Joe Kirshenbaum closes his eyes tight while searching his brain for the names of soldiers he served with in France during World War II.
“Sometimes it’s hard to believe you were even in the (U.S.) Army 75 years ago,” he says, struggling to get the words out. “So long ago.”
Kirshenbaum, 99, served with the 82nd Ordnance Group in Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. Capt. Kirshenbaum’s assignment was to keep all 67 ammunition depots supplied in Normandy during the 3rd Army’s drive across France.
“Patton would say, ‘Captain, I want this depot ready at a certain time,’ and I’d take a convoy and we’d recon,” Kirshenbaum recalled while sitting in an easy chair in an Omaha retirement home. “We’d look for the place closest to where Patton wanted it.”
Soldiers grumbled when Patton came down the road in his staff car with sirens blaring, but there was no doubt they respected him, Kirshenbaum said.
“He was the biggest SOB there was, but we respected him,” he said. “He would give an order and we had to move, right now.”
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From 1944 through 1945, Kirshenbaum and his comrades slogged their way through France. For their efforts, the French government has been reaching out to U.S. veterans who risked their life during World War II fighting on French territory.
Those veterans who produce the proper documentation are appointed to the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honor. The Legion of Honor medal is not awarded posthumously.
On June 6, in Palm Springs, California, where Kirshenbaum then lived, he was one of four veterans awarded the Legion of Honor by Christophe Lemoine, the consul general of France in Los Angeles. The award is the highest honor France bestows on its citizens and foreign nationals.
Kirshenbaum, who turns 100 on Dec. 27, appreciates the French efforts to honor the Americans who came to that country’s aid. He said, however, that he long ago received the thanks of its grateful citizens when Americans passed through cities and towns.
“At Sainte-Mère-Église, near Nancy (France), all the people, they really appreciated us,” he said. “They gave us food and whatever they had.”
Soldiers’ names and towns don’t always come easily to Kirshenbaum’s mind, but he continues to haltingly talk about his experiences in the war. Family members said it’s been only the last few years that they’ve begun to hear the stories. Somehow, closing his eyes helps the stories spill out more quickly.
He joined the Army in 1942 as a private, but an officer noticed that he had nearly completed his college degree. Kirshenbaum was encouraged to enroll in Officers Candidate School.
Being an officer had its perks, but there were times that Kirshenbaum had to make tough decisions. With the Battle of the Bulge raging near Bastogne, Belgium, he was told to send men to assess the supply situation for an ammunition depot.
“I had to pick four officers and seven enlisted men,” he remembered. “I knew all the officers, all friends of mine. It hurt like hell, but somebody had to go. Some were killed.”
When the siege of Bastogne was broken, Kirshenbaum began to think that he might survive the war. He trained in Louisiana for a possible deployment to the Pacific theater, the invasion of Japan.
When all the fighting ended, he was honorably discharged in 1945 in Bowie, Texas, after turning down a promotion to major. The promotion would have required a three-year reenlistment.
Kirshenbaum returned to Omaha, finished his business degree at the University of Nebraska and went to work for Wolf Bros. clothing store, which he bought in 1948. He started a family with Audrey Wolf, and they raised four children.
Receiving the French Legion of Honor is a nice tribute, but Kirshenbaum puts it in context.
“We just did what we thought was our duty,” he said. “That’s all.”