taught; it was serious but it did not offer enlistment; in fact, it guaranteed nothing. He passed the course and the stringent examination that followed, but when he went for the physical that would lead to enlistment, he was rejected. “They said I had a heart murmur,” he said.
So he lived at home and worked in his father’s grocery store. “When they told me I had a heart murmur, I thought I was going to die,” he said. Not that the heart murmur would kill him, but that the disappointment and embarrassment about having to stay home while all his friends were going off to war would do him in.
Three months after the Air Force rejected him, Mr. Gersten was drafted. This time, the physical showed no heart murmur. “I don’t know what happened,” he said. The physical was for the Army; recruiters for the Marines approached some of the young men waiting their turn, offering them a chance to try for that service rather than the bigger, less glamorous army. “The Marines wanted only the strongest,” he said. He was strong and rugged; the Marine sergeant made a play for him, but Mr. Gersten said no. He was inducted instead into the United States Army.
Induction began with a whole series of shots; the administration of that battery of jabs did not particularly take the recruits’ comfort in mind. “The guy in front of me was very rugged looking,” Mr. Gersten said. “They stuck him with the needles and he fell flat on his face, with teeth and blood all over the place. He broke his jaw — and I was next. They sent a guy with a mop and a broom to clean up.
“I didn’t feel anything,” he said. “I was numb.” But later “I got sick from all the shots.”
He went home to pack all his stuff; he had to report in the next day or two. “My parents were sorry about my leaving, but that was that,” he said. “There was a war on. My mother was crying, my father shook my hand — and that was that.”
He went to camp, still sick from the injections, Mr. Gersten said. “I went to sick call, the doctor said I should take tomorrow off, I asked for it in writing, and the next day the sergeant came in and told me that I was on KP.” Kitchen patrol. “I said that I couldn’t because I was sick, and he said, ‘You’re on KP.’
“And then he said, ‘Boy, you better give your soul to God, because your ass belongs to me.’
“He was from South Carolina, and people from South Carolina hated New Yorkers like poison. And Jews were like poison.”
The next day, he was sent to the kitchen, “and I was on pots and pans. The pots were 50 gallon pots, and when they made coffee they took shovelfuls of coffee. They gave you G.I. soap to wash those pots.” The soap had a lot of lye in it, “and not only did it peel off the dirt, it also peeled off your skin.”
But things changed unexpectedly. (They always do.) “A guy walks by and says, ‘Is there a Gersten here?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘You’re shipping out.’ I had to give in all my stuff and they gave me new stuff, a parka, snow boots, equipment for the far north.
“And then I had to get on a train with all that equipment. I couldn’t figure it out, because the guy in charge was an Air Force lieutenant. And the next thing you know, I wind up in Miami.
“I had to give all that stuff back.” Snow boots and a parka were not useful in Miami. So why the charade? “It was army secrecy,” Mr. Gersten said. “They were afraid of spies.”
He was housed in a hotel in Miami Beach for basic training. “Some people in the hotel didn’t want to give up their rooms when the army asked if they could rent them,” Mr. Gersten said. “So every morning at 5 or 6, a 12-piece band would walk down Collins Avenue, playing.
“P.S. They rented the rooms.”
Toward the end of basic training, he and other servicemen took a battery of tests. “There were maybe about 1,000 guys in the room, and they sent out audio signals,” he said. “They asked if they were the same or different signals. I was the only guy in the room who got them all right.
“The next thing I know, they ship me off to Sioux Falls. To radio school.”
He knows why he got into radio school, but not why he was in the Air Force in the first place. “I never found out how they picked me,” he said. “I never figured it out.”
From Miami Beach, Mr. Gersten went to Sioux Falls, where “it would snow in May. And they had a crazy arrangement, where the bathroom was separate from the shower room, which was about a block away. So we would take a shower and wear shorts and a towel to go from one to the other.
“There were about 10,000 students, and about 8,000 got pneumonia. I was there for two days when I got pneumonia too.”
If he had healed as he should have, Mr. Gersten would have shipped out with the 15th Air Force. Everyone in his class went, and “everyone in that class got killed,” he said. It was a bungled raid, and he still is angry at the pointless, mindless waste.
But Mr. Gersten, as the result of some shenanigans with a white lab coat and the ensuing friendship with a doctor, “was invited to a party. It was a very big party, and I had a relapse and was back in bed,” he said. He eventually was shipped to Langley field in Virginia, and there “they lined up the pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, engineer, four gunners, and a radio operator. We were crewed up.”
One of the 10 of them eventually left the unit, but the remaining nine guys stayed together, one tight, bonded unit. They were sent to England, the 392nd bomb group of the Eighth Air Force.
