Friday, November 11, 2005

Skinny Jewish Kid Crushes Hitler's Hat

ALBANY - Richard Marowitz remembers every detail of that April morning in 1945.

''There were 12 of us. We had three Jeeps. It was a warm, spring day,'' Marowitz says, recalling events 60 years ago and thousands of miles away.

The then-19-year-old Marowitz was among a group of American GIs crossing hostile territories and storming the Munich apartment of Adolph Hitler.

Marowitz was a member of the Intelligence & Reconnaissance platoon of the 42nd Rainbow Division during World War II. On April 29, he visited the concentration camps at Dachau. The horrific images are planted in his mind.

''The next day, early in the morning of the 30th, we were called into the command post,'' Marowitz says.

Their assignment was to enter the city of Munich and get to Hitler's apartment. They were met by a pair of German civilians, according to Marowitz. ''The two were spies, sending information to America,'' he says.

''We headed into Munich, about nine miles from Dachau, with those two spies who were going to take us to Hitler's house. There was some damage to the city, although it wasn't as bad as some of the other places I had seen,'' Marowitz recalls.

''There were SS snipers around and all the bridges were blown. The only thing that wasn't blown was a narrow footbridge, and this is how we got in - over the footbridge, and then coming down on the other side,'' he says.

When the platoon entered Munich, there was an eerie dread that still causes Marowitz to shudder to this day.

''It was the weirdest feeling I have ever had in my life,'' he says. ''A dead silence. It was like a ghost town. We knew a city the size of Munich was filled with people, but they were all hiding. The place was desolate.''

As promised, the spies led them to Hitler's apartment. ''We went up and banged on the door. There was a housekeeper who came out, and called us ruffians and couldn't understand why everyone was so mad at Hitler,'' he says.

The platoon stormed the apartment, but no one was there. ''The apartment was in great shape. All the furnishings were in place. There were pictures hanging on the walls, but the drawers were cleaned out, and the closet was empty. Something caught my eye on the shelf in the closet. It was a black top hat. I picked it up. Hitler's initials were engraved inside,'' Marowitz says.

With the adrenaline of the war and the horrors of Dachau running through his mind, Marowitz committed a spontaneous act. He took the hat off the shelf, threw it on the floor and began stomping on it.

Coincidentally, it was the same day that Hitler would take his own life in a Berlin bunker. Marowitz sees a connection.

''Do you know the significance of what happened that day?'' Marowitz asks. ''When Hitler found out some skinny Jewish kid from Brooklyn was jumping up and down on his hat, he committed suicide.''

The city was liberated. A week later, Germany surrendered to the Allies, ending nearly six years of war.

He was born in Middletown, N.Y., a town about 70 miles north of New York City during the depression. ''At the time, the population was about 21,000,'' Marowitz says, ''and that included all the people who were in the state insane asylum.'' At the age of 14, the family relocated to Brooklyn, where they lived within walking distance of Ebbets Field.

At the age of 16, he became a professional musician, joining the union and touring the country with his trumpet.

Marowitz's war experience was far from what he expected. After registering for the Army, he was drafted in May 1944. His dreams of going in as a trumpet player were dashed when he was informed that the bands were closed. He signed up as bugler.

''That was the first mistake I made in the Army,'' he says, thinking that the position would at least keep him close to his music. ''The bugler is also a scout, and a message runner. It's not a very good job to have.''

He learned how to handle a 50-caliber machine gun, and hooked up with Capt. John McLaughlin.

''He was a big, tall, Irishman from L.A. who had a real urge to be in the action, so we usually ended up being places that we shouldn't be,'' Marowitz says. ''We were, at times, in street-to-street, house-to-house fighting, being shot at by snipers firing from rooftops.''

Marowitz volunteered for the Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon.

''The captain said to me 'Are you crazy? That's the most dangerous platoon there is.' In the I & R platoon, our job was to find the enemy, take prisoners, interrogate them and report back,'' he says. ''We had a 75 percent turnover in that platoon. It was very dangerous, but what a great bunch of guys they were.''

Nearly 60 years and thousands of miles cannot erase the vividness of the memories. ''I swear to this day - I could still see his (Hitler's) head inside of that hat.''

