The GI from Sandymount (Sam Notkin – 393rd Infantry Regiment, Company A)
It was the spring of 2009 when I first met Sam Notkin, the G.I. who lived just half a mile down the road from me in Sandymount, the village suburb close to the heart of Dublin where I live. My friend Gerry was his next door neighbour. This was indeed remarkable as Gerry is borderline obsessive about the Second World War. It was the New Year’s Eve of 2007, I think, when he had gone outside on the stroke of midnight to herald the coming year (a fading custom in these parts) and began to speak to those neighbours who had done the same. Thereupon he found himself speaking to this elderly man who had New Jersey in his accent.
So his meeting eventually led to my meeting Sam. For a year leading up to the summer of 2009 myself, Gerry and three other friends were planning a trip to Normandy to mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Gerry arranged a soiree in Sam’s house so the five of us could meet him and chat about the war and his experiences. In truth these evenings never go according to any plan and the conversation ranged all over the place. I found out that Sam had lived most of his post-war life in England, where he was the representative of the New York Port Authority, (including Ireland). He was widowed in 1999 and subsequently married again, to Kay, an Irish lady he knew through the American Embassy in Dublin
I remember vividly the very first impression Sam made on me that spring evening, in 2009. He came into the room later, after we had all arrived and were well ensconced. He was moving slowly because, as I discovered later, he had Parkinson’s. I don’t know if this is true for all WW2 veterans. I suspect it is, but his charisma was almost palpable. It reached out and held me in its thrall for the rest of that night. I came to know Sam much better after that night and, upon reflection, I would not be surprised if he planned his delayed entrance. He was mischievous and very sure of himself. I recall looking at a photo of this young lad smiling broadly in his 99th Division Infantry uniform in camp and holding his bronze star and purple heart. It was a memorable night.
During many subsequent meetings with Sam we talked often about the war, the story of his life amongst a myriad of other subjects. I wasn’t obsessed with the Second World War but I was full of curiosity about him. Like many veterans Sam did not speak of his experiences for many decades. They buried their memories and forged ahead with their lives. In Sam’s case he didn’t start opening up about his war experiences until 2006 when RTE, (Irish state television), came calling to record an interview for their series ‘War Stories’. He spent most of the post-war years living in Europe and it wasn’t until 2007 that he attended his first reunion of the 99th division, in St Louis Missouri. But his story also begins in Europe, Russia to be specific.
“The army regulations in Tsarist times meant that you were conscripted for either twenty or thirty years, effectively your lifetime, but there was one legal loophole. If a family had only one son that son would not be conscripted. So my father’s family was a large one when the story began. They realised that all of the sons would be taken bar maybe one so they split into about five or six families each with one son to satisfy this provision. But I think they started being caught up with and that’s why they started emigrating. Tsarist Russia was anti-Semitic, not like the Nazis but there were frequent enough pogroms and persecutions. They all came to the conclusion that their future was not in Russia. My father, Solomon, left before the start of the First World War when he was just a teenager. He left the village and went up to the port of Riga where he took a ship that stopped at many ports in the Baltic and the North Sea. The whole journey took him, he thought, about six weeks. His older brother, David, had made it to the States and had saved up some money and sent him a ticket, the old immigrant’s story. Later my grandparents were brought over by their children when they saved up enough money.” Sam’s mother, Sasha, made the same journey after the First World War and they met in New York. He was born in Brooklyn.
It occurred to me that many of the American young men who fought in the war would have similar stories to tell, about parents and grandparents who had made the perilous, no going back, journey to the United States. And how many of them were brought back, through the impossible will of war, to the continent of their roots?
The name Notkin also made the journey intact and Sam was brought up as a Jew in Roselle Park, New Jersey, with a younger sister. Later he renounced all religion but he grew up on stories about the old country. But there were also letters from relatives who had emigrated to France and Germany. Through these letters the family had some inkling of what was happening in Germany in the thirties. Much later, when the 99th was switched from the Pacific to Europe, he didn’t mind because, for him, the war had become something of a ‘personal vendetta’.