The unit sounds like the cast of a World War II movie, Catholics and a Baptist and even “a Norwegian,” Mr. Gerstein said. “We had two guys from North Carolina who had never met a Jew,” he added, but he was not the only Jew in the unit. “I spent a lot of time showing everyone that Jews are human,” Mr. Gersten said. “When you are past Pennsylvania, a Jew is like a devil. We had to make people realize that Jews are human beings.” And he did.
“Someone called me a Jew bastard, and my engineer flattened him,” Mr. Gersten said. If a unit were to become cohesive, it could not afford the distractions that come from warring worldviews, and if there were distractions, they all would die. (Even without such distractions, it was entirely possible that they all would die anyway, as all of them knew.)
“Combat flying was voluntary,” Mr. Gersten said. “That’s because we lost so many men. But if you wouldn’t fly, if you couldn’t fly, they would put you in the infantry.” At first, flying was hard for him. He would throw up every time he went up in the air. But eventually he realized, as counterintuitive as it seemed, that if he would eat before taking off, he’d be fine.
And you had to be actively terrified of flying before you’d want to go back to the infantry.
“There was no such thing as rank in our unit,” Mr. Gersten continued. “The pilot was the head, but we were one unit.” There were nine men; “so they would always send us a radar operator on each mission.
“I was 19, the engineer was 19, the tail gunner was 18, the navigator was 23, the bombardier was 23, the pilot was an old man, he was 29. He was the best pilot there was. And he taught us how to fly.” Most of the men in the unit could do most of the other jobs in the unit.
His pilot was called Short Round, after the “bullet that is too short to go through a gun. That’s what it’s called,” Mr. Gersten said. “He was one of those little guys who said, ‘I’ll show you.’ His real name was Dale W. Enyard.” The navigator was called Bucket Butt Smith. “I don’t know his real first name,” Mr. Gersten said. Gerry Gerstein became Gert.
After the crews were assigned and they learned to fly together, they were told to fly from Connecticut to England. “We were flying the biggest plane there was,” he said. “It was a four-engine B24. A bomber.
“So we shipped out, and we had no idea where we were going. There were 50 planes and some brilliant genius decided that we would have to radio in so they could tell us where to go. There are two channels in radio, tone and CW. CW — carrier waves — is not as strong as tone.” But they all were supposed to use CW. “And visualize 50 guys trying to get through on one little channel.
“So I said the hell with it, and I went on tone. And I got in.
“We went to Goose Bay, Labrador, and five of those 50 planes didn’t make it.
“From there we went to Iceland, then to Wales, and then to England, to our base there. We had a few practice missions.
“And then we had our first bombing assignment.”
This was in 1944. “In Germany, we bombed almost every city except Berlin,” he said.
“The Germans were far superior to us,” he continued. “We were far behind until we came out with the P51 fighter, and that was an absolute failure in the beginning. And then the British said, ‘Why don’t you use our engines?’ and we did, and it became the finest fighter plane in the whole world.
“Most of our pilots were horrible,” Mr. Gersten said. “It takes a year to get a pilot’s license, but in less than a year they had to learn to fly a four-engine bomber. And we would fly in high formation, and planes would crash into each other. It was the most terrible thing to see a plane going down. They would fall down like leaves.
“And a piece of you would go down with it, every time.”
Much of what Mr. Gersten describes straightforwardly, dryly, almost without emotion — or without visible emotion, which is not at all the same thing — is terrifying. “On one mission, there was a lot of flak,” he said. “Flak was like BBs, little pellets that would be packed into a shell. The pellets would be white hot, and they would go through the skin of the plane and right into your skin, right though your bones. There were millions of pieces of flak flying, and we would fly right into it.
“The Germans were so far ahead of us. It was a miracle that we won.”
Of course, the Americans and the British flyers were able to see and critique each other’s habits, since both groups were stationed in England. “The Royal Air Force flew bombers called the Lancaster,” Mr. Gersten said. “It was the same size as ours, but it carried more than double our bomb load, because we had top turrets with gunners with machine guns on each plane. They had three to seven men on each plane, instead of 10, and they went on the bomb runs at night, when the Germans couldn’t see them and they had less of a chance of being shot down.”
The Americans kept going. “In the beginning, if you flew 25 missions they would send you home,” Mr. Gersten said. “And then they upped it to 30 missions. Later they made it 35.” He flew 33, he said, because the war ended before his unit could get up for the 34th.
He and his unit mates saw horrors, and often they escaped them for inexplicable reasons. Once, he said, they had a three-day pass, and planned to spend it in Brighton, a seaside town. “But it is always raining in England,” and who wants to go to the beach in the rain, “so we wound up in Scotland instead.” They had a less-than-exciting break.
“And when we got back, the barracks were empty.” The others had gone up on a bombing run, “and they were shot down.”
After each mission, “a number of guys would come back and put their jackets over their heads. They were crying. They didn’t want to do it anymore. It was too hard, with the planes crashing into each other and the bombs falling all over.”