After posing for a snapshot with the crumpled hat on his head and a mocking comb beneath his nose, Marowitz stuffed the hat in his duffel bag. He got out of the Army in 1946 and returned to Brooklyn. When he moved to Albany in 1948, Marowitz threw the top hat into a drawer where it remained for nearly a half century.

Marowitz became a professional magician, performing at conventions and getting a reputation for what he calls the art of ''close up'' magic.

''I got pretty good at it and was considered a magician's magician,'' he says.

In 1993, the old Army gang found each other and had a reunion in Salt Lake City.

''It was the first time I saw the guys in almost 50 years. The guys were all waiting in the lobby saying 'did you bring the damn hat?'''

Marowitz brought it to a reunion in Seattle in 1995, and he says the group must have been some sight.

''We were quite a scene,'' he laughs, recalling the group of 70-something-year-olds running around the lobby of a hotel with a crushed top hat on their heads and black plastic combs under their noses.

Marowitz loaned the hat to the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C., where filmmaker Jeff Krulik first saw it. Today, at age 80, Marowitz shows no signs of slowing down.

''Hitler's Hat'' was turned into a documentary.
And Marowitz, alongside war buddies Doug Vink- a former tank commander -
and Alvin Cohen, who was a guard at the Nuremberg trials, have been featured in a new book
‘Into the Dragon’s Teeth: Warriors’ Tales of the Battle of the Bulge.’

The book's co-authors, Dan Lynch and Paul Rutherford, introduce Vink, Cohen and Marowitz as young boys, drafted and pushed through military training, ‘shipped overseas to replace the men who’d perished on Normandy’s beaches. The new soldiers were mostly teenagers for whom shaving was still an adventure. Bright-eyed and unsure of what lay ahead,’ the authors note. ‘Then the Germans struck back.’

Vink grew up, one of 13 children, in the shadow of Albany’s Palace Theatre in the 1920s, and drafted into service a few months before his high school graduation at the age of 18. Vink found his destination, not in textbooks, but riding inside of a Sherman tank, fighting for his life.

Al Cohen grew up in similar times, a few blocks south of the governor’s mansion in Albany.
After Japanese war planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Cohen burned with a desire to make a contribution to the war effort and his slight frame not withstanding, worked his way into military service, wielding a heavy .50-caliber machine gun in battle while ducking mortar fire from the enemy.

''We formed this little trio, Doug and Al with their background, and me with my Intelligence & Reconnaissance experience," says Marowitz, the skinny Jewish kid from Brooklyn who toppled the evil empire on a sunny April morning in 1945. ''We bring WW II to people.''

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian 2003-2004.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Military Mystery and the Forbidden Gift

SCOTIA, NY - 'I saw it 50 years ago,' said the soldier's 84-year-old widow, Katie.
'I'd heard the stories,' said Maia, the late soldier's teenage granddaughter. 'I knew it was there.'

The stories she had heard were the same ones her mother Jean had been hearing for a half-century, going back to the time she was a little girl growing up at the family home in Slingerlands.

'He told us those stories for years,' Jean De Porte said. 'I knew of Daddy's forbidden closet. And I knew that inside of the closet was the forbidden gun.'

Katie De Porte sways back and forth in her rocking chair on a lazy spring afternoon, and remembers how it was growing up in Albany in the early 1920s.

'David and I knew each other since we were born,' she said. 'Our parents were best friends at the state college, now it's called SUNY, but back then they used to call it the New York State College for Teachers. The strange thing is both our parents ended up getting divorced, right about the same time. Divorce was pretty unheard of then. Anyway, David and I got married.'

The De Portes relocated to New York City, moving to a seventh floor apartment in Stuyvesant Town on Manhattan's Lower East Side. It was where the couple raised their son and daughter after the war was over. A few years earlier, with the war in full swing, David sought to join the troops overseas but was stymied in his effort by a physical disability.

'He had very poor eyesight,' remembers Katie. 'He wanted to be in combat, particularly being Jewish, but bad eyesight prevented him from being allowed to go. He hated that. He wanted to fight, but instead he got stuck at Camp Shanks.'

Fourteen miles north of New York City, Camp Shanks was erected on a sprawling plot of land in Orangeburg. At one mile wide and 2½ miles long, it had a bunk capacity of more than 46,000 and featured a number of bowling alleys and gymnasiums for troop recreation, as well as a half-dozen movie theaters and multiple, fully stocked libraries.

