Bob Levine grew up in the Bronx, and was assigned to the 90th Infantry Division as a replacement in Normandy. He was wounded and captured in the battle for Hill 122, and had a leg amputated by a German surgeon. Many years later, with the assistance of the Normandy historian Henri Levaufre, Levine met members of the family of the doctor who had amputated his leg. Levine's story is included in "They were all young kids."
River Edge, N.J., March 16, 1999
August 13th, 1944.
Back in good old England once more, and let me tell you it didnít break my heart to leave France. We were flown out and in one hour we were on terra firma. Iím now in a station hospital awaiting shipment to still another hospital. Iíve been eating like a king, and right now enjoying my first days in a real bed in I donít know how long. I have already written to you but it suddenly occurred to me that the government might not have informed you as to what had happened to me in the past month or so, since they are sometimes very slow in getting news out.
The story in brief is that I was wounded and subsequently captured by the Jerries. After spending three or four unpleasant weeks in a prison hospital, I was recaptured when the Americans started to make their recent drive. The sadder news of the story is that my right foot had to be amputated at the ankle. However, it has in no way broken me up or made me miserable, because as I wrote at first, my main concern was just to come through alive. I think I can best explain my feelings when I see you, which may be in the very near future, I hope. I believe Iíll be sent to a hospital in the States before anything else is done to me.
So now you know just what the score is, but although you might think Iím a couple of runs behind, in reality Iím way ahead. My plans for the future are still the same, and I believe more apt to be realized because of some good firsthand experiences. Guess the one change Iíll have to make is to take up golf and just watch tennis from the bench. Not too great a sacrifice, I donít think. I just want you to remember that the good Lord has been a lot kinder to me than you could ever imagine. If I seem too nonchalant about the loss of my foot, it is only because I realize it and Iím grateful it was not worse. Remember me to everyone, and perhaps not too long after youíve read this Iíll be saying hello to you again.
All my love, Bob.
Bob Levine: I was born in New York City on June the 4th, 1925. And grew up in the Bronx.
Aaron Elson: Which section?
Bob Levine: It was called the West Bronx, which was in the neighborhood of the Bronx County Courthouse and Yankee Stadium. A very lovely area. We could go up on the roof of our apartment house and look into Yankee Stadium. We watched Joe DiMaggio hit in his 56-game streak; weíd come home from high school and go upstairs and watch him get his hit, and then weíd all go down and celebrate.
Aaron Elson: Did you have it on radio, or how would you know what was going on?
Bob Levine: Oh, we had no portable radios. You just looked.
Aaron Elson: And you knew?
Bob Levine: We knew. You could tell who the Yankees were, and DiMaggio was very, very special. Sometimes we could even see Joe Louis, and the fights, because they were right on second base, so it was just where we could see.
Aaron Elson: What did your father do?
Bob Levine: He was an executive with a lithographing and printing corporation in Brooklyn. They manufactured cigar bands, cigar box labels, liquor labels, and he was vice president in charge of production.
Aaron Elson: So he had to commute from the Bronx to Brooklyn?
Bob Levine: Every day. Heíd leave at 7 in the morning and come home at 7 at night. By subway. And then years later, he did it by car. They moved out to Mineola, Long Island. So he had a long and fruitful career.
Aaron Elson: Did you have siblings?
Bob Levine: I have an older sister, my sister Minnie, who lives now in Lake Worth, Florida. She became a health ed teacher, and now sheís the Dr. Ruth of West Palm Beach. She went into human sexuality, and now sheís into the eighties-and-over human sexuality. She gives courses down there, and her courses are sold out. Sheís quite a lady. A very good tennis player. My whole family were tennis players, my father, my mother. We were very athletic.
Aaron Elson: You were four years old when the stock market crashed. Did that affect your dad?
Bob Levine: Fortunately, he had a good job, so we were very fortunate. He had started this job as an office boy in Brooklyn. He went to NYU at night, graduated from NYU, the school of commerce. Nobody was making big money, but at least we were protected. So I never really felt the Depression as some people did. We lived very modestly; my father probably could have had a fancier home but we lived in the Bronx in a nice apartment.