“When I was a teenager and just becoming aware of other places in the world I began paying attention to my parents and aunts and uncles who were talking about how contact with some of their relatives in Germany and Russia and a few other countries had dried up. There were letters that described some of the early persecutions… at first it was just difficulties placed in the way of Jews or they were not allowed to become doctors or any professional people and then they were banned from living in certain areas and then it became progressively worse… changing from a plan to deport all the Jews from Germany to killing them and it wasn’t just the Jews. The Nazis went after anyone who disagreed with them. They went after the handicapped, physical and mental handicap was a ticket to one of the extermination camps and they went after blacks…and they were ferocious in hunting down and killing anyone they considered liberal, socialist, communist. The socialists and the communists were the only ones who really fought the Nazis in the early days, pitch street battles, but they there were too few”. Some Jews managed to get out of Germany only to be gobbled up when the Germans took over the rest of the continent. “So by the time I joined the army I was pretty highly motivated for a teenager“. Sam was in a small minority of Americans who realised something evil was going on in Europe and felt that something should be done about it long before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. In the spring of 1943, just turned eighteen, he ‘had the blessing of a motive which was very important in retaining some semblance of sanity during the later wartime conditions’.
Fired on by his zeal to make a contribution Sam decided to join up in the spring of 1943. His home town was too small to have a recruiting station so he took a bus to Elizabeth, New Jersey. At that time in the United States he was among the forty per cent of white males (and only twenty per cent of blacks) who had completed high school education and so he was eligible for the Army Specialised Training Programme (ASTP). Some 140,000 recruits were diverted into this programme once they had completed basic training. The idea was that this group, who had scored well on an intelligence test, would be sent to college where they would complete degrees in fields such as engineering and medicine as part of a fast-tracked programme and emerge as officers. In that summer of 1943 Sam underwent basic training at Camp Fannin in Tyler, Texas and in September he went to College. If you did your basic training in the south you went to a university in the south. In his own words: “The idea was that you would go through a couple of semesters in College and you’d be graduated as a Second Lieutenant and you’d go through another month or two of Officer training school and then you’d be assigned to a unit in accordance with your background and training. I went through almost one whole semester in a delightful place called Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and we were mixed in with the regular students and a lot of very pretty Southern girls. It didn’t seem like army service at all even though we were in uniform and my conscience started bothering me. I kept reminding myself I had volunteered, joined the army to fight what the Nazis represented and here I was in college having a ball! So I was just getting ready to volunteer myself out of that programme when it was dismantled. The government was convinced by Eisenhower and a few other military executives that we urgently needed more manpower.” This was late in 1943, anticipating D-Day and its aftermath and the fear that Germany might invade Britain before American soldiers could reach Europe. Sam, along with nearly 3000 others who were studying in the south, was assigned to the 99th infantry division and sent to Camp Maxey a few miles north of Paris, Texas for advanced training. These ASTPers would remain privates for the remainder of the war.
