[May 31, 2022] Article by Charles P. Eberson. Editor’s note: Graphic content. Article reprinted by permission.
Friedenberg’s landing on Omaha beach, D-Day June 6, 1944 as quoted from his autobiography, On Being Numerous: World War II As I Saw It, “I stepped off the ramp and sank down into water that was over my head. I’ll never be able to explain how I swam in with the load I was carrying, but I did. Totally exhausted, I made it to the beach and threw myself onto the sand, trying to catch my breath. Then my work began. When I lifted my head, I saw another soldier lying alongside me. I said something to him and he moaned. I looked down and saw that the man’s leg was missing from the knee down. Every place I looked I saw dead and wounded bodies. I gave the man alongside me first aid and all the time I was doing this, I could hear men hollering, “Medic” from every direction. I moved on to the next casualty and then the next and the next and the next. There was no end to them. Enemy shells were exploding all around me; the bullets kept whizzing around my head, but I didn’t feel scared. I was too busy to even think about being scared.”
I first met Bernie in the mid 1970’s. I was working at a real estate office in Margate when he walked in and started chatting with the Broker. He had a calm and gentlemanly demeanor; someone with whom anyone could have an easy conversation. I remember the Broker had to take a call so Bernie I began talking. He told me he was a private pilot and my ears perked up because I was, and still am, an avid aviation enthusiast. The conversation shifted from real estate to flying until the Broker returned from his phone call. When Bernie was saying his goodbyes, he looked over to me and casually asked if I would like to go up with him one day. That is when our friendship began. Bernie would stop by the office and ask me if I was free for a flight. We would drive to Bader Field in Atlantic City where he kept his aircraft and go up.
As John Gillespie Magee Jr. wrote in his poem, High Flight, we “slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.” I say this because it is above our Earth that Bernie opened up to me about some of his war memories. He had no destination; no time restraints, no demands. The only limitation was the amount of fuel on board. I remember thinking, I had put my life in the hands of someone I hardly knew, not yet aware of how many others had put their lives in his hands in far worse and gruesome conditions. I listened quietly to his stories accompanied by the steady drum of the engine realizing I was getting a rare glimpse inside the memories of Bernie Friedenberg, a citizen soldier. At times, his voice would crack or he would be distracted by the demands of a pilot and all too soon for me, we were on the ground. We were back in the present.
Bernie wrote, “I felt a wave of fatigue wash over me. I thought I was going to pass out. I sat down on a tree stump in front of the farmhouse and started to shake uncontrollably. I tried to stop but I couldn’t. This was the first time in my life that my body had let me down. I didn’t want to leave my men, but they insisted I hop a ride (in the truck) as I was totally exhausted. I went to the back of the truck and rode on the tailgate. As the Germans retreated, they placed land mines in the road. Sure enough the truck I was riding in hit one. It was an anti-tank mine and the explosion was tremendous. It blew me off the tailgate and into a ditch. When I regained consciousness, I was about fifteen feet away from the burning truck and I was the only survivor. Everyone else had been killed.”
As the years rolled by and I moved on in my career, I would see Bernie, a Commander of the Jewish War Veterans, on Memorial Weekend handing out red poppies in front of Casel’s Supermarket in Margate and we would reunite. We would also meet each other at the Veterans’ Cemetery in the Atlantic County Park at Estell Manor during the annual ceremonies and catch up on our respective lives. Bernie would be wearing his military uniform and all of his medals with pride. At the end of the ceremonies, the bugler would play Taps. Bernie would snap to attention and hold the salute until the last note. He was not the only veteran fighting to maintain their composure.
Bernie would occasionally mention his nightmares, a fact that was also shared with me by his family. In his book, he wrote about one experience that haunted him. It was December 1944 in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. A German machine gunner opened fire on six men attempting to cross a field, wounding all six of them. Bernie got within twenty yards of them when he came under fire from the machine gun. As soon as he raised his head the gun opened up on him again. Bullets were whizzing above his head and making puffs in the snow all around him. Bernie played dead. He laid in the snow for six hours listening to the cries, prayers and moans for help from the wounded soldiers until they all eventually went silent. When it finally got dark, Bernie got up realizing that he was left for dead and checked on the wounded men one by one.
They had all perished.
Among other memories, this haunted him the most. Bernie couldn’t help the feeling that he failed them. He carried this with him for the rest of his life as well as the many other experiences that Bernie encountered. But in retrospect, Bernie also thought about all the lives he saved; all the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren that were born because of his actions. He also thought about all of the wives and children who did not suffer a loss because of his courage and selfless dedication to duty.
After Bernie’s passing in 2018, I reflected on the time we spent together as well as the contents of his autobiography and came away with how special our time was. How he impacted my life from the time he first came into the real estate office to the last few minutes we spent together. Bernie and other veterans like him walked among us in anonymity, many not sharing the atrocities they witnessed nor the heroic actions they took to preserve our freedoms.
Bernie included a quote from Edmund Burke in his book. It read “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Staff Sergeant Friedenberg was awarded two Silver Stars, two bronze stars and two Purple Hearts.
It’s hard to imagine that when attempting to enlist in the Navy he was rejected due to poor eyesight. The Army also rejected him. But Bernie persisted; went back every week until he was finally accepted and the rest is history, literally.
The Bernie Friedenberg World War II Memorial is scheduled to be unveiled and dedicated on June 6, 2023 in O’Donnell Park in Atlantic City. The statue will be a nine-foot likeness of Bernie tending to a wounded soldier on Omaha Beach during D-Day, June 6, 1944.
For more information on this statue or to make a donation, go to berniefriedenbergworldwariimemorial.com.
Charles Eberson has been in the newspaper business for over 25 years. He has worked as a writer, advertising executive, circulation manager and photographer. His photography can be viewed at charles-eberson.fineartamerica.com
Original article can be accessed here: http://www.shorelocalnews.com/remembering-s-sgt-bernard-i-friedenberg/
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