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“I Did a Rather Stupid Thing” – Searching for My Grandfather’s Private Murray in the Last Days of WW II

I can vaguely recall the last World War I veterans. The only one I really remember interacting with was my great-grandfather, who somehow survived losing a lung in the Russian Army to live long enough to meet three great-grandchildren. After all these years, my sons are likely to share a similar reality. In a repeat of history, their great-grandfather – the WWI veteran’s son -- will probably be the only World War II veteran that they will ever remember meeting. I was too young to ask about the Great War – it’s not clear anyone ever asked him about it did. My boys never got to ask his son about WWII. But thanks to video, they do have a firsthand account of the personally devastating impact of the war.

It’s almost a cliché to say that World War II veterans really didn’t want to open up about their experiences. My grandfather, Milton Spivak, was no exception. He was willing to tell some of the easier stories of his war experience, such as how he was got out of training camp to marry my grandmother, his experience liberating a concentration camp, how his Yiddish led a German training camp to surrender to him, and his post-war time in Austria. But the tough ones he kept to himself. In a taped interview with my brother, he finally told his hardest story, 55 years after it happened. It’s the only time any of us ever saw him cry.

By the standards of the many veterans, his battle service was brief. Thanks to his terrible eyesight, he was classified as 1C and scheduled to spend the entire war stateside. His relatively advanced math skills and his almost-completed college education led him to an assignment working on radar. His experience for the first years of the war was easy – he even was able to take his time in courting and marrying my grandmother. But by 1945, the situation had changed. Even though the Allies were clearly on the path to victory, the bloodshed was taking a toll. It was more of an all-hands-on-deck situation, and my grandfather was mobilized.

This post-Battle-of-the-Bulge action is a relatively neglected part of the war. Most histories portray it as almost a mop-up operation, with more of a focus on racing the Soviets to Germany and discovering the horrors of the Holocaust. But if this was easy, my grandfather never noticed it.

His unit appeared to be utility players under the Army’s “Repple-Depple” system, with new soldiers thrown in as filler assigned to whichever unit needed new blood.  His unit kept getting switched from one outfit to another as they got closer to the front to boost up these decimated divisions. 

The result is that for historical purposes, it is difficult to figure out where he was during the war. The only recognizable name he mentions is the 26th Infantry – which he correctly identified as “The Yankee Division.” He himself was never focused on what units, divisions or armies he was fighting under. It wouldn’t have mattered to him. He didn’t really care for records or recognition.

His story began when his unit crossed into Germany on the pontoon bridge at Mainz. He once claimed to have witnessed seeing General George S. Patton urinating in the Rhine, though it’s unclear if he actually saw it or was simply recounting the story. He was pretty disgusted with Patton – Milton saw Patton as a crazed man more than willing to throw away his and his friends’ lives to protect his tanks.

After the crossing, he and his group were shoved into a new unit, where one person stood out – Murray, who, like my then-23-year old grandfather, appeared to be slightly older than the rest of the group. Murray was the experienced leader – the “poppa to all the soldiers .” Murray was “like the father superior to all the soldiers.”

Murray clued the newbies into what has happening – the army had lost contact with the enemy, and it was their job to find out where the Germans were in front of them. Murray quickly explained basic details, like putting grenades in your lapels and throwing out the cans of K-Rations to travel lighter. From the story, he was quite helpful: “If you have any problems, yell for me, he says I’ll try to help…. Murray was the only cane or walking stick that we can lean on.”

As my grandfather told the story, his unit was walking through a field looking for Germans, approaching a town, where he served as the advance scout for the entire division. He noticed a flash of light in the distance. He processed this brief light as a window slowly opening and reflecting the light off the pane.  He quickly yelled to watch the windows, and the unit opened fire.  The battle may have only taken a few minutes, but Milton noted that “it seemed like a lifetime.” He ran to the town and got caught in barbed-wire, but the sergeant was able to cut him out of it. The outfit ran through the cut wire to open the town.

