A tribute to my father
World War II veteran, radical, American
Lawrence Weiler, England, 1944
On this July 4th, I want to share a bit of my late father’s story. He came of age in the 1930s, fought in World War II and his experiences and commitments reflected a time in American history when it was not so uncommon to be be both a veteran and a leftwing radical. More on that below.
Lawrence Weiler was born in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1919. He grew up in a poor, immigrant Jewish family and had a difficult childhood, including a stint in a boys’ home in New Jersey after his mother died, when he was 12. In July, 1941 ,my dad was drafted into the United States military, where he served until war’s end. Larry, as he was commonly called, eventually joined the 3103rd Signal Services Battalion, Company B. The unit deployed to Great Britain in early 1944, where it played a key role in the massive subterfuge campaign that preceded D-Day, known as Operation Bodyguard. Among other things, my father’s unit helped coordinate an elaborate system of fake wireless communications between non-existent military units, the goal of which was to confound the German high command about the exact nature, timing and location of the eventual D-Day invasion.
My dad's company eventually joined the Allied advance through France and Belgium, where they were part of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last consequential stand of World War II. According to an interview a member of Company B gave to the Library of Congress, the unit was among the first to discover some of the bodies from a Waffen SS massacre of American POWs in December 1944, in Malmedy, Belgium. Later, in April 1945, Company B came upon the smoldering remains and piles of corpses from the Nordhausen slave labor camp and nearby Dora concentration camp, during the final Allied push to Berlin, when my dad saw his final action.
Because he died when I was seven years old, I only have snippets of memories of him. I remember my father tying my shoes, taking me for pizza and ice cream, sitting imposingly at the dinner table and watching Yankee games, the team he followed since a youth of rooting for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. My own lifelong sports obsession is surely, first and foremost, my way of keeping his memory alive. He was a tall man, had swarthy good looks, smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and was, in the parlance of the times, a man's man. He was also a sensitive soul, a sometimes temperamental but loving father to me and my sister, and a devoted husband. In many ways, he’d been dealt a difficult hand in life. He was stricken with multiple sclerosis in 1969, from which he died four years later, at age 53.
My father was also a radical. When he was old enough, he rebelled against his traditional Jewish upbringing, though he remained close with his father and stepmother. When he returned home from the war, his political commitments deepened. At some point in the late 1940s, he joined the CPUSA, the American Communist Party (he also knew Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and their extended family). In 1949, Paul Robeson, the legendary African American singer and political activist who was black-listed during the McCarthy era, was scheduled to perform at a benefit concert for a civl rights fundraiser in Peekskill, New York. The concert had to be postponed and rescheduled after a mob of anti-Communist, anti-Semitic and racist rioters attacked and beat concertgoers. Larry was one of a number of people who volunteered to serve as Robeson’s bodyguard in the face of that violence.
My mom, who died in 2009, told me that my dad became disillusioned with the Party and left it in the early 1950s. Apparently, he chafed under its restrictive and narrow-minded nature, though he remained active in radical circles throughout the 1950s and 1960s. My father understood that America provided a haven for his family and so many other immigrants. And he always remained proud of his service in World War II. But he also thought the United States was a deeply flawed society, dominated by powerful economic forces that preyed upon ordinary people. His actions reflected his belief that the United States could and must do more to live up to its professed principles, to justice, to the least among us.
The Columbia law professor Jedediah Purdy recently wrote that progressives must rediscover patriotism in part because “patriotism in the right spirit fosters the civic trust and solidarity that democracy needs.” Purdy continued,” [p]atriotism shouldn’t be an excuse for glossing over failures and crimes — just the opposite. It adds responsibilities, even sorrows, to our lives. But it also fosters affection and, yes, pride.”
Responsibilities, sorrows and pride. Three words that capture well my father’s life, a life that while I can’t emulate, I hope always to honor.
To all, a happy and meaningful 4th.
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