CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Paul Weissman was born in Brooklyn, New York in January 1925, and was living in Woodbridge, New Jersey at the time of his interview in 2002. At the outset of the interview, he recalled that he had first heard news of the Pearl Harbor attack over the radio, while he was working in a gas station as a sixteen year old. Weissman promptly called his mother and told her he was going to enlist in the military, but acceded to her request to delay that step. He graduated from high school in June 1942 and worked for a short time as a vehicle test driver for Carteret Ordnance, until he received his draft notice at the end of the year. Weissman entered the army in January 1943 and began basic training on February 1. He was subsequently assigned to a unit that continued to train through 1944, a period that he felt, in retrospect, was far too long.
Weissman’s civilian military vehicle driving and testing experience led to his assignment to a mechanized cavalry unit. Mechanized cavalry, as with the horse cavalry of old, performed reconnaissance work, moving ahead of an advancing force, seeking out the enemy and communicating the information it uncovered to higher unit headquarters. Initially detailed as a driver of an M-5 “Stuart” light tank, and then to a “half-track” armored truck in a reconnaissance squadron, Weissman was later trained as a rifleman and then as a mortar crewman. By the end of the year, he had been promoted to T-5 rank.
Weissman’s unit, the 123rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, was involved in public relations duty promoting Savings Bond drives, marching in parades, visiting schools and other homefront activities in Missouri and Kansas through December 1944, when the squadron was finally ordered overseas. The 123rd was initially transferred to Camp Shanks, New York, which was a huge holding camp for soldiers preparing to depart for Europe. After six days at Shanks, the 123rd moved south by rail to New York City, where Weissman and his comrades boarded a troopship that had previously been a British luxury liner (either the Queen Elizabeth or the Queen Mary), with 11,000 other men.
In late December Weissman’s ship docked at Le Havre, France, where he recalled that the odor of decaying bodies permeated the air. Le Havre’s piers had been destroyed by bombing; so, the transport anchored in the harbor, and the soldiers descended from the deck on rope ladders into landing craft, which ferried them to the shore. After spending a brief period in the town, the 123rd moved to Neufchateau, where Weissman recalled sleeping on the floor in a large barn, and suffering from flea bites while huddling in a sleeping bag in an attempt to stay warm in the frigid winter air.
Weissman’s unit next moved to the French-German frontier at Metz, relieving another unit on the front line. The 123rd first engaged the enemy at Metz, where German snipers shot at the squadron’s perimeter guards. When Weissman was assigned to two-hour guard duty shifts, he made an effort to stay in the shadows to avoid becoming a target. After Nuremberg fell to American troops, the 123rd traveled south, stopping briefly at the site of Hitler’s massive prewar “Nuremberg Rallies” and passing through the city of Nuremburg itself; which, Weissman recalled, had been bombed “to smithereens” by American aircraft.
The 123rd continued on, moving through Munich and down the Autobahn beyond the Bavarian capital, where the unit came under indirect fire from German artillery, or mortars. Weissman, who was riding in a jeep with his mortar crew, was badly wounded by shell fragments in his left arm and chest, and thrown from the vehicle. He blacked out, awakening as he was carried to an ambulance. Four days later, he arrived at a tent hospital, where he remembered waking up on an operating table after undergoing surgery by a French doctor. While at that hospital, in American occupied German territory, he was attended by a German POW medic. Weissman indicated that ten years later, while working for his brother and delivering meat to Thumann’s, the delicatessen meat producer, he met and befriended a German national working there, who indicated that he had been a POW in the hospital where Paul was treated, and who turned out to be the very medic who had attended him a decade before!
Weissman was hospitalized for a total of ten months. He recovered from his chest wounds fairly rapidly, but his arm injury was more complex, as nerves had been severed – the French surgeon’s good emergency work saved the arm, but he needed more surgery to regain full use of it. Weissman was flown back to the United States in a C-46 or C-47 “litter plane,” which only carried men on stretchers. The plane stopped in the Azores and Newfoundland, and he remembered being well fed and “treated royally” en route. The plane landed at Mitchell Field on Long Island, from where he was transported to Thomas M. England General Hospital (The Chalfonte-Haddon Hall hotel complex that later became New Jersey’s first casino) in Atlantic City. After four weeks in Atlantic City, he was transferred to a hospital on Staten Island for further nerve surgery on his arm. He was discharged from there several months later, in January 1946.
Weissman said it took him up to two years to learn to function well as a civilian again, as he still had pain as well as suffered from depression. He gradually recovered, though, and he used the G.I. Bill to attend college. He completed his degree and became a school guidance counselor. While working in that capacity, he had the opportunity to assist one of his former surgeons, who had a son seeking placement in a school with an oceanography course. When Paul assisted the boy in gaining admittance to a good school, the doctor said that it was the best reimbursement for his work.
For many years, until he joined the VFW fifteen years before this interview, Paul Weissman did not speak of his military experiences. He said that his fellow veterans in the VFW Post, who displayed a “great spirit of cooperation and unity,” were “like family” to him, and he was able to open up to them. He felt that such a spirit, manifested in the World War II generation, is somewhat lacking today. He did not regret his service, and indicated that he would, if able, serve again if the situation demanded it.
For his service, Paul Weissman received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, ETO ribbon, Combat Infantryman Badge, World War II Victory Medal, and Good Conduct Medal. He passed away on April 21, 2006.