For soldiers, the camp was the final staging area after it opened in the first days of 1944. It was close to the Eastern Seaboard, making it a popular spot as the final spot before shipping the soldiers overseas. So many passed through the camp that it earned the battle-ready nickname among the troops as 'Last Stop, USA.' For De Porte, Camp Shanks was his destination.

'They put David in charge of the Special Service Unit where he became friends with another guy, a Disney artist whose name was George Peed,' Katie said. Among the dozens of popular animations, Peed is probably best known for his characterization of the old cartoon 'The Mighty Hercules.'

During its years of operation, more than 1 million soldiers passed through the camp. Thousands more were semi-permanent residents, prisoners of war with Italian and German backgrounds. Katie knows of a handful that came from Yugoslavia. Asked why there were Yugoslavian prisoners being held in upstate New York during World War II, she turns her palms upward and shrugs. 'I have no idea why. Those Yugoslavian boys hated the Germans. But David became friends with them, with one of them in particular. His name was Frank Trebec.'

If no one seems to know the exact reason why Trebec and his Yugoslavian countrymen were being held as prisoners of a war they had apparently had no part of, it might explain the relaxed rules while they were held 'in captivity.'

'Those boys had pie and ice cream every night with dinner. Some nights they would go out on the town and take the short train ride to Manhattan. They must have thought they landed in heaven,' Katie said.

'David was in the Army for four years, and he and Frank became good friends. This was around 1945 that they were there together at Camp Shanks. They were very young then, these boys. Just before they got shipped back to Yugoslavia, Frank wanted to give my husband a gift.'

The gift of friendship was a .32-caliber pistol, a Rheinische automatic.

Katie shakes her head. 'Can you imagine? How could a POW be allowed on American soil with a gun?'

After the war, the family relocated back to the Albany area, settling in Slingerlands. He showed the gun to his wife and then put it in a box inside his closet where it remained for more than 50 years.

When the family relocated, Jean De Porte was 2 years old. While she hadn't seen the gun, she was told the circumstances of its existence and her dad's friendship with the Yugoslavian prisoners during the war.

'My father always spoke friendly of Frank,' she said. 'There were pictures and an ongoing correspondence of letters that went on for a number of years.'

March 7, 1951:

David, how are with all you? I think to you always...

I remember always you and your country and how we was work together. How it was for me! Everything was enough good. Cigarettes plenty...

David De Porte passed away in August 2004. The remaining family members decided it was time for Katie to move into more accommodating surroundings in Clifton Park. That meant relocating from the house in Slingerlands that served as the family home for more than 50 years. A half-century of memories and a lifetime of possessions needed to be packed. There was also the mystery surrounding the existence of the gun. The duty fell to Jean.

'I had heard so many stories for so many years that I felt great trepidation going into the closet - that forbidden closet with the forbidden gun. You just didn't go into daddy's closet. It was scary. Horrific, because it was a mystery for all those years.'

On Katie's moving day, every story of the era held true when Jean reached into her father's closet and emerged with a box. Inside, was the gun. It is the lasting legacy of a friendship between two young men from opposite sides of the world. As boys they were thrown together by the circumstances of war and came away friends.

Jean showed the gun to her husband. He called the Saratoga County Sheriff's Office and brought the gun in for processing.

Today, a statue marks the area where Camp Shanks once existed for more than a million World War II soldiers. And Yugoslavia is now a splintered land that sits on the east side of the Adriatic Sea.

Katie said she and her late husband often wondered what became of his friend.

'Frank had said he wanted to move to America and the letters went back and forth until 1951, but then suddenly, the letters stopped. Something happened, and they ended just like that,' she said.

'David wondered what happened. He was depressed that Frank might have gotten killed. He wrote and he tried to find out through the embassy, but never heard back. What happened to Frank? David never knew.'

The gift of the gun and the closing lines of their last year of communicating in letters will have to suffice.:


I please you excuse me for all. I'm a little in worry,' it reads, concluding:
The best wishes to you and your family.
With great regards sent, your friend Frank.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, May 29, 2005.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

American Stories: Mr. Smith Goes Snowshoeing

GREENFIELD - Jim Smith is sitting at the dining room table of his Greenfield home on a frigid January afternoon.

