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Reminiscences of a WWII, Korean War and Cold War veteran

4-war veteran still serving (U.S. Air Force/Released)

From the Soviet perspective, the plan seemed to be going smoothly. They had convinced an American military intelligence officer to switch sides. All they needed to do now was wait for information to roll in.

But the trap was already sprung.

Retired Lt. Col. Elihu Braunstein, now 99, still has a strong memory of what it was like to catch and flip a Soviet spy who had approached an American soldier in Paris in the early 1960s. The soldier did exactly as he was trained to do — play along and let Braunstein and his group handle the rest.

Before leading a detachment of one of the military’s first intelligence groups, however, Braunstein saw combat in the freezing cold of the Ardennes Forest and the winding mountains of Korea.

He experienced some of the most significant points in contemporary history firsthand. Turning 100 on December 5, Braunstein is one of a shrinking number of World War II veterans still alive. But even fewer can lay claim to his accomplishments beyond the war.

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Big city beginnings

Braunstein was born to a Jewish family at Women’s Hospital in 1919 in Manhattan. He grew up there and attended Oceanside High School. He was by far the youngest among his five half-siblings and one full brother — the next sibling in line, his half-sister Helen, was 9 years older than he.

Still a massive Yankees fan, Braunstein has followed the team since he was 9 years old. He remembers watching “all the greats” — players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio — play at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. He watches the Yankees on television today.

He described his teenage years as “limbo,” where he was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. He worked in his brother’s office for some time before, during and after attending New York University in the Bronx as a pre-medical student, where he graduated in 1940.

He had some plans of becoming a doctor, although he wasn’t able to get into medical school and instead had been accepted to dental school.

“I couldn’t visualize looking in peoples’ mouths for twenty or thirty years,” he said. “Probably would have been lucrative, but in any event, my life was exciting.”

Just two days after his 22nd birthday, Japanese planes struck Pearl Harbor and cut all of Braunstein’s plans short.

Braunstein recalls being at a football game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds in New York when swathes of military members suddenly left the stadium. Confused spectators left after the game, and a panicked rider on the subway told Braunstein that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.

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Like many American men at the time, the attack on Pearl Harbor sounded as a call to action for Braunstein.

“My friends and I decided that we would not wait to be drafted, we would enlist in the service,” he said.

His three friends all worked for his brother, but the busy streets of Manhattan were full to the brim with other young men looking to enlist in the first few weeks of January 1942. Some were sleeping on the streets in line for the recruiter’s office. Local newspapers said there were around 15,000 of them.

One of his friends devised a plan to go to New Jersey in a desperate bid to cut the line. They took a ferry to Jersey City and saw that there was “nobody — not a soul” at the recruiting station. It seemed like they had lucked out.

The recruiter welcomed them with open arms, and they signed papers to put them in the Air Force. Braunstein returned home that weekend and said goodbye to his family in tears.

But when they returned on Monday expecting to be shipped off to training, the recruiter told Braunstein and his friends that they needed permission from their draft board. So Braunstein went back and fought with the draft board over his enlistment. He succeeded.

Sure that this would be the one, Braunstein said goodbye to his mother and father in tears all over again, only for the recruiter to tell him and his friends that all enlistments to the Air Force were canceled.

Eventually, Braunstein told the recruiter to “take me as I am” and left for the last time, joining the Army. He went to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he was selected as an artilleryman and sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for advanced training.

“Well, it’s better than the infantry,” he thought upon his selection, breathing a sigh of relief. He thought back to the horror stories of his uncles who served as infantrymen in World War I, the one he still called “the Big War.” At least he could dodge that.

At Fort Sill, he was selected for Officer Candidate School, establishing himself as a “90-day wonder” as opposed to officers who had attended distinguished military schools like West Point. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in June 1942.

Those officers could choose their unit. Braunstein picked the 10th Armored Division.

“I picked it thinking, ‘That oughta keep me around for a while,'” he said with a laugh. “And in any event, it did.”

During leave from OCS, Braunstein met Freda, the secretary at his brother’s garment factory in New York, just across the street from Pennsylvania Station. By the end of 1943, only eight months after they had met, he and Freda were married.

“I saw this gal, I said, ‘My god, I couldn’t get anything better than that if I tried,'” Braunstein said. “Our marriage has been very gratifying.”

They didn’t have much time to honeymoon, though, as Braunstein had a war to prepare for.

He continued training with his division and other artillery divisions at Fort Benning and Camp Gordon in Georgia. The days were long and arduous. But in 1944, “the war progressed,” he said, and Braunstein was finally deployed.

The Battle of the Bulge

Braunstein remembers arriving in Europe.

He was a couple months too late for D-Day. All the beaches had already been stormed. Instead, Braunstein remembers a mess of military bureaucracy and some of the darkest nights he had ever seen.

His fully trained and eager young artillery division arrived in France only to find out that all their artillery equipment had been accidentally sent to England. They spent weeks waiting for someone to untangle that logistical nightmare as the western Allies planned a push into Germany.

