WWII veteran breaks silence

Posted Nov. 10, 2009, at 8:58 p.m.
Lester Cohen poses at his Bangor home on Monday, November 9, 2009 with a picture of his three brothers, left to right, Sam, Bernard, Lester and George, in uniform during WWII.  (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)
Lester Cohen poses at his Bangor home on Monday, November 9, 2009 with a picture of his three brothers, left to right, Sam, Bernard, Lester and George, in uniform during WWII. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)

BANGOR, Maine — The scars of war are not always visible.

Many World War II veterans, including Bangor resident Lester Cohen, have kept quiet about their wartime experiences during the 64 years since the war in Europe ended, attempting to hide their invisible scars.

Those veterans, now in their 80s, endeavored to protect themselves and the ones they love from the pain and grief that is associated with death and injury, and the knowledge that their innocence was lost forever.

“Growing up we were taught to be good, and the Army taught us to kill,” Cohen said last week as he sat in his Chickadee Lane home.

Cohen was 19 when he led a group of eight soldiers up the steep banks of Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day and later fought against the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and other major confrontations in the European theater.

As he reminisced last week, he held in his lap a thin envelope of memorabilia from WWII, including a few letters he wrote home to his mom in Biddeford, his discharge papers, newspaper clippings, photos of his brothers-in-arms and one of him in his youth with his three brothers in uniform.

“It’s been a long, long time since I’ve even seen this stuff,” he said.

Cohen’s story is not unlike others from his youth. He was the youngest of seven children and all three of his older brothers and his brothers-in-law were serving this country in the military during WWII. Cohen was enrolled at the University of Maine in Orono, “and everyday I’d go to class there would be less and less boys,” he said.

Halfway through his second semester, he hitchhiked home to Biddeford to tell his mom, who raised him and siblings alone after his father died when he was 14, that he could wait no longer and that he was enlisting.

He joined the U.S. Army in March 1943. After basic training in Massachusetts he was sent to Europe with Battery B of the 110th Infantry Gunnery Battalion, which was attached to the 1st Army.

Cohen has kept the secrets of war quietly locked away for six decades, and only in the last few years has he been able to speak about his experiences.

“To say they don’t talk — that’s an understatement,” said Honey Cohen, who married him on Feb. 15, 1959.

By the time Cohen enlisted to fight along with his brothers and many others in the United States and Europe to defeat Hitler and the Nazis, millions of Jews already had died by the hands of those who followed the German dictator.

To be Jewish was a dangerous thing, and having an obviously Jewish given name placed a target on Cohen who decided to crush and throw away his military dog tags, just in case he was captured.

“I hated the Germans” for what they did, he said, anger still in his voice.

As he quietly recalled stories of the battles he fought in Europe — tales of the carnage of war — there were some good memories, of the people that he and his fellow soldiers helped to liberate.

“Have you ever seen people who were crazy with happiness?” he wrote in an Aug. 30, 1944, letter to his mother, Celia. “That is the way people are here” in France.

He recalled the French people shouted “the liberators” in their native tongue, when he and his battalion — the first Americans to arrive — made their way into Paris.

“They all tried to touch you. To kiss you,” he said, his eyes wet and far away in thought.

The fact that many were Jewish lifted his heart.

“I have met quite a few Jewish people since arriving here” in Paris, his letter states. “Many have been hiding in cellars and houses and other places for four years and many have kept their nationality a secret for fear of being harmed.”

A few of the stories, the ones that cut the deepest, Cohen just could not finish. He left them hanging in the air as silence permeated the room. Then he would gather his composure and, using a diversion technique that is well oiled, tell a story about the beautiful European women he met while traveling from town to town.

Cohen was shipped home to the U.S. before many of his fellow soldiers because his mother was seriously ill with brittle diabetes.

When he arrived home in Biddeford it was around midnight and his mother was already asleep.

The next morning, using her walker, she made her way into his room and Cohen pretended to be asleep. “She lifted up my shirt and checked me all over,” he said. “She knew if I got hurt I’d never tell her.”

Cohen has no physical scars from the war he served in so many years ago, but the emotional scars remain. They run so deep that he said he is not participating in today’s Veterans Day activities.

“It’s too tough.”

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