|Jack Schwartz, 86, of Teaneck today.|
Jack Schwartz, now an 86-year-old resident of Teaneck, was a 21-year-old soldier based in London in 1944. He has been writing The Jewish Standard for years urging that the courage and sacrifice of his fellow soldiers on D-Day not be forgotten. This year, as the 65th anniversary of the pivotal battle is being marked, he is getting his wish.
He remembers walking down the stairs at his base when he was stopped in his tracks by a historic announcement from the public address system. The Allied troops – the United States, Great Britain, and Canada – would invade Normandy, on a day that has come to be called D-Day: June 6, 1944.
He shared with the Standard a letter the Allied troops received from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ahead of the invasion. It begins, “You are about to embark on the Great Crusade….”
The letter, according to the U.S. National Archives, was issued in order to encourage the soldiers taking part in the invasion, which gave the Allies a strong position in Western Europe and took a large toll on German forces.
|Peter Bernardini, 90, of Fort Lee remembers carrying the bodies of more than 50 American soldiers during D-Day. Jerry Szubin|
Peter Bernardini, a 90-year-old veteran who lives in Fort Lee and belongs to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Association there, gets very emotional when talking about D-Day.
He was a 22-year-old company jeep driver stationed in England, assigned to carry supplies and ammunition for the troops.
Bernardini remembers getting word that the invasion was coming, but did not know where or how, since it was kept entirely a secret.
He heard the news in a field in England and was told to turn on his engine. He and his companions headed to the shore of Torquay on the English Channel and boarded the landing craft there, not knowing if they were going to perform a maneuver or a real attack, he said.
Plans were kept secret for fear that German spies in England would discover them.
Bernardini remembers heading into the English Channel on June 5, when the landing was originally supposed to take place, but it was held off until the following morning because of weather conditions.
Before reaching the beach at Normandy, his boat was sunk in the English Channel and all of his equipment was lost. He and 60 other men swam to shore.
His officer ordered him to collect the dead bodies of American soldiers – who bore tags stating they were killed in action – place them in mattress covers, and put them aside on a field.
|The letter Jack Schwartz received from Eisenhower around the time hew was a young soldier stationed in London.|
He carried more than 50 bodies over two straight days. It is one of the most horrifying experiences he ever had, he told the Standard. “It is something that is instilled in my mind,” he said. “It will always be there and I will always see it. When June 6 comes around, D-Day becomes alive to me,” he added. “It is a very emotional day.”
The United National D-Day Memorial Foundation has recorded the names of Allied soldiers killed on D-Day and have confirmed 2,499 American D-Day fatalities, in addition to the 1,925 from other Allied nations, making a total of 4,414 dead.
Schwartz did not ultimately serve in the invasion, but he supplied U.S. troops with uniforms and other necessities.
He remembers stepping outside for a moment after hearing the news. Looking up, he was unable to see the sky, because so many planes were in the air.
“We were excited, of course; some of us even volunteered to join the troops,” Schwartz said, but “they didn’t need anybody at the time. What they needed was supplies.”
He said that he will always remember the danger our country was in and feels particularly appreciative of the British, who held the Germans off long enough for the American troops to finish the job.
Schwartz has donated pictures, newspapers, the Eisenhower letter, and other memorabilia to the National World War Two Museum in New Orleans. “It’s a marvelous place,” he said, “a place that tells both sides to the war, both good and bad.” The museum has scheduled “A Gathering of the Greatest Generation” to commemorate the D-Day anniversary. Veterans from each state will participate.
Today, Schwartz works at Specialty Business Solutions, an office equipment store in New York, three days a week.
He used to keep in touch with several D-Day veterans, but they are all gone now, Schwartz said. And each year, “on June 6, I always take a drink in memory of those who didn’t come back. Do not forget these people who gave their lives in order for us to live the way we live today. This is the greatest country in the world.”