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_____      _____

 

Bernard ROSENBLUM
Corp., 332nd Inf., Co."F"
Submitted by Brad Herzog, the grandson of Bernard "Bunny" Rosenblum: excerpts from Brad's book "Turn Left at the Trojan Horse" (at WhyNotBooks.com) from a chapter about his grandpa "Bun" 

Bernard "Bunny" Rosenblum 332nd Inf Co F I never knew BERNARD ROSENBLUM. He died fifteen months before I was born.  From what I can gather, he was quite the character. He was a football star, a soldier, and a loyal son who toughed it out in the family business. He was an accomplished painter and a musician who liked Dixieland jazz. He was a beer drinker, known for uncapping beer bottles with his teeth. He had a reputation as a bit of a playboy, but he also sang with the temple choir. It can be wonderful to get to know your maternal grandfather through gushing platitudes and earthy anecdotes. Isn’t that how myths are born? My imagination conjures up a larger-than-life figure: heroic, talented, charming, and irreverent.

     It has been nearly four decades since Bunny passed away. Now that I see the significant roles that grandparents play in my sons’ lives, I find myself wanting to know more about not only who my grandfather was, but where he came from. After all, to learn more about him is to discover the genesis of myself. All of my life I have learned about him through the recollections of others – his little brother who outlived him by more than thirty years; his best gal who clung to the memory of him like a life preserver in her final days; his daughter, who still lights a candle every May to honor her dad, who died when she was only twenty-three. I always wished I could hear about him in his own voice. I would hear the pitch and timbre, what kind of laugh he had, the peculiarities of his northern Appalachian accent. Thanks to a package sent to me by my mother before I embarked on my expedition, I can.

      I pull out a file containing a mishmash of genealogical references, collected over the years but never organized, an assortment of names and dates and a family tree so scrawled and indecipherable that it looks more like family kudzu. Carefully, I remove a folder inside the file, to find a series of letters saved over the decades, dated from June 1918 through February 1919. Most of them begin “Dear Folks,” and end with “Corporal Bernard Rosenblum, Company 7, 332nd Infantry, American Expeditionary Forces.” I spend the next few hours immersed in the Great War with the grandfather I never knew.

 I cannot picture myself in Europe’s trenches during World War I, no more than I can imagine being at the gates of Troy, wearing a golden corselet over my chest and a plumed helmet atop my head. But I can identify, at least on some level, with the fear of the unknown and the angst of separation from family. I suspect this is why a soldier’s letters home can be so moving. They are an attempt to maintain a grasp on humanity in the midst of dehumanizing warfare. Amid the savagery, there can be a powerful poetry.

      Wartime correspondence can be purposefully unrevealing – self-edited of information and emotion in an effort to protect both the soldiers and the readers. But even the most mundane missives are windows into a young man’s soul during what is surely the seminal experience of his life. It is possible that my grandfather had never before left the confines of western Pennsylvania, except perhaps for a handful of regional football games. Suddenly, at age twenty-two, he was shipped halfway around the world, marched through towns with names – Valleggio, Sommacompagna, Villafranca di Verona – that he probably couldn’t pronounce, and deposited into the middle of an epic battle dubbed the War to End All Wars. It must have been terrifying and electrifying.

\      You don’t hear much about the 332nd Infantry during World War I. Entire books have been written about the battles in Europe without mention of the regiment, which was the only American unit to serve on the Italian Front. Under the command of Colonel William Wallace, the 332nd was formed in August 1917 at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio. The soldiers, mostly from Ohio and Pennsylvania, came from a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic groups, and my grandfather says as much, in his own inimitable way: “Each corporal has a squad of seven men and himself. Eight in all. I’ve got a bunch of good fellows and every one is older than I am. Me, the youngest and the corporal. I inquired around and discovered I had a full blooded German, a Russian Pollock (Polish), a real Irish man and me a Jew.”

