Sergeant Cohen's War: A Memoir of Victory, Liberation, and Loss

By Kavon, Eli | Midstream, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

Sergeant Cohen's War: A Memoir of Victory, Liberation, and Loss


Kavon, Eli, Midstream


In our engagements in the ETO (European Theater of Operations), your valor and determination never slackened. The concerted drives of the 97th Division never faltered. While much of your work was spectacular, let me record here that the principal measure of success is attributable to the workmanship and the professional approach by all ranks to the varied tasks assigned them. As Commander of this Division, I congratulate you for the magnificent job you performed in the battle of the Ruhr Pocket and repeated in the Czechoslovakian campaign....

Even as we rejoice in victory, however, there is sadness in our hearts, for the road through the Ruhr Pocket and into Czechoslovakia is marked by crosses bearing the names of our comrades who valiantly and unselfishly gave their lives that the cause of freedom might endure and flourish.

--Brig. Gen. M.B. Halsey, from Story of the 97th Infantry Division (May 1945)

Little was left of Le Havre, a proud port city, when soldiers of the 97th U.S. Infantry Division stepped onto French soil on March 2, 1945. While marching to army headquarters for his assignment, Sergeant Paul Cohen surveyed the city's rubble--and cursed the war. He only wanted to return to Bartow Army Air Field, a paradise where a kid from Astoria, Queens could sleep in the Florida sun, slow-dance with strangers, and lead services for the local Hebrews and Jewish G.I.'s, many of whom were experiencing their first holidays away from home.

Sergeant Cohen joined a machine-gun squad at night. Basic training in a Georgia military camp prepared him for ordered war, not the chaos of battle and the whiz of tracer bullets--steel fireflies attracted to a human head like moths to a light bulb.

A soldier in Sergeant Cohen's squad approached the NCO during a break in the battle for the city of Cheb--renamed Eger against the Germans--in Bohemia.

"Sarge. I gotta question. You a Jew?"

Sergeant Cohen froze for a moment. The question startled him. He let the private continue his investigation.

"Ya see, Sarge, I'm from West Virginia. Never met a Jew in my life. Thought y'all had horns and a tail."

Sergeant Cohen recovered from the unintentional insult. "Yes, Private, I am a Jew."

"Sarge, you're a helluva nice guy to be a Jew!"

Cohen let out a bittersweet laugh. "Thanks, Private."

Czechoslovakia, Tuesday, May 8, 1945

Dear Mom, Pop, Ida and Frances,

This morning we received the announcement that the German High Command had unconditionally surrendered to the Allies, that the war was over in the entire ETO with the exception of resistance still going on in parts of Czechoslovakia and Bohemia. That is the principal reason we are still in this sector of operations cleaning out the remaining Nazis in this part of Europe. We've been taking countless numbers of prisoners all along, and we have liberated many of the Russians, Poles and other nationalities that were confined in German concentration camps, some for more than five years.

Yesterday, a group of Russians who had been imprisoned by the Nazis was freed by our outfit, and we caught their Nazi prison keepers and guards. We had the Russians guard them on their way back to the Prisoner of War compound, and you can just imagine how those Russians reacted with the tables finally turned. They made the Krauts run all of the 5 miles back to the P.W. camp and if any of them lagged behind, the Russians hit them with their rifle butts and really made them keep on moving ... We saw many Russians with either the right or left arm cut off, something they told us the Krauts had done as punishment.

We met five Jewish girls near here, the first Jews I have met since I arrived in the ETO. The Nazis had taken them from their homes in Hungary and put them in concentration camps. You can just imagine how these girls looked as they told us about the whole thing. …

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