Aaron Elson: What was your mother like?
Bob Levine: My mother was a reader, and she was a health nut. As a matter of fact, when I was born, she practiced her beliefs on me, and I didnít have meat until I was five years old. She was a nature cure person. She believed that you could cure anything. She said, "Someday theyíll cure cancer with food," and we always laughed at her, but today, you are what you eat, thatís how we grew up. And she was a golfer.
By the way, she didnít believe in vaccinations. She sent me to school with a scratch, she scratched my arm, and somehow or other they accepted me. And then I got in the Army, and man, did I get clobbered when the Army vaccinated me! Because they didnít know I had no immunities. That was terrible. I almost collapsed. But she was very interesting, she was very political, and very strong. Very opinionated.
Aaron Elson: Where did you go to high school?
Bob Levine: I started high school at DeWitt Clinton High School, my first year, and then they built this new school called William Howard Taft, and that was more in my area, so I switched over, and I was a member of the first graduating class out of Taft. And Edith and I went to the same school, she lived right around the corner from me. We were neighbors and never knew it. And somebody said, "Do you want to meet a nice girl?" Can you imagine? We met on a blind date. And here we are, 48 years and counting.
Aaron Elson: Edith went to Taft also?
Bob Levine: Yes. She went to the same public school, went to the same junior high school, went to the same high school. Isnít that interesting?
Edith Levine: Tell him about the band picture.
Bob Levine: I played the clarinet in the school band. We would give concerts in the auditorium, and all the kids would come. I have a picture of the whole orchestra. And Edith would come down and she was part of the audience. Never realizing that her future husband was sitting up there. So she would sit and look at this picture and say, "Oh, I know him," and "I know him," and "I know him." And "Look at that, I sat in the orchestra and watched you play." It was a coincidence, but we laugh about it. Thatís the city. The city is so big that you could live right around the corner from someone and never know each other.
Aaron Elson: When did you become aware that the country was going to wind up in a war?
Bob Levine: On December 7th. It was a Sunday, and my father took me to a football game at the Polo Grounds, and we saw the New York Giants. In the middle of the game the announcement came, "All military personnel will report immediately!" And suddenly we all were aware. But nobody knew Pearl Harbor. Where was Pearl Harbor? Who was Pearl Harbor? So we were really out of it. Nobody really was aware of the daily happenings. Maybe there were newspaper articles about the Japanese and Washington differing, but there was very little coverage.
Aaron Elson: When you heard this announcement, did people say, "What was that about?"
Bob Levine: Yes. And the game went on. Nobody was made aware of the fact that we were being bombed, there was just the alert.
Aaron Elson: Did you see people who were military personnel get up and leave?
Bob Levine: No. I donít think there were too many at the Polo Grounds.
Aaron Elson: And who was playing?
Bob Levine: The New York Giants, and I think Cleveland.
Aaron Elson: Who won?
Bob Levine: The Giants won. The Giants had a wonderful team, and some great, big players. We walked. From our home we could walk across the bridge to the Polo Grounds, it was right across the river, in Morningside Heights. That was called Cooganís Bluff. Now itís a housing project. The Giants played there for years and years.
Aaron Elson: Were you a senior in high school then?
Bob Levine: No, I was 16. I was a junior. I graduated in 1943, at 18, and I registered for the draft. And in September I was called in. And from that September to the following April, which was April 1944, I was shipped overseas to England as a replacement.
I had been taken into the Army Specialized Training Program. They called it ASTP. You took an exam, and they were going to send you to college. I was all set to go to the University of Georgia and take up veterinary medicine in the Army. The Army had the ASTP and the Navy had a program called the V-12. I had a choice of Navy or Army and why I picked the Army to this day I donít know. Because the Army program fell apart. It was called A-12. They decided to take all these people, and because I was trained as an infantry Ė I had 17 weeks basic at Camp Croft Ė the moment they had trained personnel, they figured, Boom, we were shipped over. And the V-12 stayed, which I was very upset about. So I became cannon fodder, and like everybody else went as a replacement. We left in April of í44, and June was the invasion.