      After several months of intensive drills and training, in May 1918 the soldiers of the 332nd left for the eastern seaboard via the B&O Railroad. Twelve days later, they boarded the Cunard liner H.M.S. Aquitania for the voyage to Europe (Bun’s take: “I got slightly seasick the first day out, but after that it was just like riding one of New Castle’s street cars.”). A train to Southhampton. A transport across the English channel, during which they passed the wreckage of ships sunk by German submarines. And into France, where, says Bun, “The cutest little French girl is teaching me to speak the language.” He talks of playing his mandolin for the women in the village, and then, almost offhandedly, he adds, “I’ll be playing for the Senoritas soon.”

      Unlike the vast majority of American forces, the 332nd didn’t stay in France. Instead, the regiment arrived in Milan in midsummer and was greeted by throngs of Italians shouting “Viva l’America” and showering the soldiers with flowers. But in Italy the soldiers also suffered infestations of mice and fleas, bouts with dysentery, and the threat of an influenza epidemic so ravaging the northern part of the country that bodies were piling up faster than they could be buried. (“Spanish Flu, as they call it here,” writes Bun. “It’s very bad and I do wish you folks would be careful you wouldn’t get it.”)

       My grandfather doesn’t reveal his exact location or mission. Instead, he talks in peripheral details and sweeping generalities – how the houses in Italy are “infested with the prettiest little black swallows with white bodies underneath” or how the Kaiser is “trying to drive a nail thru the world with a sponge, but he can’t do it no matter how hard he soaks it.” As I wade through my grandfather’s handwriting, I learn little about the war. But I feel as if I am gaining great insight into the warrior.

       I see evidence of his earthy charm when he uses phrases like “straight dope” and “don't worry yourselves bowlegged.” When he asks about the state of the family business (“I guess we’ll have a pretty good store soon.”), I sense his regret at leaving his parents and siblings to fend for themselves. When he writes that one of the worst things his father can do is “mention gefilte fish and pie to a fellow and then say don’t get homesick,” I understand that, while his quirky gastronomical preferences may have been passed down to me, it isn’t the food that he misses. I imagine a young man itching to reveal his myriad experiences to his loved ones, but forced to offer only cryptic comments (“I could tell you more, but not now. Lots of things that nobody in America knows.”) and youthful bluster (“The Kaiser's nose is red. His eyes are blue. His chin recedes. His army, too.”).

      He must have been an overwhelmed twenty-two-year-old, but he adopts a tone of nonchalance interspersed with occasional false bravado, and I know that it must be for the benefit of his worried readers, if not a means of diminishing his own fears. Once in a while, I can glimpse an attempt to encapsulate the enormity of it all, as when he uses three simple words to describe his epiphanies while at the front: “Funny, funny world.” For the most part, he seems a young man who knows he is mortal but prefers to think he isn’t. So when he sends his regards to a neighbor, Mrs. Wallace, and her dog – “Tell her I can teach Zeus to lay for me” – I resist the temptation to treat it as a metaphor.

      The 332nd lost only a handful of soldiers. In early September, a mortar exploded during drills, killing seven and wounding several dozen. That proved to be more casualties than the regiment suffered in combat. To some extent, the regiment’s role in Italy was meant to be symbolic. It was there to serve as proof of American-Italian cooperation, and this may be my favorite thing about the 332nd. Although they trained and fought and died for the cause – and although they did suitably heroic things like crossing rivers, traversing the Alps, knocking out machine gun nests and capturing supply depots – it might be argued that this particular regiment represented an army of ideas.

      Let me explain: My grandfather’s letters speak occasionally of marching through the countryside. Never of fighting. Always marching. Although he makes it sound dreary and insignificant, this seems to have been the regiment’s primary responsibility. The 332nd staged a series of long marches in which each battalion would take a separate road out of the city of Treviso. Hauling different equipment and adorned in an ever-changing assortment of headgear, each battalion would circulate in sight of the Italians (our side) and the Austrians (their side), boosting morale for the former and (hopefully) confusing the latter before returning as inconspicuously as possible after nightfall.

