Book Excerpt: ‘My Father’s Secret War’

Chapter Three
It was 8 A.M. I opened the guest room door and walked into a burrow of bombinations: The three alarm clocks I had set were going off, not that this had any effect whatsoever on my father. He was in a twisted heap of pillow, sheet, and comforter, asleep on his good ear—he’d lost hearing in one during the war when the guns on his cruiser fired unexpectedly. His snoring was an extravaganza of sound: a long train of adenoidal reverberations, followed by a rush of cooing air, culminating in a ruckus of staccato snorts. I suddenly had great respect for my mother, who’d had to share his bed. I saw a movement beneath his lids like the shuddering of a bird. I shook him gently. Then roughly. His eyes popped open. “Who? . . . what? . . . where?” He lifted his head and I saw that he had a shirt on. “You’ve been up?” I asked. “You’ve gotten dressed already?” “Of course,” he said, but his eyes were suspiciously puffy. And the pants he’d worn yesterday were slung over a chair. Of course. He’d gone to sleep in his shirt, just like my teenage son. “Get up, Dad, it’s time to get up.”

“Do I have to?” he asked in his mock put-upon voice.

“Yes, you don’t want to be late.” I turned off the alarms and took out a brown plaid shirt and the black polyester pants from off the chair. They were starting to pill at the seat, but it was the only pair he’d brought. He likes to shop at the big discount stores; they’re near his house and have everything he needs. They’re fine for decorating home interiors but less so for human exteriors. It’s driven me crazy, especially when he was in his leisure-suit phase. “I’d like you to wear these, Dad. You’ll change into these, okay?” I stood in the hall, waiting. I didn’t know what he’d done to prepare his mind for this ordeal. I’d feared that at the last moment, he’d back out of it. But here he came, dressed, shaved, smiling down at me, patting me on the head, and turning to go out our front door. When we arrived at the offices of the museum, we were met by the director and the woman who would interview my father, Bonnie Gurewitsch,
a stolid, kind, but businesslike woman. Dad was visibly nervous. “I’d like to know who will see this tape recording we’re going to do,” he said, his arms folded, a cigarillo dangling from his fingers.

“Everyone. Anyone who comes to the museum,” Bonnie replied.

“I want to know what it will be used for,” my father asked.

“When we finally have the museum, there will be a room and in it your name will be displayed and your videotaped testimony will be able to be called up on a television screen.” My father took a drag on his cigarillo. “I won’t have to talk about any other missions that I participated in, will I?” Bonnie shook her head. “And this won’t be cut up or distributed or sent to anybody in particular?”

“It will stay right here in our museum archives,” Bonnie replied.

“Dad,” I took his arm as we walked down to the video room, “you know, don’t be afraid to show emotion when you tell your story. In fact, it would serve a good purpose if you did break down.”

“I will never break down,” he said harshly.

“I mean just a little, you could.”

“If I started, I would never stop.”

My father paused at the door. “You know, Bonnie, I was told never to talk about this or anything else I did in this special outfit-” “Mr. Franks, everything about the concentration camps is now public record,” Bonnie said, ushering him gently through the door. “You probably would not be committing any breach of security. I really don’t think you would be breaking any vows of silence at this point.” She was used to reluctant witnesses. Most Holocaust survivors and witnesses want to do anything but give testimony. They have to be persuaded, sometimes over a long period of time. Most of them have remained silent about the horrors they  experienced; they wanted to forget, and for a half-century after the war, the culture certainly didn’t encourage them to talk. Survivors such as writer Elie Wiesel, with his early and vivid books on the Holocaust, were unusual—and unusually courageous. Despite popular documentaries like Shoah and movies like Schindler’s List, the camps were still almost a taboo subject.

My father sat down in front of the camera. I watched him on a closed-circuit television. Bonnie asked first about his background, and he talked modestly about his career at General Alloys. I was reminded of the way he always understated his own importance. He said he’d never known any anti-Semitism growing up; out of about twenty-five people in his social group, three were Jewish, one of them his best friend.