Disappointed but resigned to his fate Sam moved to Camp Maxey for hard, intensive training. Here the 15,000 or so of the ‘Checkerboarders’, so named because of their blue and white checkerboard insignia, underwent months of advanced training in hot, broiling conditions. There was marching and drilling. They got to the point where they could do long, enforced marches, carrying a lot of equipment and half a canteen of water and a salt tablet. This changed the metabolism and many suspected they would be assigned to the Pacific. The majority of the 99ers were from southern states and Sam found this quite an adjustment coming from New Jersey. According to him the southern boys were still fighting the Civil War! There were fistfights between some smartass Yankee and a Confederate. The army bus that they took out of camp still had the colour line halfway down. So the first time a small group of us New York and New Jersey guys got into the bus we just went to the back and sat down and the bus driver said: ‘ye all come up front, ye hear? We didn’t know what he meant”. But because Sam had some knowledge of what was going on in Europe and the spread of Nazism he would find himself often talking to other privates about the war and why it had started. In August 1944 orders came for the division to ship out and many now thought they were on their way to the Pacific but Eisenhower had switched more troops to Europe at the last minute because the invasion of Europe had become bogged down. On September the 5th the 14,208 troops of the 99th Division carried out their last parade at Camp Maxey in intense heat. From Texas they headed to a camp in Massachusetts. This took a week, eight trains per regiment. By now the soldiers knew they were going to Europe because they were heading east. On the 29th of September they travelled by train to Boston Harbour where troopships were waiting to take them to England. A band was playing ‘Over There’ and ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ and the soldiers were given doughnuts and coffee by women from the Red Cross. They were also given cigarettes and a copy of the New Testament. The crossing for the soldiers on the six troopships was very uncomfortable because of the severe overcrowding. Conversely many of these young men must have felt very lonely. Most of them had never left their home state before let alone the United States.
It was early October when the troopships carrying the 99ers arrived in ports around Scotland and England. There were three regiments in the 99th, the 393rd, the 394th and the 395th and Sam had been assigned to Company A of the 393rd. They were stationed just outside a lovely town called Blandford Forum in Dorset, near Dorchester in southern England, thirty-five miles west of Southampton. As he described it to me: ‘They would give us a twelve-hour pass but it wasn’t enough to be sure of getting to London and back and having a few beers in the meantime. To be safe all you could do was walk into the village and have some warm beer and some fish and chips wrapped in the Guardian which was preferable to fish and chips wrapped in the Times because the newsprint was better!’ Sam had fond memories of English villagers. He had a few dates with a teenage blond girl from the village whose family invited him to their home for supper. When he told his sergeant this the sergeant asked him what he had brought with him. When Sam said nothing the sergeant balled him out, telling him: ‘…don’t tell me that you are that stupid. You get invited to an English home, where they’ve had tight rations for a bunch of years, they won’t mention it to you but you are an extra burden to them, and you didn’t take anything to them?’ So I learned my lesson very quickly as did the other guys’. When these young soldiers were invited into these villagers’ homes for tea and were able to speak in the same language about family and home, their homesickness was softened. It meant a lot.
In the very early hours of November 3rd the Division made its way to the Southampton docks where they would be shipped to Le Havre and to war. Back in the United States the song at the top of the Billboard charts for the first three weeks of November was ‘I’ll Walk Alone’ by Dinah Shore. Their departure was delayed because of poor weather but finally they left in various craft and all had arrived in France by the 7th where they could see the destruction caused by war for the first time. They were going into something that was now real and immediate. Their first sight of Le Havre must have come as a shock. The port had been bombed repeatedly by Allied bombers and in retreat the Germans had also done their best to destroy the docks and piers. From here they boarded 2 and a half ton 6X6 trucks which would take them to Aubel in Eastern Belgium, not far from the front lines. They spent one night in France, sleeping in an orchard. The front line for the 99th encompassed twenty miles along the Belgian-German border in the Ardennes forest and the three regiments took up positions opposite the Siegfried Line with the 393rd positioned in the centre of the main line of resistance (the MLR). They knew they were undermanned. However, nobody anticipated a major attack. Instead the main challenge for the solders was adjusting to the bitterly cold weather. January of 1945 was the coldest on record in that part of Europe. There were only eight hours of daylight. Furthermore, many did not have suitable clothing for the conditions. There was a lack of planning by the higher echelons of the military for winter fighting. It was a very cold winter and for the first two or three weeks that they were in action they were in very light clothing. “The clothing was ordinary combat attire but it was light attire and whereas we should have had fleece-lined jackets and winter boots we did not have any of those things and there was one stretch of time when we lost more men to frostbite and trenchfoot than we did to combat’. The soldiers in Belgium endured miserable conditions. They had to dig a foxhole through frozen ground. Lighting a fire at night was forbidden. During the day it didn’t matter because there were enough fires and smoke in many places but at night it was a giveaway. You were never warm. “You could try to have shelter but if you were on duty in one of the forward foxholes and it was raining you just couldn’t stay warm or dry”. The soldiers in eastern Belgium in the winter of 1944 had to live with the misery of being cold and wet all the time. But Sam did notice that the boys from southern states were ingenious at lighting fires in any conditions, even if they suffered most from the cold. “They were the hardest hit. To them warmth was part of life. They didn’t know about snow and if it was a little cloudy and there was a drizzle they would say: ‘we’re having a blizzard’ but they were savvy in the ways of living rough. I saw southern boys do things I wouldn’t have believed possible like lighting a fire in the rain. They knew how to start it and how to shelter it, to dry stuff that was underneath the surface wetness in the woods. They could get a fire going anywhere whereas I don’t know, if any of us New Yorkers had tried to get one, it would have been a bit of a joke!’ The other problem was that there was heavy cloud cover so there was no air support, a fact which would become crucial when the Battle of the Bulge began.
