May 2007

Schnuer Tells His Story

The following article comes from “Memories of World War II” – a book written about the residents of the Concord Deaconess community.

As a 14-year-old kid on my way to the World’s Fair in 1939 by subway in New York, I observed a fellow reading a newspaper with the headlines “Russia and Germany invade Poland!” Surely, the war would be over before I was 18. In 1941, I was working as a delivery boy at Western Union in a big Italian section of New York when I heard on the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. It was obvious that we were in the war and in a year and a half, I would be eligible for the draft.

In May of 1943, I graduated from high school and applied to Rensselaer Poly Tech, hoping to study engineering. The Army was offering specialized training programs (ASTP) if you passed their test — in engineering, medicine, and more. So I enlisted in May 1943 and entered in July. Having passed the test for the ASTP, I was sent to Texas A & M for training. From there I was sent to New Mexico A & M, but then they stopped the training program for mechanical engineers and put me into the Mechanized Cavalry Troop.

I was 6 feet 2 1/2 inches tall and weighed 185. My head kept hitting the top of the tank and we had four tall guys in my group. Anyway, they took the four biggest guys in the group and put us in the MP’s in San Antonio, enforcing traffic laws. Well, that was not how I wanted to spend the war, so I said “Let me out” and went into the infantry. After a very short training in the Louisiana bayous, I was shipped out to Liverpool. We crossed the channel to Normandy, stopped 1/2 mile off shore and got into landing craft. We went in to Omaha Beach, landed and hiked up the hill. No one was shooting at us — but you could see what D-Day had been like.

We camped near the French town of Le Mans and then got on a train to Chartres. We were supposed to go to Paris, but they let the French liberate Paris before us. Then we were riding in a truck on the way to the front, chasing the Germans. We went through Orleans, the first Americans to do so. Cheering people lined the streets and threw flowers, girls were kissing soldiers as liberation troops came through.
Eventually we had to get off the trucks and march. My shoes were shot from walking and I have size 13B feet. So my sergeant had to special order them from England and sent two pairs. I put one pair on and the second around my neck. As I passed a farmer in the field — he offered me the equivalent of $20 for my second pair. I asked him how he knew they would fit him. He told me, “They would fit anyone in France!”

There is a Town on an island in the Moselle River named Metz, a fortified Town right between France and Germany. It had gone back and forth between the countries and had never been taken by storm by any army. But General Patton decided he had to take Metz. So we left Nov. 15, 1944 for Metz. Our advance was slow because the German tanks on the other side of the river kept shooting at us. Sometime in the afternoon, the firing intensified and some of our boys got hit, including a Puerto Rican kid I befriended. I was the linguist of the group because I knew French and some Spanish. So I stayed with the wounded soldier, calmed him down and bandaged him. My group went on, out of my sight. So I then started running to catch up, but it is hard going because I am carrying my rifle and a Bangalore Torpedo — a shell full of explosives.

On the other side of the river, British Spitfires were dive bombing German tanks that were of course firing back. Suddenly a German tank shot a shell that landed right behind us, and blew me into the creek with two others. I passed out, and when I awoke had been hit in both arms, a leg and back. A mathematics book in my backpack was full of shrapnel. I could see light through my left forearm, and tried to put some sulfa and a bandage on it. 2 other soldiers were in the creek with me, one wounded, one dead. It was late in the afternoon, so we waited until dark to leave the creek. We got to a farm building a ways back that held one of our Artillery spotters. He said, “What’s with you 2?” and then I collapsed, probably from loss of blood. They got me onto a Jeep and then to a MASH unit in a school building in Verdun.

I woke up with bandages on my left and right arms, my right ankle and my chest. The doctor came in and said to me, “You’ll live.” All of a sudden I shuddered, realizing that I was not immortal — I could have been killed! I had been engaged in an extremely hazardous occupation! He asked, “Well sonny, how are you?”

I flippantly replied, “Hey, you’re the doctor, you tell me how I am.” He turned serious and said, “You’ve had two nerves shot out of your left arm. Your left hand has lost the ability to do any fine work, but it will be somewhat functional. The rest of your wounds are superficial and will eventually be healed. The war is over for you. We will keep you here until you are well enough to travel and then we will send you to England.” I thanked him and pondered my fate.

The flight to England was my first airplane flight. I had always wanted to fly, but not loaded on a stretcher on an evacuation plane. I was in the hospital from November 1944 to June 1946. I had 5 or 6 operations and physical therapy. After leaving England, the Army flew me to a hospital in New Jersey in March 1945.

In the Thomas England General Hospital, I got a really good doctor from Pittsfield. He hooked up as many nerves as he could. My shoulder took forever to heal. This hospital occupied several hotels in Atlantic City. When patients were well enough to walk, we could go down to the boardwalk and beaches. The Army did a good job of keeping us busy, often using the talents of visitors to Atlantic City. Thorton Wilder gave a course in writing to the patients. A wealthy woman had a farm in Vineland and invited four or five of us to spend the weekend at her house, which gave us a real break from our treatment regime.
My life was changed in two ways; physically, of course, but more importantly, emotionally. In addition to a partially paralyzed left hand and loss of hearing from the explosion, I set off metal detectors when going through airports. Emotionally, I came to believe I am living on borrowed time, and that one has to make the best use of what time one has, making a difference in the here and now. That has helped me speak my mind, about things like prejudice and demagogues (in the era of Senator Joe McCarthy) instead of staying silent.

Note: Sy’s memories were prepared based on an interview and through excerpts from a complete war memoir he has written. Since his memoirs and the above interview were completed, his story has continued. The French Legion of Honor, established by Napoleon on May 19, 1802, is awarded to those who have served France through bravery or meritorious conduct. It is France’s highest medal. On May 19, 2007, on Boston Common, 11 veterans of World War II including Mr. Schnuer were awarded the Legion of Honor for their service to France, the United States and the rest of the countries that defeated the Nazis. The award was given to those men who received either a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star or a higher decoration.