Aaron Elson: How did you go overseas?
Bob Levine: In a convoy.
Aaron Elson: On which ship?
Bob Levine: I donít know. It was nondescript, no major name, no Queen Mary or anything like that. Just 20 or 30 ships plowing through the North Atlantic.
Aaron Elson: Did you get seasick?
Bob Levine: Oh, yes. Plenty. So we all lived up on the deck, and we lived on Baby Ruths. We landed in Scotland, in the Firth of Clyde, where the Queen Mary was built Ė that was a big shipbuilding area Ė and they took us all the way down Ö I had an interesting experience on the way down, and to this day I cringe when I think of it. They put us on this huge troop train, and we were going from Scotland all the way down to Devonshire. In one of the little towns that we came into, people all came up to the windows and they were giving us what they call meat, like they had meat pies, the English. And they had no sugar, because they had rations, so the things really tasted pretty bad. And the guys, instead of just holding on, they started eating them as the train pulled out, and they found that they couldnít stand them, and they started to throw the meat pies out the windows. Can you imagine, the stupidity? The horror of these people standing there, isnít that terrible? To this day, itís something thatís a trauma. The typical American yo-ho. Just heaving them out, and here these poor people had scrimped and saved and used their rations. So you wonder why the Americans and the British and the French have these relationships, and it all stems maybe from some of these incidents. Thatís just an interesting sidelight, but it gives you an indication of our insensitivity. We had no idea what was going on over there in England.
Aaron Elson: Where were you on D-Day?
Bob Levine: I was on guard duty as a matter of fact. Another interesting experience. I had never seen sheep in my life, and we get to Devon, all the sheep are out there. And I was given a gun and I was told to protect the sheep.
I said, "Protect the sheep? I thought we were supposed to protect the guys."
"No," he said, "Youíve got to protect the sheep from the guys." So there I was, with my MĖ1. That was my first experience with battle. All part of your growing up. Boy, was I naive.
We were in Devon, and a day before D-Day they issued us personal weapons. First time in the Army. And the night of the Fifth, they had to call the invasion off for one day because the weather was so bad, and I remember being out on guard duty, and looking up at the clouds. The sky was moving so fast, and the clouds were just whipping around. And when I found out that the next day they went Ė because then they told us that the invasion was on Ė I said, wow, the weather really had to be a big factor in this thing. And it was. It was a major problem.
But then we were all loaded up and we went to Plymouth, and we became the first replacements. They shipped us out of Plymouth, and we went out on the water within a day or two after that. I think we arrived on the beach maybe D-plus 4 or 5. And I had no idea who I was joining. They never told us. And suddenly we get on the beach. By the way, we had to offload the ships coming down the rope ladder, we had cargo nets, which was really tricky, with a full field pack.
Aaron Elson: Had they trained you in that?
Bob Levine: No. Not in Devon. But the thing was, the ocean went this way and the [landing craft] came this way, there was one moment you had to jump, and if you didnít jump at that moment, [you were in trouble]. It was tough.
Aaron Elson: Did anyone fall in?
Bob Levine: Not in my group, but I heard that they did have those accidents. Guys would freeze. But the beach was quiet at that point, and they just marched us down. Utah Beach. They may have been about three or four miles inland by that point. And then suddenly they put us in trucks, and then we were introduced to our new group. And you were just Joe and Jim and Bob and Al. Nobody knew anybody. It was very impersonal. Whereas the guys who went over together, they were the ones who really trained together and had developed different relationships.
I was with one guy that we kind of traveled together. You were paired up so that one guy had the shovel, one guy had the pick, and you had to join in to make the slit trench and your foxhole. And we bonded. But he disappeared when I was wounded. Iíve never been able to find him.
Aaron Elson: And you donít remember his name?