Once their equipment arrived, the division headed east to prepare for the upcoming offensive. Braunstein remembers “the darkest night I have ever seen in my life” in the Ardennes, where he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, suddenly penetrated by the bright lights of Luxembourg.

But then, German tanks started rolling across the front line. His battalion, the 419th Field Artillery, set up north of Luxembourg and started firing east.

By the following morning, they were firing west. The German army was pushing hard, and colonels told his division that things weren’t going well.

Braunstein’s division split in two. One half went north to the strategically vital town of Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne Division was encircled by German forces. The other half — Braunstein’s half — went south toward Metz, where American generals had anticipated the German push.

Heading south would lead to some unusual circumstances. While they were setting up artillery in a field near the city, a local industry tycoon offered them lodging in his countryside mansion.

A couple dozen artillerymen packed into his dining hall, where servants brought pounds of food and plenty of alcohol. He gave them all beds and hot showers. They were used to sleeping in the field and eating cold rations.

“We spent New Year’s Eve in Metz getting drunk as skunks,” Braunstein recalled with a laugh. “It was crazy.”

Once risk of a southern attack passed, the battalion went back to Luxembourg and fired north at the German line. The enemy was routed, and his battalion would later receive a citation for their actions.

The risky Ardennes push would be the last time Germany would mount an assault against the Allies for the rest of the war. The next few months would consist of diminishing defensive efforts by Hitler as Soviet forces and the western Allies closed in on Berlin.

Braunstein and the 10th Armored Division would aid this push into Germany, pushing south through Bavaria and capturing German towns. Before they could reach Berlin, the Red Army had already captured it and ended the war in Europe.

The division ended up in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a small town in the Alps that was previously the site of the 1936 Winter Olympics. It was picturesque. It was a vacation destination.

The local hotels were full of wounded German soldiers, so the division lived in the town’s homes for the next few weeks.

But there was a darker revelation waiting for the Allies as they marched through Germany.

Some soldiers came across the death camps across central Europe. They saw starving prisoners, piles of bodies and ash-filled ovens. Braunstein was lucky to find an empty camp, but knowing what happened there still evoked feelings of intense anger.

“We were yelling, ‘SOBs! SOBs! How could they do that?’ It was unbelievable.” Braunstein said. Many of the towns he captured were also spots where other American soldiers made German civilians walk through the death camps and see the devastation caused by the SS.

The 10th Armored Division pushed through Germany without meeting much resistance, capturing towns along the way. When Germany surrendered, they had established a base in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Life was still, almost idyllic.

Calm before another storm

The war in Europe over, Braunstein boarded the “USS United States” on New Year’s Day. It was a shaky, crowded ride home, which took weeks, but he arrived in one piece.

Braunstein read about the atomic bomb in the Stars and Stripes military newspaper not long before it was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He had no idea what it was, but when it dropped, it was a lucky break because there was a chance he could have ended up in the Pacific Theater after his tour of Europe.

Braunstein returned home to New York, where his wife and family were waiting for him. For a time, everything was normal. In that time, he and Freda had a son.

But Braunstein didn’t have long to enjoy the quiet life. He was still in the Army Reserve. He had 72 points in the military’s Adjusted Service Rating Score, which helped soldiers work toward discharge for their service in World War II based on time served, medals and ranks. To avoid re-entering the draft, he needed 75.

He got the telegram: “You’re active duty again. Come to Korea.”

Now a captain, he packed his bags for Korea in 1951 to lead an artillery battery of the 158th Field Artillery Battalion of the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry, nicknamed the “Thunderbird” division after its Native American-inspired insignia.

His memory of the Korean War is of riding in the backs of dirty trucks on winding mountains with no guardrails. The scenery in the border town of Yeoncheon was beautiful, but he was one jerk of a steering wheel away from plunging down the mountain. It was “damn cold in the winter, and very, very hot in the summer,” he recalled.

“If you happened to be on the outside lane, you were lucky if you didn’t go over the mountain,” he said. “I think I got ulcers on some of those trips back and forth.”

There wasn’t much movement on either side of the war by the time Braunstein arrived onto the Korean Peninsula. They stayed in Yeoncheon and fired artillery north when it was needed, but the war was stalled.

His most important moment in Korea, what he called his “epiphany” — was that the military is what he was meant for all along.

“The light came on and said to me — ‘You are not going to go back to what you were doing in the five years you were out of the service,'” he said. “I knew what I was doing in the Army, and I didn’t know what I was doing as a civilian.”

Suddenly, one day, he got a message: “It’s your turn to go,” the telegram said.

While he hopped in the back of the truck, a messenger came and threw an envelope at Braunstein. He caught it and tore it open. It was a commendation for his service in Korea — no ceremony, just a sheet of paper.

But for now, he had to head home to fight in another war.

Getting colder

This war was different. There weren’t so many shells, bombs or guns. The battleground was on paper documents and over encoded radio transmissions. Braunstein didn’t expect to end up on the front line of that war, but he did.

