Veterans remember life in the military

Veterans remember life in the military

In 70th year, JWV Post 651 still a source of pride to its members

Cantor Eric Wasser, at left, stands with members of the Jewish War Veterans at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/ Congregation B’nai Israel.
Cantor Eric Wasser, at left, stands with members of the Jewish War Veterans at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/ Congregation B’nai Israel.

While not all veterans faced the hazards of the battlefield, all devoted years of their life to national service, Edward Rosenblatt said. Mr. Rosenblatt, who lives in Fair Lawn, is the commander of Jewish War Veterans Post 651.

At 85, Mr. Rosenblatt, who is proud of his post and of its many philanthropic efforts, said he is most proud of the fact that “we’ve served our country.

“Jews are a minority in the world and have served as well as people of all other faiths,” he continued. “We served with distinction. We are Americans.”

Mr. Rosenblatt was stationed in Vienna during the Korean War, serving as a clerk/typist in the U.S. Army. “Then, Vienna was divided into four parts: American, English, French, and Russian.”

Originally, he said, he was scheduled to learn field wiring at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, “climbing poles to get wiring strewn throughout the field, but I told them my feet were bad and I couldn’t climb 12- to 15-foot poles. I kept going to the hospital, so they sent me to clerk/typist school.” As it happened, someone he met one Friday night at a Hillel gathering put him in touch with a man who had some pull in placement. As a result, “I was assigned to Vienna.” There were 30 people in his unit, he said, with 20 divisions of Russian soldiers nearby. Working in the ordnance division, housed in a bus factory taken over by the Americans, he helped oversee the maintenance of 655 vehicles.

Now celebrating its 70th anniversary, Post 651 includes veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam conflict. (The post members call the hostilities in Vietnam a conflict rather than a war because there was no formal declaration of war, a veteran explained.) At least one member — who was drafted for one war but didn’t see action until another — is also a Holocaust refugee.

“I had seven months of the Third Reich in 1938. That was enough,” said Air Force Col. William Bruenner of Fair Lawn, whose parents managed to leave Austria after the Anschluss between Austria and Germany. (“Anschluss,” was the Nazi propaganda term for the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938.) Mr. Bruenner, who was born in Vienna in 1929, originally was named Wilhelm. “I had to be named Wilhelm because I was the only son of an oldest son, and it was the custom that if your grandfather had passed away by the time you were born, you were named after that grandfather,” he said.

Mr. Bruenner and his family were helped by the professional connections and determination of his aunt Martha. “She was a shrink,” he said. “A Viennese Jewish tradition that started with Sigmund Freud.” Since men were in more immediate danger than women and children in Austria after the Anschluss, his aunt gave her husband, Frank, the visa she received from the Mayo Clinic, then housed in Rochester, Minn. He managed to leave the country in 48 hours. The clinic then sent three more visas, which his aunt and her two sons later used.

Once she was in the United States, Martha, who was related to the colonel on his mother’s side, managed to convince an uncle on Mr. Bruenner’s father’s side to send affidavits not only for William’s family but for others as well. The uncle had gotten to the United States before World War I and owned some stores in Brooklyn. “Aunt Martha told him how bad things were and convinced him to send the affidavits, Mr. Bruenner said. “My uncle was worried. It was the tail end of the depression and he felt he would not be able to support us.” Nevertheless, Aunt Martha prevailed, telling him that there were philanthropic organizations — in particular, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — that would help.

Mr. Bruenner said the Nazis made things as hard as possible for people who wanted to leave. “We couldn’t take any money with us,” he said. “We went by train to Hamburg, a port in northern Germany. Then we got on the S.S. Manhattan, an American ship, and ended up in New York. We didn’t have to go through Ellis Island since my father had borrowed enough money from an uncle to come over cabin class.” His mother had suffered a nervous breakdown, and his father wanted to make things as easy as possible.

In 1962, a local politician , second from right, with Jewish war veterans.
In 1962, a local politician , second from right, with Jewish war veterans.

His mother’s name was Elise, Mr. Bruenner said. “It’s the French version of Elizabeth. Emperor Franz Joseph’s wife, Elizabeth, was assassinated in Switzerland in the 1890s, so a lot of good Austrians, like my mother’s family, named their daughters after the empress.”

His mother relapsed several times and attempted suicide. “In 1964, I was stationed in Wiesbaden as a captain. My aunt called and said my mother had made another suicide attempt, and this one was successful. I had to come home on emergency leave to help my father.”

That was in February. “By the end of October I was back in the States at a college in Montgomery, Alabama. This time the Red Cross called and asked if I was Paul’s son.” Once he identified himself, they told him that his father, Paul, had died of a heart attack. Again, he had to take emergency leave, this time to close up his father’s apartment in the Bronx.

Mr. Bruenner said that his military career was delayed by a series of deferred jobs. “I majored in physics and had little trouble getting those jobs. But after two years, with the Korean War still going on, I said, I can’t run away forever.”

Thus began a 30-year career in the Air Force, as a specialist in electronic warfare. Half of those years were spent overseas — one year in Thailand and the rest in Europe. Why the Air Force? “My father had been in World War I and had spent four years in the trenches fighting for the Kaiser,” Mr. Bruenner said. “He told me to avoid ground warfare.”