Sam had two jobs in A company, radioman and interpreter. As radio man he had to carry the additional weight of an FM 300 radio. (This also meant that he had the chance to get warm on occasion as he had to stay close to the command tent where there was a wood-fired heater. He could also ride in a jeep). In truth the infantry soldier was something of a beast of burden. He had to carry a helmet made of solid steel which did not protect you from a high velocity bullet, a full field pack, which weighed between forty and forty-five pounds, and a Garand or an M1 rifle. They usually had two grenades at any given time. The M1 had certain merits compared with the Browning automatic rifle. “We carried the M1 rifle, the Garand, and there was also a thirty calibre carbine, the Browning automatic, and each company of about 200 men had one heavy weapons platoon with light and heavy mortars and light and heavy machine guns.” Sam handed in his M1 and asked for a Browning automatic instead because it was much lighter. But the first time he tried to fire it he had a problem. “The first time I had a clear shot at one of those guys in a grey uniform the carbine jammed and luckily he didn’t immediately figure out where the noise came from. That was too close for comfort and I thought… hell weight or no weight I’m not going to trust the carbine again because the M1 never jammed, I’ve seen it muddy, dirty, sandy, wet and it always fired.”
When Sam was assigned to company A of the 393rd a sergeant noticed that he had High School French and so he was made the ad hoc interpreter. He tried to get out of it telling his sergeant that he was bound to make lots of mistakes but the sergeant put a heavy hand on his shoulder and said: “Son, any mistakes you might make they are nothing compared with what idiots like me or the rest of us might make. You are the French interpreter, learn fast”. Later on before the German counteroffensive began in earnest some Austrian units began to come across the line to surrender. There was a period when some small group of Austrians would come across every day and share a supply of bread. They should have been sent directly to HQ but the captain didn’t want to miss out on any credit for gaining possible intelligence. Somebody needed to communicate with them and Sam was summoned. His captain said: ‘I remember from your army poop sheet that you speak Jewish, Yiddish, and he said, isn’t that similar to German?’ I said, there are similarities but there are also a lot of differences. He said, well you concentrate on the similarities and find out what you can.” But then the Germans felt the Austrians surrendering would destabilise that whole section of the front so they pulled out the Austrians and substituted them with two SS Panzer divisions opposite our position and from then on nobody came across surrendering and we learned that those Panzer units were the true fanatical Nazi league” Opposition became stiffer and stiffer. The 99th and 106th Divisions were holding a thinly manned line and it was at the junction of these two divisions where the Germans launched their offensive, on the 16th of December, with two armies, twenty-nine divisions, almost 500,000 soldiers. They had good intelligence and knew where the weakness in the line was. The objective was Antwerp, a seaport, to capture key fuel depots and split the Allied defensive line. Now the fighting would become vicious and conditions would worsen. The next six weeks would be the costliest period of the war on the Western Front for the Americans, with 20,000 dead and many, many more injured or captured. More than 15,000 were treated or withdrawn from the line because of frostbite and cold-related injuries. The weather conditions were a second enemy. The 99th Division would never be the same again. Furthermore the Belgian people suffered terribly.
