EDITOR’S NOTE: This story came from a talk given Nov. 6, 2009, by Joe Kagan at a special service commemorating Veterans Day at Temple Judea of Manhasset NY.
Veterans Day is an annual American holiday honoring military veterans of all wars. It was originally called Armistice Day, celebrating the end of hostilities in World War I and in 1954, the name was changed to Veterans Day to honor all veterans.
I am a veteran of World War II and will speak namely about that time, more than 60 years ago. The U.S. declared war on Germany and Japan in December 1941, and it ended in 1945.
It was a patriotic time in the U.S. Practically everyone participated in the war effort, young men and women went off to join the army and those who stayed home worked to support the war effort. The country was 100 percent behind the war, enduring a lifestyle which included food rationing, gas rationing, blackouts and receiving bad news from the war front. I was told by a friend who lived in Brooklyn at that time that the most dreaded person in the neighborhood was the young Western Union boy on a bicycle delivering telegrams – mostly bad news.
Those people who lived and stayed home throughout the World War days should be honored like the veterans. They were patriotic.
The experiences gained by people of all nations during the years of World War II, and by Americans, especially the experiences of our own troops, should be told and retold to those who have come after us.
The younger generations need to know of the great sacrifices made by their elders during those years, made so that they can continue to have lives of freedom earned by founders of this nation.
I would like to tell some of my personal experiences in the war which you might find interesting.
For me, World War II started in 1943, when I left the University of Connecticut to join the army.
After training, I received a commission as a second lieutenant in the infantry. I joined the 99th Infantry Division and we were sent to England and then across the English Channel to France. We were on the front lines in Belgium in the Ardennes Forest, when on Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans launched a heavy attack and that was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.
The 99th Division was hit very hard and suffered many casualties and many soldiers were captured and became prisoners of war. I was lucky. We lived in foxholes for 30 days, facing the German lines and were under constant artillery fire from the Germans.
While we were preparing to counterattack the Germans we sent patrols into the German lines to bring back prisoners to be interrogated. The patrol I lead was successful in capturing a German. When we were in the German lines we heard a loud snoring. It was a front line sentry who had fallen asleep. We woke him up and brought him back to our lines. The moral of the story is not to fall asleep on the job and if you do, don’t snore.
After the battle of the Bulge we began a counterattack and moved throughout Germany and were the first troops to cross the Rhine River at Remagen on a bridge that was later blown up. After crossing the bridge, we moved inland into Germany and on March 22, 1945, the following action took place.
From General Orders 92: “First Lieutenant Joseph Kagan, 393rd Infantry, United States Army, for gallantry in action against the enemy on 22 March 1945, in Germany. Lieutenant Kagan led a combat patrol which had as its mission the task of covering the advance of his battalion across the Wied River, to seize the high ground on the far bank. In accomplishing this mission, Lt. Kagan and his men knocked out three enemy machine gun positions. Lt. Kagan personally knocked out one of these weapons. The third gun was destroyed by artillery fire directed by Lt. Kagan, which killed the crew. Lt. Kagan also silenced a machine gun impeding the advance of the rest of the battalion. In all, he was instrumental in capturing 50 prisoners. The courage and gallant actions displayed by Lt. Kagan merit great praise. Entered military service from Connecticut.”
I was awarded the Silver Star medal for this action.
I have one more story. It took place in the town of Wetzler, Germany. Wetzler is the home of the Leica camera factory. It was here where military items were made in a large underground building manned by prisoners of war, mostly Russian. We were the first troops to arrive there and we liberated the prisoners who came pouring out of the underground factory and celebrating. It was like New Year’s Eve in Times Square.
I acquired a Leica camera which I traded for a German Luger pistol which I took back home with me. In 1955 in New York, guns were being collected to send to Israel and I donated my Lugar pistol and a Colt .45 for the cause. I like to think I made a slight contribution for Israel’s fight for independence.
The end of the story is that after the war I returned to finish my studies at the University of Connecticut and met Trudy there, who was impressed with my uniform. I married her, joined Temple Judea, and have lived happily ever since.