     “War sure is a joke on this front,” Bun writes at one point. He was surely trying to assuage his parents’ worries. But in some respects, the American presence in Italy was all a big strategic gag. And the deception worked. Austrian generals later admitted that they thought there were at least six American divisions and possibly as many as 300,000 soldiers in Italy. Austrian morale plummeted, and it may have shortened the war on the Italian front, saving thousands of lives. For someone like me – my place on the combat courage spectrum likely falling somewhere between pacifist and petrified – these are my kinds of soldiers. In fact, these are Odysseus-like warriors. Homer said repeatedly that resourcefulness was Odysseus’s strong suit. He was the “man of many wiles” – heroic in thought as well as deed. Achilles had his spear. Ajax has his pike. Odysseus’s most potent weapon was ingenuity.

     Was Bun a hero? Well, 350,000 New Yorkers cheered the regiment’s parade down Fifth Avenue in the spring of 1919. Which certainly beats Odysseus’s return – to encounter a bunch of suitors trying to bed his wife. Homer may have constructed an epic poem about the Trojan War, but Bun Rosenblum did the same following the Great War, a handful of rhymes summarizing his year in the service: “Soon our day came to go across… To show old Heinie who is boss… We went thru England, France, Italy… And saw some country I longed to see…” Nice, perhaps, but I get the feeling my puckish grandfather would rather have written a scandalous limerick about Nantucket.

     My great-grandparents, I assume, were proud of their son. But mostly I suspect they were relieved. In fact, I can hear their concern through Bun’s responses in his letters. At one point, he tries to soothe his worried mother’s mind, telling her, “the fact your dream of me coming home was not true at the time does not say it won’t be true.” It turns out she worried about the wrong son in the wrong war. Early in his letters, my grandfather offers words of sympathy for his seven-year-old brother Hank: “I hated school when I was a kid, too.” Twenty-four years later, Hank served as an M.D. on a Coast Guard weather observation ship, the USS Muskeget, which cruised the Atlantic during World War II. But a communication on September 9, 1942, was the ship’s last. The Muskeget had been patrolling waters teeming with enemy submarines, and it was later suspected (though never confirmed) that a German U-boat fired two torpedoes into her side. A couple of weeks later, Sammy Rosenblum received a telegram informing him that his youngest son, who had a two-year-old son of his own at home and a baby girl on the way, was “missing in the performance of his duty.” The two-year-old went on to become a doctor, just like his dad.

     There are shades of Odysseus here – the man lost at sea, thousands of miles from his wife and son. But in this story, all 121 men aboard the Muskeget disappeared without a trace. Haskell “Hank” Rosenblum attended the same university as I, the one on the hill in Ithaca, New York. And he remains there, his name engraved on a World War II memorial above a quotation by Abraham Lincoln: “So costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

     Should it be a badge of pride to me that some members of my ancestral family were American heroes in a most traditional manner? My great-grandfather turned a sack full of knickknacks and a strong back into the foundation of a widespread and broadly successful family. My grandfather played a role in outwitting the Austrian army. My great uncle gave his life as one of the good guys in the Good War. They represent a sort of holy trinity of American attributes – perseverance, inventiveness, and sacrifice. I take great pleasure in these stories of ancestral courage. At least, when I look back on the lives of the people who gave me the opportunity to aspire, I have something heroic to aim for.

Newspaper article excerpt (New Castle News, April 17 (?), 1919:

     Among those who arrived on the Canopic and who were very evident among the returned vets were Bernard Rosenblum, Joe Dawson, John Hershinger, Walter Gunter, Jerry McNulty, William Robison, former New Castle boy, Joh Hares, Pvt. Hanselman and Arthur Flack.

     Harry Penrose, prominent New Castle boy did not get in on either of the first two ships. He is due to arrive on the Dante Alighieri which docks today or tomorrow. His father, H.S. Penrose will be at the pier in time to greet him.

     Rosenblum is still up to his old tricks. While waiting in the messline on the pier, he tossed a roll of tinfoil at the News man and hit his commanding officer in the eye.

     “We’ll shoot you at sunrise for that, Rosenblum” said his C.O. “Bunny” is the pep of his company and carried his mandolin all through the campaign. Besides that he bought another in Genoa which he brought back with him. He says the local boys had it easy compared to what the boys in France went through, but it was pretty rough in spots.

     “Bunny” is tired of parading and want to get home as soon as possible.

 

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