Even though the Germans managed to break into more than fifty miles of Allied territory, they did not achieve a total knockout. The line bulged but held because of some key pockets of firm resistance, notably in Bastogne, defended by the 101st Airborne, and Elsenborn Ridge, defended by the 99th. Now small units were fighting small enemy units all along the line. But the combined effect of these small units was to slow the German advance until the weather cleared and air support could be employed. Patrols became vital. The fighting in these conditions was inconceivably appalling.
Anywhere they bedded down, even for a few hours, they had to dig a foxhole no matter how frozen the ground. It was essentially a fluid form of warfare with patrols on both sides and active incursions, testing, probing each other’s weak and strong points. It was never-wracking and nobody wanted to go on patrol. “A combat patrol is designed both to get information and take some prisoners and do any incidental damage that is possible”. There were those that were for reconnaissance and those for combat and sometimes it was both. Division HQ ordered night and day patrols and the soldiers hated them. If a platoon leader was someone respected then it was different but mostly they didn’t want to volunteer. Then there was the shock of combat and seeing one of your friends die in front of you and be powerless to do anything. “The first shock which is common to anyone who has been in combat is to find that people with whom you’ve trained and have forged bonds that apply only to life and death situations, to find that suddenly that person, or those persons, are dead and it can and does happen very quickly which can be construed as being better than a long, lingering illness but to a teenager who has led a sheltered life seeing good old George suddenly lying there and not moving comes as a big upset and you can pretend to be insulated against that and not to be bothered but there is a part of you inside that is in turmoil and I think although that diminishes with time it never goes away.“ And what about fear? “It was fear in combat conditions. I have to make it straight in my own thinking which can be a little confused when it comes to pondering matters of fear and death. Yes all of us were afraid, I think anyone I was close to – if he said, no, I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of Nazis or Krauts or whatever, I think he was whistling to keep up his own courage and his own nerve. I remember being afraid before actual combat and being afraid after combat but being much to involved body and soul during the actual struggle for survival, during the actual crisis of, am I going to kill him or is he going to kill me? That was too basic to allow fear, it was all adrenalin but before and after there was definitely fear although I have to confess to a secret feeling that, that it won’t happen to me, which was harder and harder to maintain when you saw it happening to other people who apparently would have felt the same because that strange little, that strange little germ of a feeling that says somehow I’m different”.
I asked Sam which sense in combat is the most heightened, visual or aural?
“You know it’s noisy but it doesn’t really register. It’s, I would say predominantly visual because there are so many things going on and you try to take them all in, in order to stay alive and you have to admit to yourself in one corner of your mind that you can’t take it all in visually without exposing yourself. You can’t stand up and have a look around! The other depressing thing apart from the basic questions of, are you going to live or die another day, is the bigger… the filth, the cold. In the Pacific you would have substituted the heat for the cold but you’re not out in all weather conditions. I remember thinking this is really bad because I’m never completely dry and I’m never completely warm and that acts as a slow but perpetual drain and you think, there’s no house to go into to get warm and when it’s your turn to grab a few hours sleep you find it’s well nigh impossible if you are wet and cold.” For every single soldier who fought in Belgium then it would have been the same. There was no relief from the depressing cold and damp, except through death or injury. At night the temperatures would drop to below freezing and all you could do was crouch in a foetal position in your foxhole, the bottom of which was frozen solid, the only heat generated by proximity to the other bodies in there with you.
One day, deep into December, the war came to a merciful end for Sam. He was on a forward combat patrol with was just inside the first line of the German-Siegfried line, and his patrol was just inside that trying not only to defend but to counterattack to throw the German advance off balance and he was hit by a shell fragment that broke most of the bones in his left foot. He fell to the ground. The injury wasn’t life threatening but if he had lain there without aid he probably would have bled to death, or been shot or taken prisoner. “It hurt like hell but I kept on thinking I had to get back to the lines because of the no prisoners policy, that we were still faced with… one of my buddies saw me go down and he half carried/half dragged me back to our lines, some considerable distance. I really owe my life to this fellow.” After that he remembered feeling guilty about leaving his unit because feelings were very strong about mutual camaraderie, where your life depended on him and his life depended on you. “One of our sergeants came over after I had been put on a stretcher by the first aid and Red Cross people, he rushed over and said ‘Goodbye Sammy and God bless’ and kissed me on the cheek and whereas I hadn’t had any tears up until that point I had then.” He was far from alone as a casualty of war. In its six months fighting in Belgium and Germany the 99th had an 85% replacement rate.
From the front Sam was sent to a station hospital, a few more permanent hospitals and then to a hospital in Paris. He remembered sitting up to look through the window of the ambulance as it took him through the city and promising himself that he would come back there again and see it in peacetime, a promise he kept. He was flown across the channel in a C-47, a Dakota, and to a hospital, coincidentally, back in Dorset and from there on to a convalescent hospital in Virginia where he had to learn to walk again. He would not go with the 99th Division into Germany, the Rhineland, the fierce battle for the Bridge at Remagen, the Ruhr valley, would not be part of the liberation of two of the sub-camps of Dachau in Muhldorf, and be in the south-east of Germany for the official end of the war on the 8th of May, exactly six months after the 99th first landed in France. When he did attend his first reunion in St Louis Missouri in 2007 and some subsequent to that, his fellow 99ers would tell him about those months in Germany, and what they had witnessed, and that he had been fortunate not to see Dachau. He, I am sure, felt otherwise, guilty and also regretful because of his Jewish background, that he didn’t see the war to the end with the 99th, what became known as a ‘liberating division’. ‘It would have been a circle of fulfilment.”
After the war Sam went to college, Columbia, benefiting from the GI Bill like millions of others, ‘one of the most intelligent pieces of legislation that Washington ever enacted’. This Bill enabled these young GIs to restart their lives, go back into education, their time in education measured according to length of service, plus one year and if they had been wounded. It lifted many out of potential poverty. Sam himself believed he would not have had the career path that he had, would not have gone to College without the GI Bill as the money wasn’t there to pay for it. Most of these young GIs would never have gone to college if it wasn’t for the GI Bill. Of course it also enabled them to push on with their lives and put the war behind them, even if not fully. In Sam’s case he had three and a half years credit and into those years he crammed a degree in economics and a Masters in international trade and economics. Then, between the years 1951-1955, he lived in Paris, exploring the city on a second hand bicycle before he eventually took up a position with the New York Port Authority with responsibility for Britain and settled in Surrey in England and then much later moving to Dublin where he saw out the end of his life. He didn’t speak about the war for over sixty years. He died in 2012, at the age of 86. His sons brought his ashes back to New York, the circle closed.
There are very few left now, what you could call ‘primary narrators’, witnesses to history. It seems to me we should always listen to those who survive war as they have a unique story to tell. Sam wasn’t pro-war but believed that the Second World War was ultimately unavoidable. He felt that the Western countries could have been more resolute in the face of Nazi expansion. He saw himself as ‘a humble infantryman’ who was fortunate to have come from a liberal community with liberal parents, as a result of which he learned something about world history and just what the Nazi danger was and it was even more dangerous than he first suspected. If it were not for the Nazi’s racist policies they could have developed the atomic bomb before the United States. It is an irony of history that some of the scientists who worked on the bomb in America were refugees from Nazi Germany. I feel fortunate that I knew him, not just because he was a living connection with history and a survivor of war, but because I appreciated his sense of fun and his particular wisdom, shared by many of those who saw what he saw, I have no doubt, the wisdom of living in the ‘now’ and extracting every last morsel out of life.