His niece, Mary Ann Lynch, is seated to his right, wife Rose is sitting on a wooden rocking chair to his left. Outside, there is a wind-chill factor of 10 below zero.
‘When I get done here, I’m going to go snowshoeing,’ the 82-year-old Smith announces. His comment barely raises an eyebrow from those around the table.

‘Ten below zero is just a little sample,’ he elaborates. ‘I think about the days when it was 35 or 40 below and going out for a walk in the woods. When it’s cold and the wind is blowing, it brings me back. I feel, ‘Wow, this is like the old days,’ you know?’

In his lifetime, Smith has been a woodsman and a mink rancher, a musician, a family man,
and a U.S. Marine who saw action in the South Pacific in the 1940s. Now he is a first-time author. His debut book, ‘Jim Smith’s American Stories,’ is the story of his life.

Smith’s intention was to document his life as a matter of family record. ‘I wrote the book to let people know what we went through in those years,’ he says. Smith’s niece sees the book as more than a family memoir.

‘This is the true story of an American son. One that is not a celebrity, who is not famous,’
says niece Mary Ann Lynch, who co-authored the book.
‘Uncle Jim has a vivid imagination for specific little details and he tells them in a way a storyteller tells a good story,’ says Lynch, an internationally published writer and photographer. She sees the book as an important link to a colorful past.

‘People in my generation were fortunate enough to grow up in the presence of our grandparents,’ says Lynch, pointing out an authentic Slovak bonnet given to her by her Grandma Bruhac. ‘We have been influenced by our ancestry. They were that direct link to another kind of experience, one very foreign to us.’

Smith penned the tale over several years and then handed it over to Lynch for revision.
‘I just sat down and started to write,’ says Smith of the process. ‘The more I wrote, the more all these things came to mind. I just kept adding the things that I thought would be enjoyable, or something that people who were living at the time could relate to.’

Smith was born in Passaic, N.J., approximately 10 miles from the Hudson River at a time when the George Washington Bridge was being built. At the age of 10, the family visited his aunt’s summer home in Greenfield, an area where the Smiths would eventually put down roots.
As Rose, his wife of 57 years looks on, Smith pulls a picture of his mother and father out of his wallet. It is the same picture he carried with him during battles on land and sea in the 1940s.
‘My father was a World War I veteran and after he was injured, he used to get a veteran’s compensation check,’ Smith remembers.

When the family found a home in Greenfield, Smith’s father purchased it for $500.
‘He used to get $32 or $34 a month from his veteran’s compensation check and you paid so much a month on the house, until it was paid in full. The house was a real Godsend
to have during the Depression,’ he says.
‘Not too many years later, my father got sick but we had a place to come to. We didn’t owe anything to anyone and we had a place to live.’

Smith’s love of music has also been a lifelong companion. ‘My mind goes back 60 years when I used to play and sing for the guys in Guam,’ Smith recalls. His guitar went everywhere with him.

‘When I was in Guadalcanal, I made a cover to protect the guitar and then when we went
ashore in Guam I tied it to the front of the tank,’ he laughs.
‘It probably should have been tied to the back where it wouldn’t get hit, but it came through all right - didn’t have a scratch on it.’

In 1950, Smith was part of the musical group The Frontiermen, who performed, among other places, on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Show on the then-new medium of television. Recently,
he has appeared at the annual Western Music Festival in Arizona, one of the hand-picked musicians on an international bill attended by music fans from around the world.

There are more than 500 pages and 40 illustrations woven into Smith’s ‘American Stories.’
The book traces some extraordinary lives of the ordinary people from what has been called the Greatest Generation. Some of the more intense moments come from the life-and-death battles in the Pacific during the 1940s.
Smith was a young man then, one of many who were thousands of miles away from home, who suddenly found themselves in harm’s way. ‘Condition Black! Japanese invasion imminent!’ shouted a commander.

‘The feeling amongst everybody at that time was: ‘Nothing is going to happen to me. I’m going to be all right. I’m not going to get killed.’
And you carried that with you,’ Smith says. ‘I was a mechanic. Our tanks would go in first to mark out any pillboxes. Then the infantry would come behind and I would move in with them. That’s when you realize: Hey, these guys mean business. They’re trying to kill me. That’s when you wake up; when you’re walking in the water and see all the people laying face down and there’s shrapnel flying all around you,’ says Smith, his eyes are fixed on a distant point far away.