On one run, he nearly died. “We were flying in formation, and all of a sudden our number three engine conked out,” Mr. Gersten said. “That engine controls the hydraulics, so it is the most important engine on the plane. We were going to bomb the Henry Ford factory” — a factory the Germans named after the notoriously anti-Semitic American car magnate who donated money to print and distribute the forged and profoundly anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — “but we couldn’t lower our landing gear and we couldn’t open our bomb bay doors. We couldn’t keep up with the formation, and we had to turn back. That is called an abortion. When you come back without dropping the bomb, it doesn’t count as a mission.
“When we came back, all of a sudden we saw a P51 coming at us.”
The P51 was an American plane, but “the Germans would shoot them down and fly them to get information from us.” They’d fly under a false flag; at times the Americans didn’t know whose hands the planes were in until too late. “We were all flying with our guns pointing at it,” Mr. Gersten said. “And as he got closer, he lowered his landing gear. That means, ‘I surrender.’ And as we got closer, we were able to see that he was a black man. He was one of the Tuskegee boys.”
The so-called Tuskegee airmen were the African American soldiers who became fighter pilots, and fought with great distinction. “He worked his way up to become a colonel,” Mr. Gersten said; like the Jews, black people in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II always had to prove themselves, over and over again.
The Tuskeegee airmen accompanied Mr. Gersten and his group part of the way back to their base, and then they had to turn back. The engine, of course, still didn’t work, and the plane by all rights should have crashed, but the pilot managed to land it, although “the bombs fall out, the wings start to crumble — the gasoline is stored in the wing — and the pilot lands the plane with the wheels hitting the runway, and the pilot gets into the grass. There are puddles of gas all over.”
Because he had chosen to wear a backpack parachute instead of one strapped to his side, like most of the other guys, “I cannot get out of the plane,” Mr. Gersten said. He’s too big, particularly with the device strapped to him. “But the copilot gets me a parachute, it opens, and I bounce off the wing. The others are all running away from the plane.
“And nobody got even one scratch that day.”
There was another raid, when the Americans were supposed to take out a ball-bearing factory. “When the Americans found out that the Germans were working on a rocket plane that would be 100 miles an hour faster than any American planes, using ball bearings, they decided to get rid of the factory,” Mr. Gersten said. “They sent out three raids in three days.”
When the crew opened the airplane’s doors to drop a bomb, they had to fly straight for 10 minutes. That predictable path made a plane a prime target. “The bombardier said, ‘Open the bomb bay doors,’” Mr. Gersten said. “When the bombardier says open the doors, you open the doors.
“So I didn’t hear him when he said open the doors. And then I heard and I opened it and I dropped my oxygen mask and my heated suit short-circuited. It was about 50 degrees below zero. Every 1,000 feet you go up into the air, the temperature drops by two degrees or more. So when you are flying at 30,000 feet, it’s 30 degrees colder.
“So my heated suit was short circuited and I didn’t have any oxygen. I looked up to the heavens. I was getting hypoxia. That makes you feel happy. I felt so happy! But when you have it, in five minutes you die. I looked up to heaven, and I said, ‘God, please don’t let me die, because if I do, my mother will kill me.’”
Obviously, Mr. Gersten didn’t die. “My engineer was in the top turret, and he saw it. He jumped down and plugged me in and I got oxygen. My suit still was short-circuited and I got frostbite on my finger and my toes, and I lost all my nails.”
The bomber crews were treated very well, Mr. Gersten said. “We had special food. We ate better than anyone else. We had steak and eggs and fries. And we had Milky Ways, and I took one with me. That Milky Way turned into a bar of ice.”
It was really cold up there, he emphasized. “We had to wear three pairs of gloves. My father had a pair of silk gloves. Those were my base gloves. And then there was a leather glove, and then a gauntlet. With temperatures from minus 20 to minus 60, if you blew your nose, icicles would come out of your nose. If your nose ran, nothing ever came out. And even tears would freeze.”
He is not quite sure how the Allies won the war, but his theory is that as the highly trained Germans ran through their aces, the Allies started learning how to get better at waging air war.
“We were very fortunate in that we bombed the gasoline dumps, so the Germans began running low on fuel,” he said. “Their pilots were so far superior to ours. If one of our guys made 25 kills, he was a hot shot, but the Germans had guys who shot down 250 planes.
“And then the war went on, and we kept shooting down their stars, and they started replacing them with greenhorns.” They had no one else. “And we went after their oil wells and we began getting their trains.”
What did it feel like to be on their bombing raids? “We didn’t have emotions,” Mr. Gersten said. “Maybe you got a little excited. There was some fear — but there is a brave fear and there is a coward fear. We didn’t have the coward fear. We had the brave fear.