Bob Levine: I only knew him as Mike, from Houston. I did know his name I guess at some point. He was from Houston. I tried to locate him, but with no success.
So thatís one of those unfortunate things.
We quickly got into the hedgerow problem. And the thing to this day that I find so amazing is that the Army themselves were surprised with the hedgerows.
Aaron Elson: What was your first hedgerow fight?
Bob Levine: Well, there was a lot of marching, and suddenly youíd dive behind a hedgerow. I was in an 81-millimeter mortar crew. I was in the fourth platoon in K Company, and that was their heavy weapons platoon. We were always coming up maybe a couple hundred yards behind the riflemen. So I always felt we were safe, because I knew the riflemen would take it up front, and the artillery would take it in the rear, and we were right in the middle. We would always just kind of run up and set up the mortar, because we knew nothing of what was going on up ahead. From one hedge to another was like another world. And I have an experience of setting up Ė the guys had said we have a lot of noise on the other side, and the sergeant was coming back, he said, "Weíd better do something." He heard a lot of movement. And we blasted the hell out of that meadow. And then we peeked in and there was a herd of cows. We had just massacred all those beautiful French cows. And the sergeant came up to me and said, "Levine. Thereís one of the cows that needs to be put away." I was supposed to take the rifle and shoot the cow. Here I was blasting my 81-millimeter Ė of course there was nobody out there that I could see Ė but face to face, I couldnít do it. So he got somebody else. That was my claim to heroism, that I could not put this poor cow out of his misery. It was, you know, my point is that itís okay to have the anonymous killing, if that shell had knocked ten guys out, great. But I couldnít shoot that cow, eyeball to eyeball.
Aaron Elson: Those mortars were very accurate, werenít they?
Bob Levine: Oh, yes. You could really lay them in. You bracketed, and youíd get an observer, and you had to put the increments on. But once you got in on the bracket, you could really lay it in, and you could just keep pouring them in. The mortar was a wonderful weapon, and that was because you could use it close-up.
Aaron Elson: Did you have to carry the ammunition for it?
Bob Levine: Yes. I carried the base plate, and I think I carried three shells in the front and three in the back. And one day I looked Ė we had kind of a skirmish, and I never felt a thing Ė but I looked down at my pack, and I had bullet holes right across the base plate. They had bounced off it. Each man carried a different part. One carried the tripod. One carried the base plate. And that was heavy. So you had to be in such phenomenal shape. And there was all this hiking. You sit down and you take a ten-minute break, and you just go on. You could sleep. So the infantry was a tough way to go. And then, of course, going through the hedgerows was so difficult because you had to climb up and over them. They had issued us gloves, and we were tearing the hell out of the gloves. So every time I see movies of guys with their gloves on, I donít know what the Army knew about the hedgerows, but they certainly didnít prepare anybody for them. As a matter of fact, when Jim Flowers went through that hedgerow with his tanks, it was the first time that we had a clear path through one of them. It really surprised me that there was just no preparation.
Aaron Elson: Did you have any inkling about the "big picture?"
Bob Levine: No. No picture whatsoever. We had no idea where we were. No idea what the next objective was. For instance, when I was at Hill 122, the only signs that I saw were to La Haye du Puits. I Never saw a sign to Perier. Never saw a sign to anywhere. So when I went back with Edith, I said, "Letís find the sign for Haye du Puits," not knowing that Haye du Puits was way out to the right of Hill 122, and Perier was way out to the left. So we had no inkling of where we were. There was no communication down to our level.
Aaron Elson: Do you remember either your sergeant or your lieutenantís name?
Bob Levine: No. Because they were coming in and out also. There were a lot of replacements, particularly among the officers. The sergeant was a Southerner, thatís all I can remember. The Southerners were wonderful soldiers. They were the backbone I think of the regular Army. He was very good, but I think he didnít last all the way through.
Aaron Elson: So you must have seen guys falling to your left and right. How did that make you feel?