‘I can still hear that shrapnel and steel flying in the air that would cut off your legs if it hit you, or worse. Your mind is in shock. You can’t really understand what’s happening around you. Well, you know what’s happening, but it does not sink in that you could be dead in a minute, or maimed, or shot up really bad. And when you see people that are hit you remember what you’ve been told: just get yourself ashore. Get a-shore,’ Smith says.

‘When I close my eyes I can still see that man standing on a barrel, holding a megaphone and hollering at the top of his lungs: Don’t bunch up on the beach! Because people would unconsciously bunch up together. They figured if they were in a group, somebody else might
get hit but not them. See, that’s what they thought. And I thought the same thing.
You couldn’t help but think it,’ Smith says.

‘And as I’m walking ashore, I still had that feeling - Ah, nothing’s going to happen to me - and it never did. It came close, very close. And I saw things that you don’t really want to know about, but my attitude is: I’m going to survive this,’ Smith recalls.

‘You know, I often imagine what my last day on earth is going to be like. Because that’s still my attitude, that I’m going to survive this,’ laughs Smith before excusing himself from the table.
The weather, he says, is perfect and he’s going snowshoeing.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian Jan. 27, 2004.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Memories of a WW II Vet

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Two and a half years had passed since World War I ended.
Rudolph Valentino was the desert warrior in "The Sheik" and Zez Confrey's
"Kitten on the Keys" was riding high on the nation's musical hit parade.

Those were the headlines when James Marchione was born on the first day of June 1921.

He grew up in Troy when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was governor of New York, and the first television broadcast was produced from a lab in nearby Schenectady. Then down came the stock market, in came the Great Depression and up went the Empire State Building, which opened its doors two weeks before Marchione's 10th birthday.

On the eve of his 82nd birthday, the World War II veteran sat in his third-floor room in the Saratoga Hospital Nursing Home and reminisced about his time in the war and about his family.

"I've got a beautiful wife," Marchione says, his eyes beaming and his face wearing a smile that threatens to light up the entire room. "And four great kids - three boys and a girl," he says. "And they all turned out pretty good."

Marchione holds open a case and displays a bronze cross that hangs from a red, white and blue-striped ribbon. The medal is the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for heroism during combat or extraordinary achievement in aerial flight. Marchione earned it in World War II. He shares the distinction with Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, who were among the
award's early recipients.

"I didn't get to go in with my friends from my block," Marchione recalls about the time
when he was called into service.
"The reason is I overslept," he laughs. "But really, I'm also glad. They went to the Pacific. I ended up instead going to the E.T.O. - the European Theater of Operations," he says, barely disguising his pridle.

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross after flying his 25th mission in the war, but it was the 26th, and his last, that leaves the biggest impression.
"The last mission was a doozy. My outfit was the 8th Air Force. We were stationed in Norwich, England and flying a B-24 aircraft - The Liberator - over Berlin.
"It wasn't as famous as the B-17 - the Flying Fortress - they got all the publicity," he says
of the aircraft that captured the public's fancy and carried Jimmy Stewart on some of their flights.
"Although Clark Gable came on five missions on the B-24," Marchione points out.

The B-24s also flew higher, faster and farther than the B-17, as well as carrying a larger bomb-load, dropping more than 600,000 tons of bombs during the war, according to Marchione.

Losses were especially heavy during the early bombing campaign of Germany in 1943. One of the problems was that Allied fighter escorts|didn't have the range to travel the entire distance with the B-24s - the bombers basically flew unescorted into Germany, leaving them vulnerable to attack.

"This was all pretty fresh at the time. The only escort we got at first was from the (British) Spitfires. They would only go as far as France then they would have to turn back. It wasn't until later that we got the P-51s," Marchione says. Shortly after the P-51 Mustang Fighters were
put into battle, the Allies gained air superiority over Germany.

The "Mighty 8th" flew their four-engine bombers during daylight bombing operations and faced dense flak.

"On the B-24, I was sitting where one of the .50 caliber machine guns was strapped in - which you got to through a hatch," Marchione says.

