Saving Private Grossman
When the film “Saving Private Ryan” came out a couple of years back, I thought that it might be a way to get my father-in-law to talk about his experience at Omaha Beach. So I asked him whether the opening scene in the movie, with its horrific portrayal of the first hours of D-Day, was accurate.
“Yes,” he thundered back, “only in real life it was much worse.” And he’s been talking about it ever since.
My father-in-law, David Grossman, is 83 years old and has thought more about his experience in World War II since his retirement. Whether there is such a thing as delayed post-traumatic stress syndrome, I am not qualified to say. Whatever the reason, he talks about his life as a soldier more freely now, and I consider myself the lucky beneficiary, privileged to hear an eyewitness account by a participant in one of history’s epic battles.
It worked out well, too, that I had several years to genuinely comprehend his religious background — he was born in Jerusalem in 1920, into a large ultra-Orthodox family whose ancestors had lived in the Middle East since 1803. Without that perspective, a full understanding of the challenges the ex-yeshiva student faced would have eluded me.
For on June 6, 1944, Private Grossman, although physically uninjured, lost two precious things — only one of which he could get back.
Dave has been to Omaha Beach several times. Only once, however, did he arrive by boat and at the government’s expense. That was D-Day; to be precise, he arrived June 6, 1944, at 6:30 a.m. That was known as H-Hour, when the “first wave” of infantry landed at Normandy and were exposed to overwhelming German firepower. His survival itself is a statistical anomaly.
D-Day was Dave’s first combat experience. He was a “replacement” soldier, a substitute for someone wounded or killed. Replace- ments often were regarded as outsiders and ignored by the pre-existing unit. Not surprisingly, they had a much higher than average mortality rate. If that wasn’t daunting enough, he was assigned to the 16th Regiment of the 1st Division, the legendary “Big Red One.” Because its soldiers had more combat experience than any other division in the American military, the 1st was reassigned from the Italian theater and given some of the hardest assignments on D-Day. Dave was a company aid man, a “medic,” and it would be his job to give morphine injections and do preliminary patch-up work as these grizzled veterans were injured in the myriad ways made possible by modern warfare.
Dave had spent many months in England in a “sealed camp,” training for the invasion. He was 24 years old and naive enough to be unafraid. When I asked him if and when he felt frightened, he said, “When I got on the boat and it started moving. That’s when I knew it was real.”
Once on the landing craft, LCI 83, Dave was not just scared — he was nauseous. There was ample time for both. The invasion was originally set for June 5 and came within a hair of being postponed a second time until Eisenhower gave the go-ahead. As a result, the troops were loaded onto the various boats and landing craft at midnight on June 2, and nobody was allowed off until they reached France. Dave remembers everybody being sick. The smell was horrible, and Dave reached a point where he was eager to be on dry land.
That soon changed. The landing craft was traveling parallel with the Normandy coast, attempting to find its designated spot, when suddenly LCI 83 took some direct hits by German shells. Correct disembarkation point or not, the ramps on the boat were opened and the troops began hoofing it. Dave looked over at his sergeant. Though nearly six decades have passed since that moment, Dave recalls his exact words: “Those aren’t meatballs they’re throwing.”
The sergeant — Dave cannot recall his name, and refers to him as “this big Indian fellow” — had landed at Anzio and knew what would greet them if they went down the ramp. Improvising a spontaneous detour, he shouted, “Follow me” and jumped over the side of the boat. Dave made a split-second decision to follow him and plunged into the English Channel. A few others did the same, and by making a wide arc, most of them made it safely to shore.
They sought cover behind a cement barricade. Within a short time, countless GIs were dead. Many were shot, as the sergeant had feared, while coming off the boat or approaching the shore, and others simply drowned due to the absurdly heavy packs they were ordered to carry.
Detached from their company, with no officers present, the small group of men turned to the sergeant for orders. He told them to stay put behind that cement wall. Their situation was desperate. They were about 20 feet from the water’s edge, pinned down by intense enemy fire from above.
Dave learned all about the details of death that day. It was so bad in those early hours at Omaha Beach that the commanders considered calling off the attack. But the only retreating that occurred was by the land itself. As high tide arrived, their precarious little toehold on French soil slowly ebbed away, and Dave wound up back in the cold water.
No orders arrived. As evening came, the sergeant passed the word that they were going to move forward. This makeshift platoon ran across the open beach as fast as they could. They reached the cliffs and found a deserted German pillbox built into the rocks. After a period of relative quiet, they settled in for the night.
Among those in the “first wave,” there were the dead, the seriously wounded and the fortunate few. Given that Dave’s sole physical complaint was cold feet, it is obvious into which category he fit. Minor complaint though it be, he appreciated that one of the men was massaging his feet. Due to the chaos that predominated that day, Dave didn’t recognize most of the other inhabitants of the pillbox, including the kindly masseur. At one point when this soldier bent over, Private Grossman saw the two stars on his helmet. He instinctively pulled his feet away, reacting to the discrepancies in their rank. The general waved away his concerns with a shrug. If you landed at Omaha Beach that day, and were still breathing, you deserved something special — at the very least, a foot massage.
