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This POW learned a lesson for Memorial Day. At age 96, let him tell you about it

A POW/MIA flag flies over Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., Sept. 15, 2014, in remembrance of the nation's prisoners of war and missing in action. (Dennis Rogers/U.S. Air Force)

At 22, huddling close to fellow soldiers for warmth saved Bernard Mayrsohn’s life.

At 96, keeping away from people is doing the same.

The World War II veteran and Miami Shores resident, who goes by Barney, will be celebrating Memorial Day a little differently than usual because of coronavirus pandemic. Instead of attending or participating in a parade, he will have a socially distanced barbecue with his son’s family.

But if serving in the war taught him one thing, it’s how to handle himself during tough times. And that’s exactly how he describes the pandemic.

“I think the virus is going to be a tremendous challenge to America and I don’t know how we’re going to come out of it,” he said. “But I do hope that people have optimism, whatever happens, that they can survive it.”

As a freshman at Cornell University in New York, Barney Mayrsohn knew he wanted to enlist in the Army when he left a movie theater and heard people yelling about the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Little did he know that he would end up in the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive on the Western Front, three years later.

He was born with a broken shoulder, so he was rejected the first time he volunteered. But the second time, a year later, he masked the injury and enlisted at 21. How did he fool the military? He scratched himself with his bad arm and raised his good one.

“We were really just a bunch of boys,” he said. “We didn’t know much about fighting.”

After training in North Carolina and Chicago, he shipped out to Europe. His infantry was attacked a week after his superiors “assured” it would not be, and Barney Mayrsohn spent the following six months as a POW in Germany. During his imprisonment, he lost 50 pounds.

His service didn’t go unnoticed. He earned the Bronze Star for Bravery for the lives he saved, two Purple Hearts for being wounded twice at the Battle of the Bulge, and the Combat Infantry Medal. Despite all the honors, he said his main reward was self-confidence.

“I was able to handle myself well in those terrible circumstances and come out sane and healthy.”

When he returned to the U.S., he went back to Cornell and reunited with his “sweetheart” Ethel. They started dating before he went to Europe and she waited for him until he returned, even though she was told he was missing and likely dead. They got married before they graduated college.

The couple had four children and made a life in New York. He worked for a produce company started by his father. Ethel died in 2007.

He forged a special bond with his son, Mark, with whom he ran Mayrsohn International Trading Co. for more than 40 years. Mark Mayrsohn, who lives in Miami, said his father regularly came into the office until he turned 90, and even after that, popped in to handle paperwork and grab lunch with his son for several years after that.

When the Mayrsohn family lived in New York, the father-son team belong to an organization with the motto “Pals Forever.” And the two still say that two each other.

“We’ve had a very close lifetime relationship,” Mark Mayrsohn said.

The most important lesson son has learned from father is never to give up. He said it sounds ironic, considering his dad’s infantry surrendered, but the lesson came from surviving the challenges of being a POW.

“I think he knew that if he didn’t give up, he had a beautiful life ahead of him,” Mark Mayrsohn said.

He said his father’s patriotism has always shined through. It started with his birth on June 14, Flag Day. And it continued through his life with parades, honor flights, and hanging an American flag outside every home he’s lived in.

“Even though you can’t embrace or shake hands, there’s enough good vibrations within six feet,” his son said.

Before the COVID-19 shutdown, Barney Mayrsohn spent his days swimming and also visiting Seth Bramson, a Miami professor and historian. Bramson, also a historian of Florida East Coast Railway, wrote a biography on the veteran’s WWII experiences after the two became friends.

The book, “From Brooklyn to the Battle of the Bulge and on to Building an International Business: The Incredible Story of Bernard (Barney) Mayrsohn,” was published in 2018 after three years of interviews.

Mayrsohn, even in his mid-90s, regularly speaks in Bramson’s contemporary history classes at Barry University, and always leaves the students fascinated.

“He usually gets a standing ovation at the end of his talk,” Bramson said. “It’s just beautiful.”

Bramson defines Mayrsohn’s actions as “bravery beyond words.” After his infantry was attacked, most of the soldiers’ winter clothes were taken from them, including those of his close friend from Cornell, who felt he couldn’t continue and was ready to stay lying in the snow.

Although his friend outweighed him by 60 pounds, Mayrsohn carried him miles through the snow, making him the first documented life he saved.

He also marched in front of Nazi soldiers while wearing his Star of David, Bramson said.

“Barney Mayrsohn is a real and true American hero,” he said.

This is Mayrsohn’s first year living full time in the Miami area. He used to be a snowbird, shuttling between Florida and New York.

Although this Memorial Day is unique, it carries the same meaning for Mayrsohn. Now, he hopes the U.S. can return to the unity he felt in the 1940s.

“I love my country, I love America,” Mayrsohn said. “I’m very proud of my service to the United States.”


© 2020 Miami Herald