The plane's cruising speed was 215 mph. At maximum, it could go around 290 mph and carried a crew of 10. During high-altitude missions, it was capable of climbing in excess of 25,000 feet. The crew wore oxygen masks and braved temperatures that fell to 30 degrees below zero.

He remembers being called on that day over Berlin, and moving from his normal position where he was sitting.

"There was a fighter at 2 o'clock. When I got up and came back, there was a gaping hole right where I was sitting. The flak must have gone right through. It was only this thin aluminum and I moved just in time," he says. "You had to be lucky and hope that you didn't get shot down. When we dropped a bomb on Berlin, the flak field was pretty big. You knew the longer you stayed, the more dangerous it was."

Missions would take him from Norwich, England, where he was stationed, over France and Germany.
"We used to bomb submarine pens and places like that," he says.

When he returned to civilian life in Troy, and later moved to Round Lake, he worked
for 13 years in the cleaning business. He then worked for the next 30 years in a factory for a company that ultimately ended up selling to foreign buyers.

"They went and sold it to a French Company," shaking his head, laughing, "How do you like that?"

War, it seems, binds men in lifelong friendships. Marchione remains in contact with those he served with on missions 60 years ago. "Today, there are three of us that are left - me, the navigator, and Fox the radio man."

Then he looks out the third floor window of the nursing home out at the surrounding landscape and talks about how things have changed.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, May 25, 2003.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Flying Mao over Shangai in his C-47

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Retired Air Force Maj. Gus Bender is standing in front of the dining room table of his Prestwick Chase apartment, navigating his finger across the black-and-white photos of a tattered copy of Life magazine.

''I landed right here,'' Bender says, as his finger finds the spot.
''There's the river. And there's the caves. See, there weren't any buildings at all,'' Bender says. ''It's a really barren land.''

August ''Gus'' Bender, a World War II Air Force pilot, began recounting his story - one that changed the course of history.

Bender was born and raised on his father's farm in Queens, near what is now LaGuardia Airport.
He remembers, as a young boy, relocating with his family to New Jersey. It was 1925.

On the other side of the world, military commander Chiang Kai-shek had assumed the leadership of the Nationalist party, eventually the ruling government of China.

The Nationalists found opposition, however. The Communists were led by Mao Tse-tung, who emerged as their leader after the historic long march that ended in 1936 in Yenan.

As the two enemies were preoccupied with their in-fighting throughout the 1930s and '40s,
the Japanese sensed an opportunity and began seizing Chinese territories.

What does all this have to do with Bender? Destiny has a funny way of tying people together.
In August 1945, in the days just preceding the United States' dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the fates intervened.

''They (commanding officers) showed me a map, and said 'You have to fly up to Yenan,'''
Bender said, his left leg pumping up and down as if he were pedaling the memories forward.

''I said 'Where the heck is Yeee-Nan?''' Bender laughed, pronouncing the name
as if you'd expect to find it located somewhere between Memphis and Nashville.
Then he turned serious. ''They showed me a map and told me, 'Look, this is a tough place
to fly.'''

Bender was drafted in April 1941 and sent up to Pine Camp, now Fort Drum. He was in the
4th Army Division and passed a test that got him into the Air Force.

''When the Air Force accepted me, they sent a notice that read: 'Stay where you are
until we call you.' I had to stay there until Dec. 8. That's when they called me - the day after Pearl Harbor,'' he said.

It was the same day that China joined the Allies in World War II.

While America was poised for battle following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Chinese were fighting a Japanese army that had launched its attack on China in 1937.

Bender spent the next few years flying military dignitaries around China and India.

In April 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt died, and Harry S. Truman stepped in. In early August, Bender was informed of his mission to Yenan.

''That's when they told me that I was taking Ambassador (Patrick) Hurley with me.
As soon as I heard that,'' Bender said, ''I knew something (big) was going on. The goal was
to try to bring Mao Tse-tung back to Chungking, to talk with Chiang Kai-shek.

''Our government told Hurley to try and get Chiang and Mao to come to some kind of agreement to stop fighting among themselves, at least until the Japanese war was over,'' Bender explained.

Being in the thick of things, Bender had more first-hand knowledge than the ordinary person.
''I know Chiang had troops ready for the Japanese,'' Bender said. ''But he wasn't using them because he knew he was going to have to fight Mao Tse-tung. That was the reason we went
up to get him. They were going to try to come to some sort of agreement.

