- Michael Bass: Dad doesn't talk much about aspects of his World War II experience
- Milton Bass volunteered for the Army, won a Silver Star for gallantry in France
- He helped rescue soldiers from a minefield and liberate a concentration camp
- Michael Bass: In light of D-Day anniversary and Father's Day, I call him a hero
My Dad is the bravest man I've ever known.
The first time I remember thinking this was around the age of 4 when I found myself suddenly trapped in the middle of a horrific dog fight. My Dad charged right into the center of the gnashing teeth, grabbed me and lifted me to safety on the hood of a nearby car.
When you're 4, that's a heroic act worthy of some kind of medal. I think I probably drew him a picture of one.
It was only later that I learned my Dad didn't need a picture. He had the real thing.
I was reminded of this as I watched, with quite a bit of emotion, the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day on Friday.
Remember the heroes, one of the commentators said. Remember them, for there are so few left. And soon they will all be gone.
Milton Bass volunteered for the Army at 19 and landed in France three months after D-Day with the 104th Infantry Division, known as the Timberwolves. Though he had the skills of a certified sharpshooter, he had decided to become a medic and wore a helmet with a red cross on it.
Shortly after arrival in France, his unit was ushered to the front lines. As some members of his group were attempting to clear a large enemy minefield, one misstep set off an explosion that left several lying, badly injured, in the middle of the deadly devices.
The sergeant asked for volunteers to go and rescue them. My Dad raised his hand.
He's never given us a detailed play-by-play of how he and a couple of his fellow soldiers maneuvered around those mines and picked up those men and got them safely out of there.
But it's all spelled out on the certificate that accompanied his Silver Star, the third highest U.S. military decoration for valor. The official description of it notes that the Silver Star is awarded for "gallantry in action."
It describes my Dad's life to a T.
Seventy years ago this fall, as the 104th moved toward Germany, my Dad was witness to all the atrocities of war. But nothing like what he saw once he got there in the spring of 1945.
Our generation knows the Holocaust only from pictures and film. But my Dad and his company experienced it firsthand.
They were the liberators of the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp at Nordhausen. It's not the most famous, but it's certainly among the most ghastly.
Here's a description from the website JewishGen.org:
"Nordhausen was liberated by the 104th U.S. Infantry Division on April 12th, 1945. When the first American G.I.'s arrived in the camp, they discovered a gruesome scene. More than 3,000 corpses were scattered, helter-skelter on the grounds. In several hangars there were no survivors and in others they found only 2 or 3 living inmates lying amongst dozens of corpses. The situation was so calamitous that the medic unit of the 104th Infantry Division had to request urgent medical reinforcements and supplies. More than 400 German civilians living in the direct vicinity of the camp were forced by the G.I.'s to evacuate the corpses. The medic units of the 104th Division did the best they could to save as many prisoners as possible, but even with the excellent care they received, numerous inmates died in the hours and days following the liberation of the camps."
My Dad never talked much about this experience when we were younger, though we've learned more about it as my children and my sisters' children have done school projects and interviewed their grandfather about World War II. Still, as he spared us, he also protected them from the most horrific details.
He did do an interview once where he described some of what he saw and felt on that terrible day.
Two things from it jumped out at me then and stick with me now. First, his recollection of the "smell of death" all around him. And second, his still hearing in his head the voices of the local German guards and residents, sickly pleading for mercy with their constant cries of "Nicht wissen! Nicht wissen!" -- "We didn't know!"
"They knew," my Dad said. "They knew."
My father turned 91 in January. He tends to doze a lot, but he can still be the funniest guy in the room when he wants to be. His grandchildren and pretty much everyone else refer to him affectionately as "Miltie."
In the wake of the D-Day celebrations and in advance of this Sunday's festivities for fathers everywhere, I'd like to call him "hero."
Happy Father's Day, Dad.