Oral History with Gerson Lew
By Lisa McQuillan
Gerson Lew is a retired insurance salesman living in Deerfield Beach, Florida with his wife May. He is eighty six years old, a father of two, and was a foot soldier during World War II. His wife May also sat in on the conversation and made a few comments.
When were you enlisted in World War II?
I wasn't enlisted, I was drafted in 1943. I was thirty-one years old. I was a father already. My son Mike was just three years old.
Where were you living at the time?
I was living in Woodridge, New York when I was drafted. They needed someone to win the war for them, so they chose me. (laughter) I was in the infantry.
What is the infantry?
You know, a foot soldier. There was the infantry, the cavalry, the airmen.
Where were you stationed when you were first drafted?
The first place they sent me was Ft. Mclullum, Alabama for basic training. I was there for about six months before I went overseas. I remember right before I went overseas I went to see my niece who was born on July 6th. I got out to see her, and then the next day I went overseas. It was 1944.
Where is the first place you went overseas?
First I was in England for about six or seven hours. After England, I went to France. That's where I fought in my first battle. It was the battle of St. Lo. We were in the fox holes. We would dig out a hole and sit in it until we gained the land, and the move forward and dig more holes. After St. Lo I went to Brese where I was shot through both legs. After that they sent me back to England, to Wales. I was in the field hospital there. That's when I got a big surprise. My cousin's husband Jerry was my doctor. He almost shitted on himself when he saw me. And when I woke up I thought I had died. Jerry bought me a nice big bottle of Scotch, and everyone was jealous.
How long were you hospitalized?
I was hospitalized for about three months, until March, and then I was sent back to France. I sat behind a desk in France until I was discharged in January of 1946, and then I went home to see my wife and son. My daughter Amy was born in 1948. And I still have two dimples in my legs from the bullet wounds.
(Gers's wife May speaking): The thing that was so bad was that we couldn't do anything from a distance. Myself and the rest of the family sent him letters and many other things, but they never got to him.
So did you think that no one was writing to you during the whole war?
I was very busy trying to stay alive. But when I was in the hospital, I got a whole package of letters and other things that I had never received. They had messed up my paperwork, and none of my mail was reaching me.
What was it like when you were discharged?
Well, May and her sister Rose through a whole party for me. Everyone was there, all of the relatives, but I didn't make it home in time.(May): So we had the party without him! (laughter)
What was your attitude towards the war before you were drafted?
Oh the war was a necessity. Nazi Germany was an evil, evil thing. They killed and enslaved people, and had to be stopped. Unlike Vietnam or the others we were all supporting it because we were fighting an evil force in the world. Although it was devastating, it had to be done.
What was your attitude towards Japan?
Well I'll tell you my attitude. I still won't buy any Japanese goods. Does that give you an answer? Or German.
Did they ever show movies where you were stationed?
When I was in France, we were out in the field, and there was no place to show a movie. We were fighting out there. We were infantry. We were fighting out in the field. You would dig yourself into a fox hold, and then jump from one fox hold to another. We had no place to watch a movie. The only time we saw movies was in basic training. That was in the rec hall. In Europe, it wasn't until the war was over that the Red Cross provided entertainment, but during the war there was no place to plug anything in!
Did you ever see any propaganda regarding the Japanese soldiers before you went to war?
Well I don't know what you mean by propaganda, we all were aware of what was going on. We read the newspapers, listened to the radio. As far as the army was concerned, we were all ready to be soldiers. We were anti-Japan. You know, when Pearl Harbor was bombed, it was terrible. The whole country was irate.Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed?
Where was I when Pearl Harbor was bombed? Let's see, it was December 7, 1941. I was actually in the car with May driving back from Illinois. It was a very shocking thing. It was very romantic. We were riding in the car, I had my arm around her, and then I heard it on the radio. I was flabbergasted, I guess is the word.
What did you think about the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Well, let's see. I was too busy, really. I was in Europe fighting my own little battles, and until I woke up in the hospital I had no type of radio, or newspaper or anything. I didn't get any mail for months. My records were lost, and it was like we were in a wartime cocoon. The thing that kept our interest was to stay alive no matter what. But I wasn't getting any mail or anything. It was what they called a snafu. Do you know what a snafu is?
Actually, out professor shows us cartoons and movies from World War II, and there is one called "Private Snafu" about a soldier who is always making mistakes.
(Laughter) Oh yeah, believe me, when you're over there, it wasn't funny.
So how did you get throug the war thinking that no one, including your wife, was writing to you?
Well, we didn't stay in one place. We would move from one vantage point to another. You know, you lived out doors, you lived out in the field. I told you, you dig a fox hole, you fight for a piece of land, and then when you gained it, you did it all over again. Day after day after day. There was a monotonous numbness. You know you missed the letters, you missed your family, but it's hard to explain to anybody because it's a thing that's encompassing. It takes over you. I was like an outsider looking in on something that wasn't really happening. It's very harrowing, your friends get killed on either side of you, you get bombed, you have shells falling. People that you know-for instance, in my division they had a high casualty rate. Our cavalry was burnt four or five times. The Germans were fighting hard, and they were killing us, killing our people. I look back and I don't think it's real. It's inexplicable. It isn't humane. War's a terrible thing. Life is so cheapened. People would get wounded in the field, and you couldn't do anything to help them, because the enemy was zeroing in. It's a blood curdling thought. Looking back, it makes my skin shiver.