Harrison Gass’s World War II Experiences

“My role in World War II was very simple: I’m responsible for winning the war. I en­listed the morning I heard of Pearl Harbor. I was very eager to get into the war. I was one of the first in line and I immediately flunked the physical. They said my eyes were­n’t good enough. But I was in a heroic mode; I wanted to be the new Richard the Lionhearted. I found somebody who was a cousin of the secretary to the Speaker of the House. He says, Come on, we’ll go to Washington and he’ll get you into the army.

“So we took a car and drove to Washington and we spoke to the secretary of the Speaker of the House. He says Don’t worry, I’ll fix it up.

“He went in to see the Speak­er, came back in about a half hour with a card and a note to some naval captain who was in charge of enlistments in the army in Richmond, Virginia. So we go to Richmond, Virginia. I gave this naval captain the card and he says Come on with me. We spent a couple minutes talking and he took me to the eye chart. He says, You flunked the eye chart? Let’s do the test over again. And he gave me the tallest number. He says, What is that?

“I says, It’s a “C”.

“He says, You’re in the army.

“ I went down to look at it and it was “D.”

“I drove the car to Fort Lee, Virginia, and now I’m in the army. They put me in with a group of about forty or fifty people in a huge barricade, all sleeping together in tents. I thought, This is America. I’m a great Democrat. We’re all together and we’re going to kill Hitler.

“The next morning they lined us up and gave us uniforms and some rough sergeant says, All youse fellows with college degrees, three steps forward. So I went one, two, three steps forward. There’s about eight of us and he says, Permanent kitch­en police. So I had a job in the kitchen.

“We had too many people in the army at that time and not enough guns. So part of the day we’d walk around with broomsticks—one-two, hip-two-three-four—and the rest of the time I’m a kitchen police. I’m leaning next to a huge Frigidaire with a rag. The Frigi­daire has three silver spots on it and I’m polishing those three silver spots.

“After a month of this heroic service they packed us up into huge trucks and the word got around, Now we’re going overseas. But they moved us to another camp where we went through the same routine, then to a third place. Here we had guns and now we’re learning a little about shooting.

“One day a test came out, who wants to enlist into the Air Corps? So I went into the Air Corps and the idiots let me in, didn’t know I couldn’t see a damn thing. I’m training in a machine that’s supposed to be like all the instruments of a plane. And I’m learning how to go forward and backwards and to tilt the wings, and finally I’m ready to go into a regular plane. I start in a small Piper Cub, a training cub, and I’m in the front with dual controls and the experienced person is in the back. We’re learning how to make the plane go left and right and up and down, and after about four or five days I take control in the front and he’s there just in case I have trouble.

“Finally they find out that I haven’t had an eye test. It’s a special kind of an eye test. They put you in a room with a long table with two parallel cords with two planes, one on one cord and one on the other. And they tell you to adjust both the planes to be on the fifty-yard line, on the twenty-yard line. I couldn’t come within fifty yards. I immediately got kicked out of the Air Corps.

“Well, where would you like to go?

“I says, I want to go back into the infantry; I want to kill Hitler. But they recommend I go to Air Intelligence School. I says, That sounds good. So I became an Air Intelligence Officer—eyesight wasn’t very important to be intelligent.

“Now I’m finally ready to go overseas. Now I’ll get my chance to kill Hitler. About four or five days before I’m supposed to check out I get a telephone call, a message, Your father wants you to call.

“I call him back and he says he has a feeling I’m going overseas, he wants to see me before I go. So I says Come on down. He came down, but a little late, we were already in the trucks to go. I’m in the truck and I see my father, he’s standing there and I’m waving and he’s crying. I think it’s the first time in my life I ever saw my father cry.

“They took us overnight to Massachusetts and we’re going up the gangplanks of the ship that was taking us overseas. I got halfway up and I stopped and turned around. The fellows behind me say, Come on, move, move.

“I’ve got a pistol on the right side and on the left shoulder I have an officer’s carbine. I turned around to look back and I had a feeling, Don’t worry, America, now I’m going to kill Hitler, now I’ll take charge. It was a great feeling.

“Nobody knows where we’re going. That is we’re not supposed to know, but everybody knows we’re going to England. We get somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland, and we are forty or fifty ships in an armada, and a few ships patrolling, helping us out. All of a sudden we get the alarm in the middle of the night. Everybody runs up and puts on our safety belts.

“The reports are out, there’s U-Boats all around us. A big bang and the ship about 150 feet in front of us explodes. Another bang and the ship behind us ex­plodes. We didn’t get killed that day but they destroyed forty percent of the ships. Now we’re an armada that’s hopeless, we don’t have enough naval escorts. So we turned around and went back into St. Johns, Newfoundland. We waited there for three or four weeks until we can assemble a couple British ships, a couple Canadian, a couple more American ships.