''The next morning at the airport, Hurley came out and interpreters and some newspapermen were there,'' Bender said, remembering the journey of his C-47. ''The flight took about three, three-and-a-half hours.''

He remembers the vivid starkness of the terrain.

''I was amazed. When I see pictures today of Afghanistan on TV, that's just the way Yenan looked. Barren mountains and the caves where they lived,'' Bender said.

''They didn't have any trees to build huts, or anything else, for that matter.''

Bender and his crew lived on the airplane for three days while they waited for the party to convince Mao to come back with them. On the second day, Bender recalls Hurley coming back to the plane to see how the crew was holding up.

''(Hurley) took us down into the center of town,'' Bender remembered, ''to a marketplace
where people had come great distances with their camels, and had vegetables and a lot of different things that they were trying to sell.''

On the third day, the entourage emerged from their meetings in the caves, Mao Tse-tung among them. Bender flew them back to Chungking for the all-important meeting with
Chiang Kai-shek.

Shortly after their arrival, however, the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later,
the second one was dropped on Nagasaki. Within a week, Japan surrendered.

For Bender, though, there was other work to be done.

''I was there until October. Two days after the war ended, I had to fly a couple of generals to Shanghai,'' he said.

The reason for the mission was to maintain continuity in the cities that the Japanese had occupied.

''We didn't have any ground troops in China, and in Shangai the (U.S.) generals told them:
'Look, you have got to keep your troops doing just what you've been doing, policing the city
and everything else, until we can get some troops in from the South Pacific,''' Bender said.

''You don't think of these things, but the war is over so they just quit,'' Bender said, incredulously - ''Yeah you quit, but here's a population of 8 or 10 million people, and Shangai was a big city - you still had to police it.''

With Japan out of the way, the Communists and Nationalists renewed their battle. By the end
of the 1940s, Mao Tse-tung and the Communists emerged victorious, establishing the
People's Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists were forced to flee to Taiwan.

Bender said people still ask him what he thinks happened after he dropped off Mao for meetings in Chungking.

''I know Mao was there for six weeks, then the meetings finally split up. We didn't fly him back, so I don't know how he got back,'' Bender said. ''I guess, since the war had ended and Mao and Chiang Kai-shek didn't see eye-to- eye, there never was any agreement afterwards.''

When Bender finally returned home, his mission had made history. ''When I got back, my brother told me 'Hey, you made Life Magazine!'''

Bender points out the photograph - ''That's Hurley, there's Mao, and that's Chiang Kai-shek's general,'' Bender said, going right to left across the bottom row. Bender is in the center of the second row.

After the war, Bender moved back to New Jersey, got married and went into the farming.

He and his wife (who passed away a year ago) moved to Saratoga Springs in 1973.

''My wife went to Skidmore many years ago, and we liked it up here. I wanted to get some acreage to farm. We used to plant Christmas trees, and cut them down, and sell them
wholesale, right up there,'' he said, pointing to a colorful photo on the living room wall.

As for his time in the military, Bender said he enjoyed being in the thick of things.

''My job was interesting, flying all those intelligence fellows around. I liked being in the middle
of it all.''

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in the Saratogian, May 26, 2002.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

WW II: Making W.A.V.E.S.

ALBANY - Like the old World War II song by her idol Bing Crosby, Commander Jane Barton wasn't about to be fenced in.

She was born in 1918, coincidentally the last time the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, which would have made a nice timeline to the present day, if Barton was having any part
of it. Which she wasn't.

'I'm not a baseball fan,' she said on a Tuesday afternoon when more than 100 million people were picking the next President of the United States.

Born just two years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment however, Barton made sure she exercised her civic duty.

'I wanted to go there early and beat the crowd,' said the retired U.S. Navy commander.

"You want to physically beat them?" she was asked.

'That depends on how the election turns out,' laughed Jane Barton, whose military past is on display as part of the 'Greatest Generation' exhibition at the Albany Institute of History & Art.

Barton lives nearby, on a 120-acre farm in Esperance, where she has been since 1956.