Braunstein received orders to report to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after leaving Korea.

“I went into the orderly room and noticed they were in great need of Russian linguists,” he said. “So, I said, ‘What the hell, why not?'”

Braunstein packed up his belongings and gathered his wife and two sons. He put his newborn son in a laundry basket in the back seat of the car and traveled eight days across the United States to California for an intensive Russian language program.

Braunstein graduated Russian school first in his class, on a career path toward becoming an intelligence officer. Ironically, he would never use his Russian language skills again.

He attended the Army Intelligence School, sometimes called the Army’s first “spy school,” at Fort Holabird in Baltimore, where he was promoted to major.

From there, he would join the 66th Military Intelligence Group, which was headquartered in Giessen, Germany. The 66th was tasked with some of the most important intelligence operations that the Army had in Europe. He was appointed as the group’s executive officer.

When he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, he considered it the highest attainable rank a “90-day wonder” could achieve.

“For a 90-day wonder to become a (full) colonel, you’d have to walk on water,” he said.

Germany would become Braunstein’s home for a long time. Much of his work in Germany was just keeping the higher-ups informed with daily briefings of his unit’s actions. They were constantly concerned about Soviet actions along the German border. When the Berlin Wall went up, Braunstein was there to see its construction.

In Giessen, Braunstein debriefed East German defectors. There were a lot of them. Conditions were bad, and both civilians and soldiers hopped the porous border frequently. Sometimes, things would get more complicated.

In the early 1960s, while Braunstein was in Nuremberg, a soldier in Paris was approached by a Soviet spy and asked to provide information on his unit. He did what he was trained to do — he told his commander and then played along, acting as a double agent.

Braunstein was selected to lead a group of a dozen soldiers whose mission was not to catch the Soviet spy, but to turn him to their side.

It took months waiting for the right opportunity. The soldier was “given bona fides to contact people in the United States.” They caught the Soviet spy and convinced him to spy for the United States.

Later, Braunstein would uncover two double agents in NATO who were stealing secret code sheets that were used for radio communications. They were promptly arrested and then returned to the United States and sentenced to 20 years in prison for selling secrets.

His spy-catching efforts would often clash with the CIA. If an intelligence operation involved embassies, the CIA would step in. Once that happened, it was out of Braunstein’s and the Army’s hands.

In 1964, Braunstein returned to the United States to work in the Pentagon as a senior liaison officer for the U.S. Army Intelligence Command. Over the years, Braunstein would brush shoulders with prominent military figures.

Braunstein recalls an encounter with Sidney “Tom” Weinstein, a lieutenant general who was sometimes called the “father of the modern military intelligence corps.” Weinstein was a major while Braunstein was a lieutenant at Fort Holabird, and he was disappointed that he didn’t make the first list for a promotion.

“Don’t worry about it,” Braunstein told him. “You’re going to be a general. There’s no question in my mind.”

Weinstein, a West Point graduate, invited Braunstein to his promotional ceremony when he received his general’s stars.

“Everyone,” Weinstein said, presenting Braunstein, “I want you to meet the Prophet Isaiah.”

A farewell to arms

In 1967, Braunstein retired from the military. He was recognized with the Legion of Merit, a prestigious award for exceptional military service.

“They did right by me,” he said of the award.

However, his ties to the Army wouldn’t end there. He took his military intelligence experience and became a counterintelligence and intelligence collection analyst.

His responsibilities there were not “earth-shaking,” but he oversaw the Army’s intelligence collection and provided valuable analysis. Freda also joined the department as a secretary after spending much of Braunstein’s service as a housewife.

He would move to Heidelberg, Germany, in 1973 to continue his work there, living there until 1977.

Braunstein retired from the Army, for good, in 1986. He received high honors for his service as a civilian and decided to travel in retirement.

“In retirement, it’s been trying to get used to the fact that it is what it is,” he said. “I’ve been trying to keep myself busy.”

He and Freda traveled all across Europe, using Wellington, Florida, as their home base. Their favorite haunt was Florence, Italy, where Braunstein recalled seeing the one English-speaking employee at the hotel go from bellhop to hotel manager in the span of a year.

Braunstein described it as an “active retirement.” He picked up golf in 1962 and enjoyed it while his body still could. He cruised through the Panama Canal and all over Europe.

Since 2016, Braunstein has lived at a Jewish assisted living community in Sarasota, near his older son Robert. Freda, now 95, lives with him, but an “episode” with faulty medication ruined her memory some years ago. They have been married for 76 years.

Although he’s a few months away from officially turning 100, he says that he likes to follow the East Asian age system, where everyone is a year old when they’re born — “I know I’m 100,” he said.

Nowadays, arthritis limits his mobility and his hands are in near-constant pain. He spends his days in an electric wheelchair. But he still plans to revisit Luxembourg for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge in December.

“Serving changed my life,” he said. “It was serendipitous. Life has been very rewarding.”

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© 2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune