World War II Oral History interview
Date: May 23, 2012
Veteran: Bernard Rothenberg
US Army: Sergeant Major/Master Sergeant, 69th Infantry Division
Interviewer: William Bartleson
Summarizer: Stephanie Palzer
Bernard Rothenberg was born in Manhattan Borough, New York City, in March of 1926. Nine years later, his family moved to Brooklyn, where he graduated from high school in 1943, right in the middle of World War II. Below draft age, Rothenberg worked as a clerk in a local supermarket, while he waited to be called into service. He was drafted into the army on October 26, 1944; and, five months later, following fifteen weeks of training in Florida, he found himself aboard the Dutch ship Corfu bound for Le Havre, France as an infantry replacement.
(Unit crest for the 271st Infantry Regiment)
Tensions were high on the Corfu’s fourteen-day voyage across the Atlantic, as recent high school graduates-turned-soldiers began to realize that they might not return home alive. This depressing thought, coupled with tight living quarters and idle hours, sometimes gave way to physical confrontations among the green draftees. Rothenberg recalled that on one occasion when he was talking with some of the ship’s crew, a fellow soldier, strangely jealous of his knowledge of Europe, took a swing at him. The tension aboard the troopship was exacerbated when a German submarine attacked the convoy. Fortunately, convoy escort vessels intercepted the U-boat before it sank any ships.
Once ashore in Le Havre, France, Rothenberg and his fellow soldiers marched through the city and boarded boxcars waiting to take them into Germany. Rothenberg remembered that his first view of war-torn Europe was blown-out cliffs along the French coast, devastated in the fighting that followed the D-Day Normandy landings not far away. He recalled that the French civilians in Le Havre were still reeling from the great loss of civilian lives the city suffered during its liberation and were not at that time dancing in the streets welcoming the Americans. Rothenberg and his fellow soldiers traveled by train to Aachen, Germany and then marched to Stolberg, where they were issued rifles and other supplies, before continuing towards the front lines. They traveled on foot and by truck every day, crossed over the Rhine and passed through Bonn, finally reaching the 69th Infantry Division on April 21, 1945. Upon arrival, Rothenberg was assigned to the 271st Infantry Regiment’s Company C.
(The view of Le Havre in 1944)
While in Germany, Rothenberg noticed that most of the Germans the Americans came in contact with were relatively friendly toward them, though this should not have come as a surprise, for by this time, as he pointed out, “no one would say that they were Nazis”. When discussing the topic of anti-Semitism, Rothenberg stated that he ran into a few instances of it among his fellow soldiers, though “it was really nothing to speak of”. He also said that coming from a Jewish background was beneficial to him when talking with the Germans who spoke broken English, for, knowing Yiddish, he could understand them better than most in his unit.
Despite the fact that he did not see much action, being somewhat removed from the front, Rothenberg saw firsthand the horrors produced by the war. The gravity of the situation at hand became a reality when, faced with a dead German soldier laying face-down in a gutter on the side of the road, he thought about how easily the situation could have been reversed.
Though the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, the war in the Pacific raged on. Rothenberg recalled that while V-E Day was celebrated, the soldiers were well aware that their next stop could be the islands of Japan. Proud of a job well-done, yet wary of the job to come, the 69th Infantry Division began training for combat in the Pacific theater. Relief came with the news of V-J Day on August 14, 1945.
With the Axis powers defeated, the Allies were faced with the seemingly monumental tasks of picking up the pieces of a Europe in shambles, as well as making sure Nazism could not revive in the rubble. To this end, many American soldiers were stationed in Germany and Austria on occupation duty. Rothenberg was one of those who remained behind in occupied Germany. He was transferred to the 19th Ordnance Battalion, where he found himself working as a clerk-typist. Sensing that he had administrative talent, the unit sent him to the Adjutant General’s Administration School in Paris. Completion of that course resulted in his promotion to Sergeant Major at the age of 19 when he returned to his unit. He was subsequently offered the opportunity to become an officer, but he turned it down. By 1946 Rothenberg had been away from his family for well over a year and wished to return to the United States to settle down as a civilian. On August 8, 1946, his military service concluded with an honorable discharge.
Rothenberg returned to Brooklyn to the loving embrace of his family in the fall of 1946. He fondly remembered that his first meal at home was a juicy steak dinner cooked specially for him by his sister. Adjusting to civilian life, he attended City College through the GI Bill but eventually decided academia was not for him. Instead, he returned to the grocery business where he worked in various positions, including manager and store owner, until his retirement. In recent years, Rothenberg has volunteered to assist schoolchildren in need of tutors, and he is an active member of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America. He is exceptionally proud of his family, thankful for the freedoms we continue to hold and cherish, and continues to enjoy life to the fullest.
Bernard Rothenberg was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, the Army Commendation Medal, the Bronze Star, the Good Conduct Medal, the European Theater Medal with one battle star, the World War II Victory Medal, and the Army of Occupation Medal.