A Reflection on a Thanksgiving to Remember
By Norbert Friedman
Special For The AJT
It was the fall of 1945, and I had been working for the American Army since shortly after liberation on May 1st from the Ganacker Death March.
We were liberated by either the First of Seventh Army, I don’t know. I paid no heed to the designation for I did not know the difference.
To me they were the American Army, that’s all. After the unit went to the Czech border, my friend Oskar Klausenstock and I were handed over to Company B, 35th Tank Battalion Fourth Armored, Third Company. It was while imbedded with that unit in the town of Simback/Inn, on the banks of the Inn River (on the other side was Austria and the town of Braunau, Hitler’s birth place) that I heard for the first time in my life of a holiday called “Thanksgiving.”
After the origin of the holiday and its place in the American culture was explained to me, I began to understand the anticipation and the significance of the upcoming event. My job at the company was assistant to the mess sergeant, interpreter and all around go-fer. My mess Sergeant was Joe Colangelo a red headed Italian from the town of Rome, NY, commonly known as Big Red, as opposed to Little Red who was the Capitan’s driver.
Big Red was not that big, of average height and weight, but very athletic as evidenced by his beating the stuffing out of big Tex, who had a dislike of me and called me Kike. Red was protective and concerned about my well-being. He taught me America, about fairness and empathy for the underdog. We became close friends, a relationship that lasted through my life in the United States until his untimely passing.
Once a week Red would travel to the division headquarters in Landshut to procure the rations for our outfit, and would frequently take me along. Red would often complain to the sergeant in charge of the supply depot about the quality of the rations. The Sergeant would be apologetic and explain that the Army was disposing of the supplies that it stored for the duration of the hostilities and now was getting rid of the provisions that were meant for the units involved in the warfare in the fields. So we had to accept dehydrated potatoes instead of fresh ones, powdered milk, powdered eggs and a lot of canned hash and Spam. I could not see the fairness of the conquering American soldiers to have to do with inferior fare, while Germans who lost the war were dinning of fresh produce.
With Red’s permission and Captain’s acquiescence I started organizing fresh produce by bartering with a German farm and dairy sources; fresh potatoes for cigarettes, fresh milk for coffee, fresh eggs and butter for chocolate and so on. Once in a while Big Red would go hunting, bringing venison for the kitchen. All that was not in the GI handbook of rules, but no one complained, least of all the soldiers.
Lt. Myron Sowalski was one of the two Jewish soldiers in the outfit, an individual that the men of the company worshiped. He was the hero of the battle of Bastogne for saving the lives of many. He disregarded the danger to himself and pulled men out from the burning tanks. He was well aware of my circumventing the rules, but he agreed with my logic of fairness.
Now a week before Thanksgiving we went to Landshut, to procure rations. When it came to the rations for the holiday we were allotted supplies for making mince-meat pies, dehydrated potatoes and two turkeys. Two turkeys, for a company of 140 men and some civilian help. Red was ready to throw the bird back and I had to restrain him. “Is it all the army can get us for the Thanksgiving holiday?” He shouted at the Supply Depot Sergeant. “Is that what we fought for? Some Thanksgiving.”
On the trip back to our outfit, he was so mad that he sat silent, smoking one cigarette after another. After about one hour of the three hour trip, he finally spoke up: “What the hell are we going to do? The guys will be disappointed as hell.” “We will think of something” I tried to pacify him.
The next day I suggested that we drive to the part of the river, where there were some marshes and where I have seen flocks of ducks. “We will shoot a bunch of ducks” I suggested “and that’s what we will serve”. After serving breakfast, Red and I took a jeep, and a couple of M-1 rifles, and went to the spot that I envisioned would be the best place to hunt. A few lazily circling birds seemed likely prey. Red aimed, shot, and sure enough one duck mortally wounded started coming down… straight into the river, out of our reach. Frightened by the sound of the rifle shot, a large flock of ducks rose from the marsh and flew away. Disappointed, we sat in the jeep waiting for the birds to return, but the ducks seemed to associate our presence with the death of one of their own and stayed away. After about an hour of waiting resigned to the fact that there will be no fowl for the Thanksgiving we got back into the jeep to go back to Simback to our company.
We traveled no more than a couple of kilometers, when we had to slow down for a flock of geese crossing the road, “Norbert! Norbert! Hand me the rifle, quick” Yelled Red. He aimed at the birds and emptied the magazine, “Quick give me the other gun. “ It was harder to slay the birds now, for they started to scatter in all directions. When Red finally ran out of ammunition, there were about a dozen geese lying on the road, some of them still breathing.
Red jumped out of the vehicle and started to load the birds into the jeep. “Come on Norbert, “he yelled again “Help to gather the damn birds and lets get the hell out of here.” As we took off, we saw some people running out of a farm a little back from the highway. “Red these are domestic geese” I meekly observed. “What are you worrying about? God sent them down to us” he replied.
We had a fine Thanksgiving meal: Turkey (roasted geese), mashed potatoes with giblet gravy, (one of the cooks, James who was from the South knew how to make the gravy) minced meat pies, and tea spiced with Four Roses whisky, courtesy of the PX Sergeant. Red accepted the accolades and the backslapping for the grand meal, at the same time trying to give some credit to me; “thank Norbert” he said “he helped me.”
About three weeks later I received a call to come to the captain’s office. A German farmer came in a raised hell in German, and they needed me to translate. The captain was away and so was the lieutenant. So First Sergeant Cox was in charge.
Sergeant Cox was Canadian, a professional soldier who signed up for 30 years of service with the American Army, 6’6” tall with a grand mustache. He was laconic in his speech, but definite in his commandments; “see what this Kraut is beefing about.”
The German farmer, who came in with his teenage daughter, was complaining that some American soldiers slaughtered his flock of geese and ducks and drove away with them. The daughter who took some English in high school tried in vain to transmit her father’s complaint, that is when they called for me.
“Do you know where the soldiers were from?” was my first question.
“Nein (no)” was their reply.
“How many geese and ducks did they kill?”
Over a hundred was the farmer’s response.
Now I knew how to handle him. “It must have been a passing – by unit of some other part of the Army” I said. “We know nothing about it and we are sorry for your loss. To show you how sorry we are, we will try to make the up-coming Christmas a happier holiday for you. Wait here a few minutes I will be right back.”
I went to the stock room, picked up a gallon can of coffee. Then I stopped at the PX, and I picked up two cartons of cigarettes, several Hershey chocolate bars and a bottle of whisky and brought it into the office. “Here,” I said. “Frohe Weinachten (merry Christmas), and thank the ‘Herr Offizier’ here for his generosity,” I added pointing to Sergeant Cox.
The farmer started to bargain for more, but his daughter pulled him by his sleeve, whispered into his ear, and he bowed and with a loud, “Danke, danke (thank you, thank you)” he left.
First Sergeant Cox came out from behind his desk, slapped me on the back and in his British accent commented: “Bloody good job my lad, I had the inkling all the time that the Thanksgiving Turkey tasted a bit like roasted goose”
I stood there grinning, that somehow in a small measure I participated in giving thanks on this my first Thanksgiving Holiday, to the men who risked and gave their lives so that I could live.