Mr. Bruenner, who came to the United States when he was 9, said he arrived here two weeks before Kristallnacht. “We were lucky,” he said. Placed in fourth grade, little William went on to attend Stuyvesant High School and later City College. He got his graduate degree at Brooklyn Polytechnic, now part of NYU.

He recalls the day he joined the Air Force.

“I was working for the U.S. National Bureau of Standards in D.C. so I had lost my draft deferment,” he said. “I went down to the old Washington Post Building,” which then housed the Air Force Reserves, “and gave them my credentials. They asked me two questions: Can you see lightning? Can you hear thunder?”

“I said, ‘I believe I can,’ so they said I could fly.

“But they couldn’t send me to pilot training since I wore glasses. So they sent me to navigator training and electronic warfare school. I would start off as a second lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve. It sounded better than being on the ground in Korea.”

During training, Mr. Bruenner’s commanding officer told him that the Air Force needed people like him, but that he shouldn’t stay in the reserves. Following his advice, Mr. Bruenner joined the regular Air Force. He remained there until his first retirement, when was 52. Then he went back to college, this time studying accounting. He retired again, this time at 62.

In May, the adjutant general in Trenton presented William Bruenner with two New Jersey medals. That was the last time he put on his uniform.
In May, the adjutant general in Trenton presented William Bruenner with two New Jersey medals. That was the last time he put on his uniform.

While Mr. Bruenner never has been to Korea — he didn’t finish his training until 1954 and the war was over in 1953 — he did see active duty during the Vietnam war. “I was in Thailand,” he said. “I flew from Thailand over North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos,” traveling in an EB-66 airplane to do reconnaissance and jam electronic equipment. “They didn’t want us there,” he said, and his planes came under missile fire. He was “not surprised that some of the guys over there didn’t make it. When you do this for a career, you expect losses. If you don’t want losses, don’t make war.”

Returning to the States, he took an assignment at the Pentagon that was, he said, less than challenging, “running round getting coordination from the Army, Navy, and Marines for various papers. It’s a big building. There are 26,000 people working there.” But when they found out that German was Mr. Bruenner’s native language — indeed, the only language he spoke for the first nine years of his life — “They kept sending me during the Cold War to German-speaking countries. I had a file as big as a telephone book with the KGB.”

His last tour was “officially in Belgium with NATO” as SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander — Europe) representative at the conventional arms reduction talk from 1979 to 1982. “But I spent half my time in Vienna, my hometown,” he said.

Why a career in military service? “In my case, I felt a certain obligation to this country for rescuing my family. Anything I could do for them was great. And if they considered my being able to speak German as an extra talent, so much the better.”

Mr. Bruenner commented on the unwelcome reception Vietnam veterans received from fellow Americans on their return home. But, he added, his daughter, who lives in Paramus and is now a special education teacher in Wyckoff, “also got into protesting the war.” His response, he said, is that “it’s wrong to take it out on the guys who served there. Tell the politicians.”

Mr. Bruenner’s first wife died in 2013, and he has remarried. A member of both the Fair Lawn JWV and the Veterans of Foreign War’s Paramus post, he said that “one of the things that hurt my father most about the Third Reich was that people who had fought on their side during World War I were now called enemies of the state. He spent four years in the trenches and was wounded twice. To me, going to Jewish War Veterans shows everyone we did our share.”

Irving Beer of Fair Lawn served in the Navy during World War II. He was stationed in the South Pacific, in New Guinea, in the Philippines, and in Okinawa. He joined the Navy in 1944, when he was 17 and was demobilized when he was 20.

“I enlisted,” he said. “My mother wanted me to wait until I was 18 and join the Coast Guard. But I wanted to join, because my brother had been drafted the year before into the army.”

Mr. Beer, who worked mainly in communications, said his military experience definitely changed him. “I went in as a boy and came out as a man,” he said, adding that he lost several people he knew, including a cousin. “I saw him occasionally in the Philippines,” he said. “We would come and meet each other.”

While Mr. Beer was hesitant to speak about his military experiences, he said he certainly knew why he was sent there.

“I came from an area in the Bronx where 95 percent of the boys went into service. Hitler was almost winning in Europe and then there was Pearl Harbor. We knew we had to go. We were going to be drafted anyway. Nobody wanted to actually fight, but it was your responsibility and you went.”

At 90 — and still playing golf three times a week until last year — Mr. Beer has lived in Fair Lawn for some 52 years. He and his wife, Beverly, have two boys and a girl, as well as five grandchildren. After leaving the service, he said, he went into the dairy business with his father and brother. This was followed by ventures into “the supermarket business, a liquor store in New York, and a Chock full o’Nuts in New York. I sold those and went into the wholesale tobacco business. Then I retired in 1994.”

What did he learn from the military?

“I learned to obey orders,” he said. But, he added, “There were some bad experiences,” among them the Japanese sinking the cruiser Indianapolis, killing its crew. He saw some of the bodies, and he prefers not to talk about it.

Mr. Beer said he is proud that “we have a veterans’ organization. Camaraderie with former Army and Navy veterans is wonderful, but we’re getting smaller and smaller. When I first came to Fair Lawn, there were 500 members. Today there are 50.”

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