Memorial Day 2010 brings back memories of George Weiner.
I knew George Weiner for 20 years.
During the 1980’s, I worked out with him at the YMHA on Clark Avenue or played basketball with him – and he was friendly with my mother and my late father. Quite often they sat together in the same spot every summer day in Marblehead at Preston Beach.
At the Y, George always wore a specially made wide leather belt when he was lifting weights. If playing paddleball, he put a bandana around his head.
He was diminutive in size – 5’6” 155 pounds but strong and physically fit, with broad shoulders and a trim waist, thick muscular legs and curly hair.
He had a winning smile and he loved the camaraderie that was so much a part of the Y of that era.
Looking into his eyes was staring into the heart of a happy man.
When some of the younger athletes wanted to fight one another during a heated basketball game at the Y, George would step between them to break it up.
He was totally unafraid.
But that kind of aggression always seemed to perplex him.
He was a peacemaker not a fighter.
Or so I thought.
What I remember most about George Weiner is that he was a good guy, a gentlemen at all times, always in control of himself, willing to engage in conversation about their lives with many of the much younger men who worked out at the Y.
If he had secrets – and he did – he kept them to himself.
The past was prologue for George.
He preferred to talk about the present or the future and to let the past remain submerged.
George Weiner was the second child of four born to Nathan and Eva Weiner, who came to this country from Russia in 1921.
They settled and lived in a six family home which still stands today at 91-93 Bellingham Street, diagonally across from where the Chelsea Memorial Hospital used to stand.
His father was a clothing manufacturer. His mother remained at home with the children in the growing family.
He came of age in Chelsea before World War II, when the city was a far different place than it is today.
He was popular at Chelsea High School. His many friends called him Chelsea.
“He had a wonderful personality,” recalled his sister, Ruth Shaffer, 82, who now lives in Danvers. “He was protective of all of us and especially of my parents.”
She said she never saw the hint of violence in him. “He was, like our father, a very gentle, loving man who cared deeply about family and friends,” she added.
The war was already on when George graduated high school in 1942.
He was going to be a college man. He went away to the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
After one semester, he was drafted into the US Army.
He was 18 years old.
Nine weeks later, the kid that grew up on Bellingham Street who could speak a bit of German was in North Africa with the US 1st Armored Division.
The African invasion led to the invasion of Sicily and then of the Italian peninsula. The object of US military planners was to dislodge the heavy German presence and to liberate Italy – with Rome the object of the deadly salient North.
History tells us that the Italian campaign was ferocious – with thousands of American dead and wounded.
The Nazi fighters held the high ground. They were dug in. The Americans were not.
In May 1944, George’s squad found itself at Anzio, the bloodbath battle that led to the capture of the road to Rome.
It is impossible to recreate his every move or to know where he was on a certain day or what he did. His records were lost in a fire at a government facility many years ago. The full history of George’s military service is incomplete.
And to make matters more difficult, he remained quiet, stoic almost about what he did and of what the war did to him in Italy as a young man until his death in 1997.
We know this: he was a combat infantryman – a rifleman – serving with an armored division.
On May 31, 1944 somewhere on the road to Rome, George Weiner experienced one of the defining moments of his life when he entered the heart of darkness on a landscape already awash in Dantesque horror. What follows is his Silver Star citation:
“Acting Squad Leader PFC George Weiner, commanding seven men, captured 31 of the German enemy after routing them from positions around and inside a house. He crossed the road, running to the house under heavy mortar fire and withering enemy rifle fire and called to the Germans to surrender. Then he returned to his original position. He shouted to his platoon members of a coming counter attack, taking part in repulsing that attack while at the same time holding the German prisoners in check. At all times, PFC Weiner exposed himself to enemy counter fire. His vigorous spirit served as an incentive to the other men and was the deciding factor in repulsing the attack. His coolness in action was shown again and again by his giving aid to one of the wounded men in his squad and at the same time returning enemy fire. The outstanding courage, devotion to duty, and complete disregard for his own welfare displayed by PFC Weiner are deserving of the highest praise.”
George had no idea he was slated for the Silver Star. He was too seriously injured by a gunshot to the arm. He was removed to the hospital and sent to England to recover.
On June 20, 1944, a Western Union messenger came to the front door at the Weiner Family’s 91 Bellingham Street residence.
“We regret to inform you that your son Private First Class George Weiner was seriously wounded in action 31 May in Italy. His present mail address follows,” read the message from the adjutant general.
George recovered. Then he was sent back to Italy to the front where another act of heroism far beyond the call of duty led to a second Silver Star award. But we have no record of this other engagement and act of heroism, except for his hospital records.
Again, he was seriously wounded. This time it was a piece of shrapnel in his chest that nearly killed him. He was again removed to the hospital, recovered and sent back to the front until the end of the war.
On October 20, 1945, he landed at Fort Devons in Massachusetts and made it back to Chelsea that day for a reunion with his family.
“He never spoke about it. I cannot recall him saying a single word about his experience during the war,” his sister said.
Indeed, even his daughter Jill Todtfeld, a lawyer and mother of twin girls who lives in Swampscott, knows precious little about her father’s exploits.
What she knows is that her father won two Silver Stars and a Bronze Star for battlefield bravery – a significant achievement for a short Jewish guy from Chelsea. He was also given the CIB.
“He was proudest of that – his Combat Infantryman’s Badge. That wasn’t won. That was earned and among those who served, that was a real honor,” said Todtfeld.
She was given the medals by her mother, Ann, when he died more than a decade ago. Only recently did she receive the citation that accompanied one of the Silver Star awards.
George Weiner, who was known as “Georgie” by his Chelsea friends in the years after the war, was 72 when he died on June 7, 1997.
In a small obituary that appeared in the Marblehead Reporter, it said that he was a decorated US Army veteran of World War II serving in Germany, and was the recipient of the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart.
He was a member of the Jewish War Veterans but never marched in a parade, never donned his uniform again after the war.
Where did George Weiner get his heroism? How did he perform as he did on one of Europe’s bloodiest battlefields?
“I don’t really know,” his sister said thoughtfully. “He had inner strength. He had that inner something,” she added.
There was no boast or affect or superficial adornment in Georgie Weiner.
During 20 years of knowing him, and playing ball with him at the Chelsea Y, he never uttered a word to me or anyone about what he did on the battlefield during the greatest struggle in world history.
There he was, a hero, who had cheated death, who saved his comrades, who showed a total disregard for his own safety, who had tried, in his own way with his own exercise of will, to send a message to Hitler and the monsters trying to enslave the world.
And afterward, not a word about it ever from him.
There we were at the Y, all of us who knew him as much younger men with our boast and swagger, with our ambition and blindness, and with our lives stretching before us like an endless dream.
And there he was mixing among us, Georgie Weiner. Quiet and self-assured, probably chuckling to himself about our folly.
When the chips were down, his was the powerful beat of a strong heart and the iron will of a humble, quiet, self-assured man who rose to the moment when it counted most.
He was the real thing.