She was born and raised in New York City, in a section of upper Manhattan where the George Washington Bridge now crosses. From the time she was a kid, she became enamored with the radio personalities of the day.
At a young age, she remembers writing letters to radio artists - those talking and singing celebrities in the era before television.

'I fell madly in love with Bing Crosby,' she said.

When she reached her teens, Barton would go to the Paramount Theatre in Times Square
every week. After the show, she would hang around at the backstage doors hoping to meet some of the stars. She also started dropping by the radio station, providing tidits of news.

'I ended up hanging around the studios, meeting people and picking up all sorts of information. Then I would feed all the gossip I would pick up to the (radio director),' she said.

That news would make its way across the country, but her youth and lack of credentials limited her role to working in an unofficial capacity.

So she went off to Hunter College and earned a degree in journalism. It took two subways and a bus in either direction to get back and forth to the school, but the education gave her the credentials she needed, and she soon started officially working in the business.

'My first day job was for Radio Guide Magazine,' Barton said, remembering the popular
weekly magazine. With a flair for public relations, she later opened her own Manhattan public relations firm, where she represented some of the popular stars of the day. It was 1941.

'That's when Japan attacked. I wanted to do my part,' she said. 'So I enlisted.'

The Navy was expanding and ratcheting up for what would later be called World War II. They established the women's reserve branch with a deliberate accent on the temporary nature of the service written into its name: Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

Barton was a member of the fourth class of WAVES and the first class to attend boot camp. During her three years of active duty in World War II, she was stationed in Washington, D.C. Being one of the first WAVES brought with it special challenges.

'Originally, the Navy didn't want us,' Barton explained. There was the initial intimidation
of the women having to show the name of the Navy person they were replacing. 'The man I replaced was Mason Peters III, I'll never forget that name,' she said.

There were limitations placed on rank and how much military command women could have. They were also prohibited from serving at sea and confined to service within the continental United States borders. Once they were in and word began to spread of their effectiveness,
things changed quickly.

'Afterwards, when it became known that women weren't going there for fun, they proved to be valuable. Then the men started specifically asking for the women. The men went on to sea, and the women worked together (in America) doing all sorts of work,' Barton said.

By the end of the war, there were more than 75,000 enlisted WAVES who had erned full partnership in the Navy.

'In 1948, Congress passed a bill making women a part of the regular services,' said Barton,
one of the first 200 women officers to be offered commissions in the Navy.

Despite the early difficulties related to gender, there was one area which Barton remembers that the women were dealt the better hand.

With women coming into service, new uniforms for the WAVES had to be created. The wife of the assistant secretary of the Navy got involved and saw to it that popular designer Mainbocher was called in to create the uniforms for the women.

Mainbocher was a Paris fashion editor for French Vogue, known for designing black lace and silk-lined ball gowns and costumes for Tallulah Bankhead. From his Paris couture house, the designer created uniforms for the WAVES.

'We were very lucky to have beautiful Navy uniforms that were designed by Mainbocher. The men got stuck with khaki uniforms and those funny hats - and they just were not complimentary at all,' she laughed.

Three of Barton's World War II uniforms - a service dress white, service dress navy blue and a blue summer work uniform - are on exhibit at the museum in Albany, a region to which she relocated to in 1948.

She would be the program director of the New York State Radio-TV Motion Picture Bureau for a quarter century following her tour of duty in the WAVES. For most of those years, she remained active in the Naval Reserve as the senior WAVE reserve officer in the Capital Region.

'I decided the job in Albany utilized my past experience (in radio and journalism). It was what I wanted to do. So that's how I got up here,' Barton said.

A few weeks ago, Barton attended a ceremony to open the exhibition at the museum. Many of the artifacts on display date back to World War II.

Barton's remembrances of that era and her service in the WAVES are outdone only by her affections for Bing Crosby, whose casual, breezy baritone can still be heard echoing through the farms of Esperance:

'Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above/
Don't fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love/
Don't fence me in.
I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences/
And gaze at the moon 'till I lose my senses/
And I can't look at hobbles and I can't stand fences/
Don't fence me in.'

All these years later, the affection for her childhood hero is still strong, not to say competitive.

'Not only do I still love Bing Crosby,' she said, 'but I'm mad as hell at all the fuss people make over Frank Sinatra.'

You go argue with her.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian Nov. 7, 2004