A New Battle

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Aging Jewish War Veterans post fights  to attract new and younger members.

Standing: Dan Arnold, West Bloomfield; Charles Finkelstein, West Bloomfield; Bob Russman, Farmington Hills. Seated: Al Colman, Southfield; Willie Stone, West Bloomfield. (Photos by Brett Mountain)

They fought for their country, honorably and faithfully — most of them during World War II. Now they’re fighting another battle, using what one of them calls “our last few ounces of kaiach (strength).”

They’re the community’s aging Jewish War Veterans, who are seeking to bolster their identity, increase their ranks and preserve their beloved PFC Joseph L. Bale Post #474 rather than merge with the few other remaining JWV posts in the state.

Several of them gathered at their commander’s home in West Bloomfield last weekto discuss their plight and make plans for the near future, which includes a free dinner get-together Wednesday, Sept. 12, at Glen Oaks Country Club in Farmington Hills.

It’ll be similar to a rallying call on the battlefield, but in this case they’ll be trying to get the current members to become more active and to recruit younger Jewish vets in the community.

Fear Of Being Obsolete
Despite complaining about their age, most are in their late 80s and feel a lack of energy — “we’re just tired,” bemoaned one. The group seemed spry and feisty and passionate about their cause as they reminisced about their WWII exploits and even got into heated discussions about organizational business.

“We don’t want to become obsolete,” said Willie Stone of West Bloomfield, who helped launch the post and has been post commander five times over the years. “Now is the time to really do something to keep the Bale Post alive.

“We need more participation from our current members and, most of all, we need younger new members who are vets from wars like the Vietnam War, Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Al Colman of Southfield, the post’s adjutant, put it succinctly: “We need membership and leadership or the post dies.”

Stone said he hopes to “stir up the troops” with a fiery speech at the Sept. 12 gathering, which will include comments from other vets and a memoriam to deceased members.

“There’ll be no music and dancing, just a good dinner and a serious business discussion about the future of our post,” Stone said.

Don’t Want Merger
Bob Russman of Farmington Hills, thepost’s representative to the Department of Michigan JWV, pointed out there are 20 JWV posts in the state, and officials have indicated that a merger would be beneficial to everyone.

“But we disagree; we want to avoid that,” Russman said.

The Bale Post has 93 members, a far cry from the 450 members during the heyday of hundreds of JVW posts nationwide at the end of WWII in 1945. Some of the other state posts now have fewer than 10 members.

Bale Post members pay $60 dues annually and meet officially two to three times a year, usually at the commander’s home or in a room provided for them at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township.

Members range from men like Gulf War vet Rich Luterman of Farmington Hills, in his late 40s — he’s a Fox2 TV meteorologist — to Irv Steinberg of West Bloomfield, who is the post’s oldest at 94 and highest-ranking member, holding the rank of major.

Offer Many Services
“We try our best to maintain the many services we’ve provided to the community through the years, such as assistance to vets in hospitals and nursing facilities, scholarships to children of vets, contributions to various charities,” explained Stone, “but it isn’t easy any more. Our main sources of funding are dues and donations.”

“In the good old days, we had bowling and golf leagues with hundreds of members, and many social events,” recalled Dan Arnold of West Bloomfield, the post’s chaplain. “Now we’re just too old to do all that. We even had a flourishing women’s auxiliary.”

The group’s strong pride in being Bale Post members is connected with the fact that some of them knew war hero Joe Bale on the European battlefields and even before that when he was a “nine-letter man” in baseball, basketball and track at Detroit’s Central High School.

“He was a real nice, mild-mannered kid who was loved by everyone,” said Charlie Finkelstein of West Bloomfield. “He got one letter in his year at Michigan State University before enlisting.”

Multi-Medal Winner
Bale, 21, was wounded three times, getting a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts, and probably could have gone home after his wounds. But he insisted on returning to action and was killed near the end of the war while firing a bazooka at German tanks.

Clockwise: Jewish war veterans Al Colman, Dan Arnold, Willie Stone, Charles Finkelstein and Bob Russman look at memorabilia.

Steinberg, like the others, wants the post to succeed, “but it may be easier on everyone if all the posts merged,” he said.

He hopes the Sept. 12 dinner will be successful, “but I’m afraid most people will just come out for a nice evening, then we won’t see them again.”

Maintaining the Bale Post roster is no easy task. About 16 million Americans served in the military during WWII, and they’re now dying at a rate of 1,000 to 1,200 a day; 416,000 were killed in the war.

“Seven of our members have died so far this year,” Stone lamented.

Russman says he shudders when he receives a phone call from an honor guard colleague. “It usually means the honor guard has to get ready for a ceremony at a funeral home,” he said.

Colman added: “It seems we’re always attending funerals. After all, we were born in the 1920s and ’30s.”

Escaped War Wounds
Miraculously, all of the veterans interviewed escaped injury in the war while serving in both the European and Pacific theaters, and all earned a spate of medals. Russman, who later sold men’s clothing and insurance, was a gunner’s-mate second class on a destroyer and took part in both the Normandy and southern France invasions. “The highlight of my time there was meeting the famous Gen. George Patton,” he said with a smile.

Arnold, who later was in the luggage business and an insurance agent, went Russman one better by meeting Gen. Dwight Eisenhower after the latter’s plane was forced down by mechanical trouble at a base near Paris. “Ike struck up a conversation and asked me if we should move forward into Germany,” recalled Arnold, a staff sergeant. “I told him definitely yes, but you go ahead and I’ll bring up the rear.”

Finkelstein, who spent 58 years in the auto parts business, was an army sergeant who sludged his way through the islands of Guadalcanal and Luzon, attacking Japanese pill boxes and eventually helping Gen. Douglas MacArthur make his famous return to the Philippines.

Colman, who still practices law, emerged from the war as a staff sergeant and later located two of his cousins who were German concentration camp survivors and facilitated their entry into the U.S.

The Usual Anti-Semitism
Steinberg, the post’s official historian, landed at France’s Utah Beach on D-Day and later was awarded a Bronze Star for heading the Quartermaster Corps, which kept truck drivers, medics, cooks and supplies moving through France and into the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium.

“We were freezing in Bastone and had to take coats, gloves and boots off of dead German soldiers to survive,” he said.

Steinberg and his brother later operated a chemical business for 50 years, supplying materials to the auto industry.

Stone, like the others, experienced some anti-Semitism in the army, being told by a leader in officers’ candidate school that “if there are any Jews here, you’re not gonna make it!” Stone said he proved him wrong by finishing first in a class of 285.

In Europe, Stone helped rebuild the Ludendorff Bridge, a railway bridge over the Rhine at Remagen, Germany. The Nazis had blown up the “Bridge at Remagen” in an attempt to keep the allies out of Germany.

Eventually becoming a captain, Stone also was in charge of converting a former air base in Belgium to an American engineering depot and was an assistant commandant of a prisoner-of-war camp in Belgium.

A Central High track star and later a champion squash player, Stone was elected to the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.

What do the old-time veterans think of the more recent wars, especially the fighting still taking place in Afghanistan? They unanimously favor getting out of that country, especially in view of recent reports of Afghan military and police killing Americans.

“Of course, only our civilian and military leaders can make a final judgment on this,” Colman said, “but my gut feeling is to get the heck out of there.”  

How To Go
PFC. Joseph L. Bale Post #474, Jewish War Veterans, will hold a free membership dinner meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, at Glen Oaks Country Club in Farmington Hills. Members, and especially prospective new members, are welcome. To RSVP, call Bob Russman at (248) 432-7374 or Willie Stone at (248) 892-2536.

By Bill Carroll/ Contributing Writer

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