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Berger’s Burg: Vet’s trek in World War II embodies sacrifice, courage

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A veteran is someone who ... wrote a blank check made payable to “The United States of America” for an amount of “up to and including my life.” — Anonymous

On Nov. 11, we will celebrate Veterans Day and Americans will pay homage to the soldiers who fought for our freedom in past w--s (it is not p.c. to say “war” anymore) and the present w-r and, hopefully, as the old spiritual declares, “There Ain’t Gonna Be No W-r No More.”

Today the fighting men and women on battlefields are wearing the same uniforms and repeating the same acts of valor as their fathers and grandfathers before them. For that, we salute them.

America is No. 1, thanks to our veterans.

Many columnists will honor veterans with stories about their collective battlefield heroism. I will digress and tell the tale of one post-World War II soldier who faced hostility and met it with courage and determination.

No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave. — Calvin Coolidge

A few years ago, I was in a barber shop waiting my turn for a haircut. Sitting next to me was an elderly man wearing a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap and a military medal pinned to his jacket. Since my readers know I am inquisitive and for every one of the other 8 million New Yorkers waiting in barbershops for a haircut there are 8 million stories waiting to be told, I began a conversation with him.

At first he grunted when replying to my questions, but soon opened up and became talkative during the long wait. He said his name was Frank, but refused to tell me his last name. Frank, speaking with a pronounced Italian accent, said he was 78 and a veteran of World War II and lived in Whitestone.

He had immigrated to the United States from Italy before the war and was drafted into the Army. During the war, Frank earned a few military medals for battle heroism, but refused to discuss them. He was stationed in southern Germany at war’s end and was able to get a short furlough to visit his parents, who were living in a small village in northern Italy. Frank had not seen them for years and was worried about them.

There was no public transportation, so Frank began the trip on foot and managed to hitch rides on Army jeeps driven by accommodating soldiers. For three days he traveled until he reached a checkpoint in Italy a few miles from his parents’ home. He was questioned by a young American lieutenant.

Frank explained he wanted to visit his parents a few miles away for an hour because he was worried about them. The lieutenant denied permission to go any further because Frank did not have the proper papers to travel beyond the checkpoint. He was ordered to return to Germany to get his papers corrected.

He boarded an Army train returning to his base, but when the lieutenant’s back was turned, he threw his duffle bag out the train window and jumped from the train. The lieutenant caught him and, at gunpoint, ordered Frank handcuffed and arrested. He was put in a jeep returning to Germany, where he would be placed in the stockade, a military prison, for disobeying orders. When the military police saw the medals on Frank’s uniform, they unlocked his handcuffs and set him free.

Frank continued his voyage and stopped at another checkpoint. He told his story of wanting to visit his parents for an hour. A major officer standing nearby overheard and advised Frank to wait. He soon reappeared with new temporary papers reassigning Frank to his company for eight days. He then contacted Frank’s original company in Germany and told them Frank was needed in his company because of his ability to speak Italian.

Frank spent eight days with his parents, where his mother washed, cleaned and ironed every article of his uniform, including his duffle bag.

When his eight-day furlough was over, Frank returned to the original checkpoint. He searched for and found the young lieutenant who previously ordered him placed in handcuffs and sent to the stockade in Germany. Frank showed him his second set of papers.

When the surprised officer handed the papers back, Frank dusted off his immaculately clean uniform, stood at attention and gave the lieutenant a snappy salute. Frank was still smiling as he boarded the train taking him back to his unit in Germany. Frank and his parents were happy, but the lieutenant was not.

Regrettably, I never saw Frank again.

God bless our veterans, like Frank — past, present and future.

Contact Alex Berger at timesledgernews@cnglocal.com.

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