The men in the pillbox had no idea that the invasion had been successful. After waking up the next morning, Dave warily stepped onto the beach and peered up at the top of the cliffs. He saw an American soldier. Everyone went onto the heights, where, later that morning, an attempt was made to reconstitute the survivors into their formal army units. Company A, as Dave recalls, had about 120 men when they left England. When they reassembled on June 7, eight men showed up.
Asked if he was certain about the figures, Dave gave me a hard stare and shrugged: “120, 110, what’s the difference? It was terrible, you hear.” Terrible, and typical for those who landed at H-Hour. The 1st Division suffered 1,346 casualties; Dave’s first-wave regiment, the 16th, accounted for 971 of them.
Throughout his days in uniform, Dave kept a set of tefillin in the left pocket of his army fatigues. But when he went to reach for it on June 7, it was gone — lost while he was trying to stay alive on D-Day.
During the war, Dave tried to don tefillin every day, but obviously being subjected to a soldier’s schedule made that impossible. Wars do not shut down on Saturdays, and at least regarding the American army, the “k” in K rations did not stand for kosher. Dave performed this ritual as discreetly as possible; if he could not find privacy, he did it in a corner. Given these constraints, Dave reduced the litany of prayers to a bare minimum. But he always made sure to recite the Sh’ma: “Hear O Israel, our God is one.”
Dave understood that a soldier’s life could not easily accommodate letter-of-the-law Orthodox observance. He is reluctant to discuss this subject, and merely says, “I did the best I could.” I suspect, though, that he felt tremendous turmoil about parting company with the strict rabbinical teachings of his youth, and brokered an internal compromise by vowing to remain observant while continuing to fight in one of the most bloody of wars.
Odd as it may seem to a secular mind-set, the two major choices Dave made in his youth — to immigrate to America in 1938 and, several years later, to volunteer in the army (not yet an American citizen, he was exempt from the draft) — were no small acts of rebellion. Dave’s family and the culture from which it sprang believed in the primacy of a life dedicated to the Torah. But to Dave, a pragmatic man both then and now, there was a simple principle that justified compromising his observance: Hitler was killing Jews and needed to be stopped.
So it was much more than tefillin that Dave lost on D-Day. When he had departed for America, his father had warned him about “losing his way.” Now, without the sacred object, his warning seemed to have literally come true. Given what Dave witnessed the previous day — the carnage and overall human suffering — one could easily understand his need for the soothing message of unification, the oneness of all things, that is implicit in the Sh’ma. This spiritual wound cut as deep as any bullet.
Dave’s luck improved considerably after he had a chance encounter with a chaplain while walking on top of the cliffs June 7. He was a Roman Catholic priest who had befriended him while they were training in England, a very learned man whose knowledge of Judaism exceeded Dave’s. Dave must have been wearing the proverbial long face, for the priest asked him what was the matter.
“I feel lousy.”
“I lost my tefillin.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
The fate of Western civilization hung in the balance. The general staff faced the formidable challenge of supplying the men pinned down on a narrow beachhead. Thousands of tons of material moved across the English Channel. Nonetheless, the chaplain’s request for resupply moved in the opposite direction. To Dave’s happy surprise, about a week later a package arrived for him. It contained a prayer book, a kosher salami and replacement tefillin. Dave resumed his praying, and the Allies maintained their momentum.
As the Normandy campaign unfolded and turned into the battle of the hedgerows, Dave’s good fortune continued. Once, pinned down in a foxhole amid heavy shelling, a soldier got shot and was writhing in pain, not more than 30 feet from him. In the foxhole was another medic and a captain. The captain ordered the medic to go treat the wounded man. The medic said the order was foolish, and he refused to obey. The captain turned to Dave and gave him the same order. Under fire, Dave leaped out and hustled over to the injured man, gave him an injection of morphine and brought him to another, closer foxhole. As they took cover, Dave heard a loud shell behind him. He turned around and saw that the foxhole with the captain and the insubordinate medic had sustained a direct hit. Both men were dead.
Finally, at the battle of St. Lo, his good luck — or, as Dave would put it, the series of miracles — ran out, and shrapnel tore up his stomach. He was sent back to England to recuperate. Ultimately he returned to active duty in Germany — Occupied Germany.
Eventually, Dave returned home, married Sybil Schneider of Jersey City, and worked at many jobs in northern New Jersey while supporting four daughters. Dave is retired now, living in a senior community in Monroe Township. Ex-Private Grossman is now called Zayde.
Sixty years later, he remains an observant Jew. He also roots for the Nets basketball team and enjoys other secular pursuits. Sixty years later, he still receives checks from the American government for the wound that was inflicted at St. Lo. “Not a big check,” he says, “but it comes in every month and it adds up to something, you hear.”
As you read this on June 6, 2004, a small group of us will be in Normandy near Omaha Beach, at the ceremony commemorating the epic battle that was D-Day — to honor the memory of those who perished, to honor those who were wounded, and especially to honor a certain private whose cold feet were treated by a general, a Jew whose spiritual crisis was resolved by a priest.