“I used to say Shema Israel” — the Shema, the Jewish world’s central statement of faith and belonging — “before we took off on every mission, and then I would say the Ve’Ahavta,” the paragraph that follows. “One of the crew members asked, ‘What is that?’ and I said it again. And after a while, the whole crew said the Shema, and I said the rest of it.”
Mr. Gersten spent about eight months overseas, and about 31 months in the Air Force. After V-E Day, he was sent to Sioux Falls, where he was an MP — a member of the military police force. After he was discharged, he went back home. “My family was sitting shiva for my Uncle Manny, who was discharged a couple of months before me and was killed by a bus in Birmingham, Ala. He went through the Battle of the Bulge without a scratch, and then he was killed by a bus.”
After the war, Mr. Gersten went back to the Bronx, and then to Westchester County, moved from retail grocery to wholesale food distribution, married Roslyn, had children, eventually retired, moved to Fort Lee with Roz, and flourished. Recently, his daughter Shari asked him what he’d learned from his wartime experiences. “Bravery is an instinct,” he said. “Either you have it or you don’t. I come from a family of fearless people. We were gutsy people.
A few years ago, film director Alan Feinberg became fascinated with the popular understanding of World War II. “I had heard that a large proportion of high school students in New York thought that the United States partnered with Germany to fight Russia in World War II,” Mr. Feinberg said. “This was some time in the 1990s. Ken Burns once wrote that ‘people don’t know history, they are not taught government, they don’t know civics, and they just don’t care. World War II is as far away from them as the Spanish-American War was to me.”
What began as the germ of an idea for a film about World War II veterans quickly became a film about Jewish World War II veterans.
When he started thinking about what he really wanted to say with his film, “Bagels Over Berlin,” “I realized that my motivation in filming these airmen was the anti-Semitism that they overcame, and the fact that people don’t know about the contributions the Jews made. It was a story about the Army Air Force. The air war was so primary in winning the war. We might not have won the land war. If the Germans already had jets in the air by the end of the war, or if the war had gone on six months longer, we could have lost it.”
And Mr. Feinberg soon realized that the numbers of Jewish navigators and radio operators were disproportionate to their numbers in the population. There weren’t many pilots, he said; the image of the lone ace, the World War I hero sitting in magnificent isolation in his tiny, flimsy plane, his leather helmet strapped on, his scarf flying behind him (dangerously and ridiculously, you realize when you stop to think about it), his gaze firmly fixed on the horizon — that couldn’t be a Jew. But the brainy sidekick — well, that was another story.
“Jews served in the military in a higher percentage than their presence in the population in the first place,” Mr. Feinberg said. “Some of them felt that they had more to prove because they were Jewish. Others were loyal and patriotic.” Of course, those two categories could overlap a great deal. “Some of them were overwhelmed by the anti-Semitism they grew up with, with quotas that made it hard to get into some schools and get some jobs, but above all they appreciated that they lived in a country that they loved and wanted to serve.
“Most of them were the children of immigrants,” he added.
The reason so many were navigators or radio operators — jobs that took brains and skill as well as courage and intuition — was because “the kids who were drafted or volunteered from the country in Alabama or the cornfields of Iowa did not have the experience of the large public high school that the Jewish boys had. They did not take algebra and calculus.” The Jewish servicemen might not have been smarter than their rural non-Jewish counterparts, but on the whole they were more sophisticated and more ready to learn complicated concepts in a noisy, confusing environment.
In “Bagels Over Berlin,” Mr. Feinberg tries to show the complications the Jewish airmen faced, and the courage and heroism they used to conquer them. “I interviewed about 30 veterans,” he said. “I pre-interviewed them on the phone, first to be sure that they still were lucid. I also wanted good stories, and I asked questions to elicit the lighter side.
“There was a lot of humor, and I kept it in,” he added. “These guys are tremendous. There is both humor and sadness in the stories.
“One surprise interviewee was Norman Lear,” Mr. Feinberg said. “He was a radioman and bombardier, and he flew some 40 missions. He agreed to be interviewed at the last second, and when I interviewed him he knew that what I wanted was not to talk about Hollywood or his fame, but about the war.
“He is the one who said that I felt that I had more to prove, because I was Jewish.”
Mr. Feinberg learned a great deal from making this film. “It was a tremendous experience,” he said. Things have changed a great deal between then and now, he said. “That’s why it is so important that we honor the heroes of the past. This film is about overcoming the difficulties of growing up in the 1930s and fighting for your country.
“They did it because they believed in it,” he said.
Who: Gerald Gersten of Fort Lee, one of the U.S. airmen featured in the film, and its director, Alan Feinberg
What: Will answer questions about the film, “Bagels Over Berlin,” being screened
When: On Wednesday, October 18, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue in Tenafly
Why: To talk about the experiences of Jewish Air Force flyers during World War II.
For more information: Call (201) 569-1496.