Samuel Seigel is not merely modest when asked about the Bronze Star he was recently awarded 6′ years after his combat service in World War II ended. At 9′, he’s also very busy. The executive secretary emeritus at the Jewish Memorial Chapel in Clifton barely had time to speak with a reporter who phoned him at his office this week. Nonetheless, Seigel conceded, the long-delayed recognition for valor in a ceremony presided over by Sen. Frank Lautenberg just after Thanksgiving was deeply appreciated. Why it took the Army so long to find him and why he deserves the medal are questions he cannot quite answer.
"A letter just arrived," he recalled of the invitation to Lautenberg’s Newark office. "Who remembers what I did? But it must have been something because not everyone got the Bronze Star."
Reflecting on the life of an infantryman, Seigel continued, "I was there [in the European Theater], and the situation just presented itself. You didn’t look for trouble. Trouble found you. Under fire, I was mostly concerned about saving my tail."
The time was 1944, and Seigel, recently wed and with an infant son, was drafted after he refused to serve on an oil tanker with the Merchant Marines. Believing he had eluded Hitler, who then was sinking several oil tankers a day, Seigel was more than willing to take his chances with Company F, 335th Infantry Regiment of the 84th Infantry Division, which he joined after completing basic training at Camp Wheeler in Georgia. He was shipped out on the SS Ile de France, making a pit stop in Scotland before joining the front line troops in France and Belgium.
Although many of the details of daily combat are fuzzy by now, Seigel has not forgotten the fear of going door-to-door in strange towns to clear out the Germans hiding within. Sixty-two years ago this week, Seigel was among the thousands of Allied soldiers caught up in the war’s bloodiest confrontation, the Battle of the Bulge. Ignoring the danger, he fought valiantly, taking a hit to the leg from shrapnel from an 88-millimeter cannon shell. That incident earned him both the Purple Heart and the Combat Infantryman Badge, two of the U.S. Army’s highest honors, which he received shortly after returning home. The Bronze Star, for which he was unaware back then he was eligible, is specifically awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement in non-aerial combat. Only the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Medal of Honor exceed it.
While proud of his accolades, today Seigel prefers to focus on the present. Living in Passaic Park with his wife Helen, 88, where the couple raised their two children, he remains involved in the day-to-day operation of the business he managed for ‘7 years.
Seigel’s wartime experience reflected a resiliency that can still be detected as he described how he immigrated to this country from Poland by himself at 16 his father, mother, and sister had left earlier and the various commercial ventures he later successfully launched to support his growing family. Son Jerry, now 63, was followed by a daughter, Susan Canada, born in 1947.
Seigel reunited with his family in 1930. The family had been observant, and Seigel recalls visiting the
Gerer rebbe for a blessing before taking the physical that would allow him to obtain a visa. Arriving here before Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and subsequent invasion of Poland, however, spared Seigel and his immediate family the destruction and death that beset their former neighbors. Once he returned from overseas, he went into business with his father, starting up a couple of Reddi-Wip franchises in New Jersey and Delaware and owning liquor stores in Newark’s Ironbound section and in Lodi and a check-cashing concern in Union City. Exhaustion from the long hours that running several businesses required prompted Seigel to eventually sell out. "We did like they say you should in the stock market ‘buy low, sell high,’" he confided of the move that enabled him to take the job at the chapel supervising administration and keeping an eye on the bottom line. In another inspired stab at entrepreneurship, he made a small investment in a film laboratory, which blossomed along with the motion picture industry. To this day, Seigel is a proud card-carrying member of the motion picture union.
Eager to conclude the conversation so he could get back to work, Seigel said, "I have stories that would take ‘4 hours to tell, but I don’t have that kind of time and neither do you."