Bob Levine: You know what you do? I remember, when we would advance after the riflemen had been through, my first experience of seeing a guy dead, a rifleman, you learned amazingly early how to see and not see. You sort of could focus. So I knew he was there, and I was able not to look. Even the German dead, their bodies became bloated. It was terrible. And yet you start to walk through these things and you could, well, the word is compartmentalize, you could actually take your view and just see what you want to see. Itís very difficult. And particularly on the Hill, when we came down the Hill through the woods, and guys were dropping, because the shells were bursting in the trees. It wasnít a question of coming at us, it was a question of coming dow. The guy next to me just dropped, and I had no idea why. And then suddenly I realized that there was a shell burst. You were completely vulnerable. And thatís what was so scary. You could take cover from something coming in, but you couldnít take cover from something that was coming down on you. That was Hill 122.
Aaron Elson: Where would you sleep? Did you make a foxhole every night?
Bob Levine: You had to make a slit trench or a foxhole, depending on the position. Youíd make a slit trench and youíd get in, with your buddy, and suddenly thereíd be some shelling. Youíd say, "Gee, maybe we ought to dig it a little deeper." So youíd get up, and youíd start digging some more, because you never felt safe. And when I got wounded, the reason was that I got everything down, but my leg was sticking out, I couldnít get my leg all the way down, and I exposed my thigh. So when the grenade hit nearby, normally I would have been sheltered, but my leg couldnít make it, so I got that wound. Fortunately it was a small piece of shrapnel. It didnít do much damage, just enough to make me a walking wounded, so that I could walk the next day and get really blasted.
Aaron Elson: The battle for Hill 122 began July 3rd, so you must have been doing something every day, on or around the hill.
Bob Levine: Every day there were small advances. It was all preparation work, taking this point, taking that point. I had no idea where the regiments were. We were on our own. But everyone was doing something. And suddenly there was the hill, and we were climbing the hill. When I got to Hill 122, it had already been taken, but our attack was on the 10th, going down. So we went up like on the 9th I guess we camped up on the top, so we spent one night on the top. And I can remember standing there and looking back and seeing the beach. It was that clear. I donít know how many miles it is, ten, twenty miles? But really, when you think that it took us a month to go twenty or thirty miles, wow. That was hedgerow fighting.
Aaron Elson: When did Jim Flowersí tanks arrive?
Bob Levine: They got there on the morning of the 10th. We heard them coming, and nobody could believe it, in that area, whatís going on? Tanks? That was the last thing anybody expected. But we heard them, and then suddenly, when we were coming down the hill, we fell in behind them.
Aaron Elson: Before that, was there a plateau, or was there any level ground at the top of the hill?
Bob Levine: There was like a mesa of some sort at the top, but they didnít come all the way up. We met them down below.
Aaron Elson: All the way at the bottom or part of the way?
Bob Levine: I would think part of the way, because I remember them crashing through the underbrush. It was basically a light underbrush, small trees, and then when we came down to the bottom of the hill and we hit that little road at the bottom is when we really saw them clearly, and fell in behind, and went through the hedgerow. Now I didnít realize that Flowers or whoever I was behind had gone way out. We lost sight of the tank. The infantry was not keeping up.
Aaron Elson: Did any infantry keep going with them?
Bob Levine: I donít think so, because I was with the lead group. We just found a hedgerow and crouched in behind there, and thatís when we suddenly looked around and heard the fire coming from behind us, and then we realized that we were out there all by ourselves, and I lost sight of the tanks.
Aaron Elson: At that point did you have the mortar?
Bob Levine: No. I must have just had the ammo bag. I donít think I was carrying it, come to think about it, I really donít remember, because when I was at that last hedgerow, I wasnít carrying anything. Where it dropped or what happened is a mystery to me. It seemed the whole company was around me, so how many guys were captured I donít know. Maybe a lot of guys got back and we were the only ones taken, I donít know.
Aaron Elson: K Company suffered 80 percent casualties that day.
Bob Levine: Okay, but how about POWs? That was my question. But I do know there was a group of us that were marched back, that was the part I was with. But it couldnít have been more than 15 or 20 guys.