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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Basic infantry training in Ft. McClelland, Alabama.

Basic infantry training in Ft. McClelland, Alabama.

Ready for guard duty—front and center.

By Norbert Strauss

 

As a little boy, I had always been interested in automobiles, pushing match boxes along the frames of the Persian carpet in the living room, in a make-believe street scene. This interest did not change as I grew up, and it was therefore only natural that upon graduation from high school, I applied for, and was accepted to, the engineering school of the College of the City of New York. Although I had also applied for and had been accepted to NYU, there never was any alternative to CCNY, for financial reasons.

Despite warnings that to be an engineer, particularly in the auto industry, would be nearly impossible for an Orthodox Jew, I went ahead and started at CCNY’s uptown campus in August, 1944. I found that some of the basic engineering courses, such as drafting, were simply incompatible for my hands and head. Also, although I had been very good at geometry and trigonometry in high school, calculus was just not my cup of tea. In addition, Herman had already been drafted into the Army in January 1944, and since I was going to be 18 years old in March, 1945, I knew I was going to be drafted then as well. For all these reasons, I started to flounder in school, getting Ds and Fs in some of the basic courses needed for an engineering degree. I was put on probation by CCNY in June, 1945.

Although I turned 18 in March, I received an unrequested Army deferment for six months to enable Herman to be discharged from the Army before I was drafted. He had served in the European theater with the Counter Intelligence Corps in France and then in Germany. The draft had been eased since the war had already ended in Europe. I was drafted, therefore, only in September, 1945, the same month the Japanese surrendered. As I have been telling everyone (whoever is willing to believe me), when the Japanese heard that Norbert Strauss was entering the U.S. Army, they threw up their hands and surrendered.

I reported to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for my basic training assignment. On the second day, I was selected for kitchen duty (KP) and spent 24 hours cleaning cheese and spaghetti out of huge pots. Since that day, the smell of cooked cheese still makes me sick. Pizza? With cheese? Forget it. The smell alone makes me sick.

I was assigned to Ft. McClelland, Alabama, for basic infantry training. Food, naturally, was always a problem, as it had been for every Orthodox GI before me and since. But I established a relationship with a cook, who would always tell me which vegetable dish contained no unacceptable ingredients.

Oma kept me supplied with packages that, naturally, everyone in my bunk expected me to share with them. Surprisingly, however, the guys just could never develop a taste for half-spoiled meat or salami that had been in transit from New York for over a week. But candy and chocolate went very well.

I developed pneumonia a few weeks into the training and ended up in the base hospital for a few days.

One day during basic training, I was called into my company commander’s office. With my heart in my throat I stood there while he told me that I had been selected to become an instructor at West Point Military Academy, New York. I was never given any details, such as—instructor of what? Nor did I ask any questions. In fact, I do not think that what I had been told really sank in until much later. It was just a few days later that I was called again to the company commander’s office and was told to forget all about it, since, in order to be an instructor at West Point, one had to be a US citizen, which I was not yet at that point. Having an instructor’s position would have been nice (if that is what they had in mind) since it would have meant that I could have gone home often for weekends. Many years later I contacted the Army, under the Freedom of Information Act and asked for a copy of my Army records in order to find out what they had in mind for me. Unfortunately, my records (and millions of others) had been destroyed in a warehouse fire some years earlier, and there was no longer any information available. I also contacted West Point directly but I never received a reply. So, I never did find out what I was supposed to teach and to whom.

A few weeks later, while out in the field, with me dirty and unshaven (the little I had, I didn’t have to shave every day), a jeep drove up with orders to take me back to camp immediately. Back at camp, still not having been told what was going on, I was switched to a sedan accompanied by two officers (I remember wondering at the time whether I was being arrested for something), and driven into Anniston, Alabama, the town nearest to the camp. We stopped at the courthouse and went before a judge who asked me a few routine questions and had me raise my right hand. In five minutes I had become a US citizen. An hour later I was back in the field, feeling 10 feet tall. I guess by that time the powers had forgotten about me and West Point.

(To be continued next week)

By Norbert Strauss

 Norbert Strauss is a Teaneck resident and has volunteered at Englewood Hospital for over 30,000 hours. He was general traffic manager and group VP at Philipp Brothers Inc., retiring in 1985. Prior to Englewood Hospital he was also a volunteer at the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Hospital for over 30 years, serving as treasurer and director. He frequently speaks to groups to relay his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941.

 

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