They got to the buildings and they had no idea what to expect. The cathedral at the center of town was clearly the most dangerous point and had to be captured. The commanding officer ordered him to run into the open. As my grandfather explained, “I wasn’t brave or anything like that. I was doing it, your body just moves forward.”  But it had to be done, because “someone had to draw fire.” He waited and then jumped into the open. The Germans had fled. Their food, canteens and backpacks were still on the ground. He thought “How lucky can you be … nobody was there.”

As he was returning to his unit, another solider came running forward to tell the officer that the unit was hit hard. At that point in the narration, he was overcome with emotion, and my brother had to turn the tape off. When he restarted, my jovial grandfather exhibited a very sober and bitter attitude, an attitude that we never saw again. “I was stunned. I guess everybody was stunned. We know everybody has to be hit at sometime or the other but not Murray. Just doesn’t happen.”

I did a rather stupid thing. I went in the house. I took a sheet off the bed. White sheet. And I went back to see where Murray was. Some other outfit saw me carry the white sheet and said are we surrendering. I remember that. And somebody said to him ‘shut up, one of his boys has been hit.’ and I saw it was an officer. He stopped his outfit. And they just watched me. Then I saw Murray in the field lying in the mud. I said why. Why do we always lay in the mud when we are hit? I covered him up. Laid his rifle down beside him. I didn’t stick it up in the air. I didn’t want anyone should see him full of mud. Put the sheet over him. Put the rifle on top of the sheet so it shouldn’t blow away. Had to leave him for graves registration to pick him up. There wasn’t anything that I could do. I went back. I think there was only about six of us left.

The next morning, someone from headquarters came by and dissolved the unit over the protestations of the Non-Commissioned Officers: He said:

[Y]ou go on this truck, you go on that truck. I said to Pollack [one of the other members of the unit], you better go on that truck. They finished us. None of us are left enough to battle. And the sergeant was yelling I need him, he’s my scout, meaning me. The officer said look around you. There’s nothing left to you.

That was the last time he saw any of the men of that unit. He never found out Murray’s name. He had kept the story bottled up for over half-century. He was very close to my grandmother, but she had never heard that story before. After the interview she asked him why he never mentioned Murray – he said he kept it to himself; It was the most painful experience of his life.

My brother and I wanted to find out who Murray was, if only to let his family know how he led men, and how he died in battle. This was an impossible challenge, but technology has made it easier. Looking at the American Battle Monuments Commission website, there were six men with the first name of Murray who died in March and April 1945. There are a few that would sound right, but for the fact that none are in the 26th Infantry Division. A PFC Murray A. Jones, a Virginian from the 28th Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division, died on April 13, 1945. NY Private Murray Marlow died on April 8, 1945, from the 194th Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division. A third solider almost fits the bill – Silver Star winner, Sergeant Murray Davis, like my grandfather a Jewish New Yorker. But Davis fought in the 869th Field Artillery Battalion, 65th Infantry Division. He died right at the end – April 7, 1945, at the battle of Struth. Relatively forgotten today, Struth was one of the last battles of the European theater. While my grandfather was not in artillery at that time, he did serve in an artillery unit earlier in the war. But it is not clear that he fought at Struth. In fact, his fight may have just been a minor skirmish.

Instead of first names, we checked out the ten soldiers who died with the last name of Murray.  Finally, one really stood out – Pennsylvania PFC Francis E. Murray.  He was in the 26th Infantry (328th Regiment) and he died on March 29, 1945. Based on the allied crossing times, and the nature of the story, our thought was that the battle would likely have happened in April. But there is a good chance we are wrong and that the timeframe was more compressed than my grandfather realized.  And while his story suggests that Murray was his first name, it is entirely possible that this Francis Murray is the man that we are looking for.

Unfortunately, by the time we were able to uncover these names, my grandfather was no longer sure who I was, not to mention the name of his friend from over 65 years before. Since he passed away in November, there is no one who could tell this painful tale or remember the sacrifice of Murray. My grandfather, who was always sensible, knew that day would come. And thanks to his willingness to open up, my grandchildren and others will have the lasting evidence.