“At that time I got a call they are looking for an Air Intelligence Officer at some place called APO 865 in Newfoundland. And before I know I’m in Gander, Newfoundland. Gander was used as an Intelligence Corps and anti-submarine patrols flew out of there. Also we didn’t have airplanes that could go from the United States in one flight. They used to land in Newfoundland or Labrador to refuel, and then they’d make another flight to Greenland, another to Iceland and finally they’d get to England that way.

“So I was an Air Intelligence Officer doing anti-submarine patrol for five or six months. And then I was shipped out to Greenland doing the same work. There was a lot of U- Boat activity. Night after night, day after day I’m doing that and it seems to me I’m get­ting far away from shooting Hitler personally, which I really wanted to do. I was young in those days. And it was kind of boring. I didn’t do anything—I’d just tell them Go here, go there. What did you see, what did you do? And lay out charts and maps and assess the damage that had been done. Then I started flying on patrols myself, looking around. You look down and what you see is a shadow of a big U-Boat, but often it isn’t a U-Boat, it is a whale.

“In Greenland we had a report that a Nazi U-Boat had landed further up the east coast and it looks like they’re out to destroy a weather station. Well, the colonel called me, he says, The man in charge of the military police broke his leg playing basketball, so you take a group and go up and round up those fellows.

“So we went in some mechanized sleds for two days and finally came across these poor guys. We saw about a dozen people half-frozen, running out of fuel, they were delighted to see us. Our first catch. It was not exactly like killing Hitler, but it was something anyway.

“In Greenland I was shot down once. I was out on one of these patrols. A ship would come, you would challenge it with radio. Every six hours the code would change. If it’s a friend they know the answer. Well, we saw a ship and challenged it and didn’t get a response. Again, still no response. There’s a possibility that the radios are out of order, so we have a second signal where we shoot lights at them. One long yellow light, two red flashes, a long green in response. No answer to that too. A second time we give them the light challenge.

“All of a sudden the sides of the boat open up, guns come out. It was called a Cuba, they were fake merchant ships. He shot the hell out of us, killed the pilot and one other person, wounded two others, and shot off the landing gear. I wasn’t hurt. The co-pilot got us back to the base and they prepared for a crash landing; trucks cover the runway with a slippery substance and it softens the blow.

“In the landing I got hurt on the knee. We landed and I stepped on the top rung and fell off the plane. Falling off the plane I broke an Achilles tendon. Now a serious question arises: did I get hurt in the crash, or by the firing, or was it just negligence on my part? That determines whether I get a purple heart. While they were making their mind up I got transferred to North Africa, and then back to England. I finally did get a purple heart.

“While I was still in Gander the USO troupe came through. The USO Troupe went around to all the camps as close to the battlefield as they could get, to entertain the forces and keep their morale up. It was a company of three, sometimes four. They’d have a master of ceremonies who also told jokes. Then they’d have an acrobatic dancer and somebody sang. But sometimes they thought that’s not enough, and so they’d send a legitimate drama called ‘Personal Appearance’ and make a big fuss about it.

“I was acting provo marshall that day, so I met the VIP plane, and out comes one gorgeous girl. And that was Blanche. She put the play on there for a few days and I spent quite a bit of time with her. Then she left and she says, I’ll write you. And that was the last I heard from her.

“When the war was coming to a close and I’d been all over—I was in North Africa at the time doing anti-submarine patrol—I got new orders to report back to the United States. I got on the plane with a couple hundred people, and it turns out we’re all supposed to report back to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Harvard Busi­ness School.

“They decided the European war was almost over, Japan would be another six months or a year, and they were facing a serious economic problem. All the factories are full of planes and tanks, equipment they need to win the war. But they’re not going to need all these planes and tanks now. What they’re going to need is commercial work done. They want to clear out the factories of stuff that won’t be needed after the war is over and go back to a civilian economy. So we were there for three or four months learning how to terminate Air Force contracts, and what to do with the plants themselves, what to do with all the equipment so that you could go back to civilian contracts.

“When I got through I had a choice to go to San Francisco or New York, Chicago or Dallas. My first choice, San Francisco, I couldn’t get. But the second choice, New York, I got. So I wound up in an office off Wall Street terminating Air Force contracts. I was living with a roommate, another officer—I think I was a captain at that time—off 82nd Street, corner of Madison Avenue. And I got a letter. I looked at the back, it had been written to me three years ago and it had followed me around all of the places I went in the world and finally reached New York. It was from Blanche and she has a New York address, in Manhattan, East 37th Street! She was an actress, in a play for about four or five months up on Broadway.

“I saw a lot of her there. I figure it’s safe, I wasn’t going to marry her because she was a gentile. I’m not a very pious Jew, but I wasn’t going to get that involved with a gentile. Finally I found out her name wasn’t Blanche Faye, she’d changed it from Friedman, because Faye would be a better stage name. We got married shortly after the war was over. And I never did kill Hitler.”