Then he described Navy gunnery school, where he studied a variety of weapons, from the .45-caliber gun to the .30-caliber machine gun to the 16-inch guns of the Navy battleships. He learned how to fire these guns, to take them apart and put the pieces back together while blindfolded. He also taught others how to do the same thing. I wasn’t surprised to hear this. Brass shooting trophies filled the glass cases in his den. Several years in a row, he had won first place in the Massachusetts pistol championship. It made sense that the Navy would want to make use of his expertise.

Bonnie asked Dad what he’d done in his special unit at the Navy Bureau of Ordnance. My father paused. Finally, he spoke. “The head of . . . Special Assignments sent me up to see the admiral and that was like going up to see God. The admiral gave me this assignment: ‘I want you to go to a small base on the northeastern shore that trains sailors that are going to be operating machine guns on landing craft that land on enemy shores. I’ve gotten information that there’s
something wrong going on in that little base, that the CO and his assistant are spending Navy money on their own entertainment and doing many things out of order. We’ll have papers made out that show you’re a newly commissioned officer . . . wear that new uniform you have on. You’re down there to learn how to teach sailors to operate machine guns. I’m putting a period of one month on it. If you think you’ve found out everything you can, call me, and I’ll have you report to me everything you find.’

“I did spend a month . . . and they were doing things not proper to a Navy officer. So I left there and wrote up the report. [The admiral] said it was good.”

When asked if he had served in the Pacific, Dad answered haltingly. “I was sent to the Pacific in ’43 and the reason I was attached to the Marine Corps, which had been expanding and doing the fighting in the South Pacific, is that they had an awful lot of new Marines that had to handle machine guns and were not properly educated in handling them.

“They asked the Navy for half a dozen machine-gun experts . . . and they got in touch with . . . Special Assignments and they sent us right away to Guadalcanal. There was still a bit of fighting going on, but the battle had been won. It was being used as a base to assemble
troops and send them on other island invasions.”

“Were you training others in heavy ordnance?” Bonnie asked.

“I was supposed to be, except . . . I was moved out for invasions. I went to Bougainville and I had about twenty Marines under me, and we had a number of machine guns and we guarded a radio station and a radar outfit. After Bougainville . . . I was sent to an island called Emirau . . . and then to the island of Peleliu, which was a horrendous battle and a lot of resistance. It was necessary to go in and blast the Japanese out of their caves.”

So my Dad had crouched and crept through the hills of the Solomon Islands, risking getting shot by the Japanese who had holed up all over the place. I’d discovered a World War II war map tucked in one of his books, and knew that Emirau was a tiny island in Papua New Guinea, north of Guadalcanal, and Peleliu was far away in the Palau Islands. He’d always refused to tell Penny and me about what he did during the war beyond cooking up that damn pig, and now he’s notifying the public that he’d been in all these major battles in the Pacific Theater. I was impressed.

“What did you know about the German program to eliminate the Jews?” Bonnie asked. I leaned forward. This was what I’d been waiting to hear.

“Absolutely nothing. I don’t think anything was known, certainly I knew nothing. I had never heard anything about it at all.” “What happened, Mr. Franks, in April of 1945? When you were
chosen to go on special assignment to Germany?”

My father had his chin propped up with his thumb, his middle finger hiding his lips. It was an almost belligerent gesture. He didn’t answer. He didn’t move for what seemed like five minutes. Bonnie didn’t push him. Finally he got out the words with difficulty. “We got in a troop vehicle and headed out, and two hours later over bad roads, we ended up in Ohrdruf . . . we were going into this place with some barracks and buildings.

“German troops had withdrawn, apparently within a day . . .” My father was swallowing. “We went into this hideous place where bodies were lying around on the street-one here, one there, eight or ten here, a dozen over there. We were sent into one of the buildings and
there was a huge stack of bodies, six feet high, all nude, men as far as we could determine. We went into another building, there were more bodies stacked up.

