Our American Hero

Over the weekend this country lost another American hero from World War II and my family lost a dear friend.  Joseph Weiner was 17 years old when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.  From there he fought his way across Europe and in the process was awarded two Purple Hearts and five Bronze Stars.

I first met Joe when I was still in high school.  What I remember more than anything else was his friendly disposition and his sharp sense of humor.  Joe always had a smile on his face and his jokes were the life of the party.  I will never forget him asking me to think about the theme of a local shopping center that included a BJ’s, Siemens, and Dicks all on the same strip.

Like most kids growing up along the Jersey shore I spent most of my free time during the summer months on the beach.  Growing up in a beach community you eventually learn where to look for certain people and Joe was no exception.  I could always count on Joe sitting in the same spot with his wife Esther, his step-daughter Janeen, and often with my parents as well.

My favorite days, however, were when Joe was alone and we had a chance to talk.  During my high school years it was the war in Europe that held my interest and imagination.  I knew that Joe served in the war and that he took part in the Normandy invasion.  I wanted nothing more than to talk with Joe about his experiences, but early on I understood that this was not going to happen.  He offered little more than a short list of battles he had taken part in and I did my best to respect his privacy.  Even after Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released Joe showed no interest in revisiting his past.

The one exception took place on the beach years later after Michaela and I had met. It was just the three of us. Perhaps it had something to do with Michaela being German.   Joe talked for what seemed like hours about a weekend furlough in Paris in late summer 1944.

It certainly wasn’t the kind of war story that I had anticipated as Joe described spending the weekend above a bakery with two young French girls.  At one point a woman seated close by, who was previously distracted by a magazine, desperately strained herself to pick up every last detail from Joe’s story.  It was that good. In that moment Joe was 17 years old again.

Later my wife thanked Joe for his service, not simply for helping to liberate her country, but for making it possible for the two of us to meet.  I’ve been thinking a lot about that comment.  Regardless of how Joe remembered his experiences in Europe, I hope Michaela’s words brought him some comfort.

Thank you, Joe.  We are going to miss you.

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16 comments… add one
  • Dan Weinfeld Feb 26, 2013 @ 12:38

    My cousin is in his mid-80s and served in a field artillary unit in the 2nd Army. I’ve tried for decades to get his story, but it’s impossible to get much of anything out of him. All I know is that he landed a few days after DDay and was sent home after the Bulge with some kind of wound. On one hand I understand his reserve, but the (amateur) historian in me thinks that these stories should be documented and not forgotten.

    • TF Smith Feb 26, 2013 @ 21:35

      Dan –

      The US 2nd Army headquarters never went overseas during WW II (it was formed in France during WW I); you may be of either the 2nd Infantry Division, or the 2nd Armored Division, both of which served in NW Europe in 1944-45.


      • Dan Weinfeld Feb 27, 2013 @ 6:24

        Since TF wants precision, my cousin was in the 15th Field Artillery Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Division.

  • Keith Muchowski Feb 26, 2013 @ 10:29

    Great story, Kevin. The WW2 generation is for people like us what the Civil War generation was to folks in the 1900s-1920s. I grew up in South Florida where there were many retirees, a large number of whom served from 41-45. Now most of them are gone. It makes me feel old and more than a little sad.

  • TF Smith Feb 25, 2013 @ 21:04

    Nice post. Good points on how WW II memory can be a guide to how Civil War memory progressed; the parallels between the GAR and the VFW (which actually traces back to the aftermath of the SA War) and the American Legion (WW I)….

    Be interesting to find out what unit Private (presumably) Weiner served with; if he was infantry, and landed on Omaha on June 6, five of the six AUS infantry regiments afloat in the Omaha landing force traced their ancestry to the Civil War or earlier.

    The 1st Infantry Division was built around the 16th, 18th, and 26th infantry regiments (the 16th and 18th were raised in 1861); the 29th Infantry Division around the 115th (old 1st Maryland, Frederick); 116th (various Virginia regiments, Staunton); and 175th (old 5th Maryland, Baltimore).

    The Billys and the GIs had a lot in common, even 80 years apart…


  • Phil LeDuc Feb 25, 2013 @ 15:40

    This theme of many WWII veterans not speaking much about their experiences is further reinforced by the recent death of the actor Charles Durning. Apparently he too didn’t like to talk much about what he experienced until relatively late in life – an understandable thing given what he saw and did according to his obituaries. Another true, quiet hero…

  • Brad Feb 25, 2013 @ 12:35

    Unfortunately, time marches on and many of that generation are passing away. Sounds like your friend was quite an individual Kevin. I could be wrong but I think I saw his obituary in the New York Times. At the end of Saving Private Ryan, Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) tells Private Ryan (Matt Damon) to earn what they gave him. I think most veterans did.

  • Ken Noe Feb 25, 2013 @ 10:20

    We love movies about heroes who save the world. Some of those older men and women around us actually did it once.

  • Bummer Feb 25, 2013 @ 10:13

    Bummer has had the honor of knowing many WWII Vets, father, uncles, godfather and both grandfathers were WWI Veterans. When people speak of “The Greatest Generation” some us “old guys” have experienced the pleasure of knowing them personally. Rarely did they speak of combat, father use to say if they did, they probably weren’t there. Thanks for the story Kevin!


    • Pat Young Feb 25, 2013 @ 10:49

      Interesting quote Bummer. My Dad said the same thing. When he was with his buddies they would talk about army food (my dad said it beat what he ate at home in the Depression, camp life in the South (he said the locals hated the New Yorkers and used derisive terms for the Catholics and Jews), and time spent with the local people in the South Pacific (gave Dad a lifelong love of the Filipino people), but they never spoke of combat. My dad was so badly shot up that he got the last rites and saw many friends maimed or killed. This was the part of his service that was not to be discussed.

    • Andy Hall Feb 25, 2013 @ 12:39

      My uncle Marc died young, when I was a toddler, so I never knew him. But he was with the 101st Airborne at the Bulge and also, apparently, was reportedly witnessed the liberation of one of the camps — possibly Kaufering IV sub-camp of Dachau, I don’t really know. But other family members have said that he also would not talk in detail about what he did and witnessed, preferring instead to focus on funny “Army stories” about camp life, ridiculous scrapes he’d gotten into, and so on. When someone asked about some of the more somber things he’d witnessed (like the camp), he’d just shake his head and say, “it was bad,” and change the subject.

      Thinking of this in terms of the Civil War, it bears remembering that the flood of private soldiers’ memoirs really began 30 years of so after the war, long after the men had had time to come to terms (however they did) with their memories. Even so, most of the memoirs I’ve read still gloss over much of the horrors of combat. That may have been necessary for those writers, but it also allows the reader to misunderstand the reality, and focus on the positive virtues (patriotism, courage) without really appreciating the gruesome context in which they shined.

      • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2013 @ 15:25

        Hi Andy,

        And it likely helped to package the conflict as a “brother’s war”.

  • Pat Young Feb 25, 2013 @ 9:12

    Very moving. As the son of a WWII Vet I feel a pang every time I hear of one these guys passing on.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2013 @ 9:39

      Thanks, Pat. It was an honor knowing Joe.

      • Harry Honer Feb 27, 2013 @ 17:02

        thanks for the story. Joe was my grandfather. It was a great service for him. He was truly a monument of a man and will sorely be missed.

        Harry Honer

        • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2013 @ 17:04

          Hi Harry,

          So sorry for your loss. Joe will certainly be missed by all of us. I only wish my wife and I could have been able to attend the funeral yesterday. Take care.

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