“Then there was evidence of what had been a long bonfire . . .” he leaned over and raised his hand high. His face came looming large into the camera; he looked angry. “. . . where they lay cordwood down, big pieces of cordwood. Bodies, cordwood, bodies, cordwood.” His mouth clenched and the muscles of his jaw worked in and out. “They probably poured gasoline over the whole thing and set it on fire because it had long ago gone out.” My father took two quick breaths. “But you could see skulls sticking out, leg bones sticking out.”

“How did you know it was a fire?” Bonnie asked.

“When you see burned wood like that, you know that there’s been a fire and the flesh was all burned off of everything you could see, the skulls, the feet, the leg bones . . . .”

“Were there more bodies in the middle of the camp than in the sides?” Bonnie asked. “Photos of Ohrdruf show us large numbers of bodies in an open area, sort of a parade ground, like a square, and then individual bodies elsewhere in the camp.”

My father could barely squeeze out a reply. “There were . . . hundreds of . . . individual bodies and bunches of them in the street out in the open, they all had clothes on. The bodies that were stacked in buildings were all nude . . . they all looked thin, unclothed bodies, looking thin and emaciated. And the bodies in the huge, long bon-fire, you couldn’t tell whether they were burned in their clothes or not because the clothes had all burned off.”

“Was there any evidence that they’d been shot?” Bonnie asked matter-of-factly. She sounded so calm. “Yes, you could see blood and bullet holes. Some of the bullet holes were in the head.”

“Could you estimate how long the bodies had been there?”

“Not very long. They hadn’t started to decay. There was an odor, but not a real bad odor as when you have a lot of rotting bodies, which I was familiar with.”

So my father had seen decaying bodies. During combat, probably in the Pacific. His buddies, maybe, their eyes rolled back in their heads, their mouths open in ghastly surprise, maggots and flies feeding in the crevices of their skin, a sickening stench. Fifty years later, and he’d apparently never spoken of this.

“Did the troops tell you about how they discovered the camp?”

“American troops just overran the camps, the line moving forward overran the camps . . . We got out of our vehicle and we started looking around and it affected all of them. Several of them were crying. One officer ran over and started to go round the corner of a building
and then vomited before he got around the corner.” I sat there, amazed that my reticent father could remember so many details about something that happened half a century ago.

“What was your reaction?”

His eyebrows knit. “Mine? Sickening horror. Hideous. People, many, many people murdered. Some of them apparently were shot down at random by departing German troops. They were lying here and there, sprawled out, some with terrible expressions on their face of pain. It was sickening.”

“Was there any conversation among the Army officers about what they were seeing?”

“They were saying . . . .” My father’s forehead furrowed and he raised his voice until he was almost shouting. “‘Oh my God! Oh God! How could something like this happen!’ . . . Just . . . everybody was astounded . . . shaken by it. You had seen dead bodies in combat, but
not anything like this.”

“Did all the officers have combat experience?”

“I would imagine so. Probably on ships if they had combat experience. Very rarely did naval officers have land combat like I did.”

“How long did you spend in the camp?”

“Two or three hours and then we got the hell out.”

“I guess you were eager to leave.”

“Yes, very.”

“On the way back, was there any conversation among the officers?”

“‘What the hell, who would do something like that? Why were they killed that way? Why were the bodies burned, why were some bodies clothed?’ I handed in my report immediately when I got back.

I was told to make a handwritten report only. I was given instructions not to talk about it at all, ever.”

“What reaction did you have that the Jews had been killed?”

My father swallowed twice. He coughed. He looked down. I knew he was searching for a word that would tamp down his emotions. “Indignation. I developed a great hate for the Germans. Before the war, I had gotten intrigued by the German language. I loved the poets—Goethe, Heine—and I read German novels and lots of books in German.”

Perhaps only I could tell that the face my father was making, bringing up his bottom lip so his chin is crumpled, meant that he was having trouble controlling his emotions. “My library of German books. I tore them up one by one and threw them in the trash.”

“How do you think you have influenced your children because of this?” Bonnie asked.

My father mumbled a response: “. . . conveyed my very strong feelings about anti-Semitism . . . and ethnic prejudice in general.”

“Do you have any message you would like to give for future generations?”

He looked down and then spoke slowly, disconsolately. “Don’t ever judge a person by his ethnic background.”