Under normal circumstances, 91-year-old Herman Kasoff’s daily trek to the mailbox is typically uneventful. However, one visit this summer was anything but ordinary — the day he received a correspondence from His Majesty King Harald V of Norway.
The king was officially recognizing the WWII veteran with a letter of commendation for the courage and sacrifice he exhibited in liberating Norway. Herman told me he wasn’t entirely caught off guard by this rendezvous with royalty. He had heard rumblings a declaration recognizing his regiment’s contributions “might” be forthcoming.
Herman couldn’t offer a definitive explanation for why he received such a prestigious honor more than seven decades later. “No reason; they just sent it,” he told me matter-of-factly, exhibiting the same modesty and humility I’ve witnessed from other local Jewish war veterans I’ve had the privilege of writing about. But a story Herman shared with me in passing may provide a clue.
During his mission in Norway, Herman recalled seeing King Olav, reigning king of Norway during WWII, at an official gathering of troops in formation on the palace grounds. Olav had just returned from exile at the war’s end. While no formal recognition was offered at that reception, one could surmise that Herman’s recent commendation from King Harald V was the current monarch’s way of making up for some of his father’s unfinished business; that and the monumental task of trying to track down WWII veterans over the years.
Whatever the reason, it makes no difference to Herman; in fact, he still finds it a bit humorous he received the recognition in the first place. That’s because he viewed his time spent in Norway, representing his final four months of active duty, as, in his words, “more like a four-month vacation on Uncle Sam.”
Herman brought the letter of commendation and a commemorative coin he received from the king to one of his regular Monday night poker games. His thinking was that his card-playing cronies would share in his amusement over this acknowledgment 71-plus years after the fact. But Edward Sherman begged to disagree. Sherman thought it was a story to be shared with the entire community. To that end, Sherman reached out to the Jewish News and that’s where our story begins — just in time for Veterans Day on Friday, Nov. 11.
During my initial phone call to Herman, he provided an account of his Norway assignment and the subsequent recognition from its current king. But because this chapter came toward the end of the war, I was curious to hear details about other challenges he faced in the two and a half years beforehand.
Like so many of his fellow men and women of our Greatest Generation, Herman has a harrowing tale of a young life interrupted.
Early April 1943
Herman Kasoff, 18, is less than three months from marching across a stage with his classmates at Central High School to receive his diploma. But word comes he will be marching much sooner than expected; not in a school auditorium but at a blistering hot army training camp at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Ala. He won’t be alone. The Army drafted anyone in his graduating class who was 18.
“If there was any consolation,” Herman said, “it’s that I ended up with a lot of my school friends.”
April 23, 1943
Herman’s parents face the heartbreaking task of dropping their son off at the Michigan Central train station, sending him off into what undoubtedly will be harm’s way.
“We gathered at the station where a Jewish chaplain presented us with a pocket prayer book that I still have today,” Herman said. He then gave the young Jewish soldiers-to-be some advice: “Eat what they give you; don’t worry about keeping kosher.” For the next three years, Herman would often rely on K-rations for sustenance — individually packaged combat food, where the “K” most certainly did not stand for kosher.
After three months of basic training, Herman is now a “seasoned” Army private and is shipped overseas to help save the world from annihilation. First stop: Casablanca. “We didn’t do much there, but at least I got a chance to see the Casbah,” Herman chuckled. He recalled the narrow, crowded, seedy streets filled with merchants where “you didn’t dare walk alone or without your weapon.”
In short order, Herman made his way across North Africa to Libya, on to Sicily and then Naples where, on just his third day with the 3rd Ranger Battalion, he was approached by an Army captain who looked Herman square in the face and said, “You’ll do.”
“I’ll do what?” he asked apprehensively. He learns he will be part of a battalion that will, under the veil of darkness each night, “punch a hole in the frontlines along the Italian peninsula.”
Herman is positioned in an olive grove on a terraced hillside in San Pietro when he sustains an injury that would actually save his life. “I was hit by shrapnel in the back of the leg from a German shell,” he said. “I fell 12 feet and injured my knee.” While languishing in three different hospitals over two months, he learns members of his battalion were either captured or killed.
Upon his recovery, Herman Kasoff receives new orders: He will be part of the “First Special Service Force,” known as the Devil’s Brigade, a forerunner to the Green Berets and Navy Seals. “We were considered the father of all special forces in the United States.”
June 4, 1944
Two days before D-Day, Herman is “within the sites of the gates of Rome,” when he takes another hit of shrapnel. This time to his elbow. He recovers in two weeks and rejoins his Special Forces company for a new mission — the invasion of southern France. At this time, the First Special Service Forces had grown to include Canadian soldiers. Come the end of November, after perilous months of warfare, this bilateral Special Forces company was disbanded.
New Year’s Day 1945
Herman Kasoff is reassigned to the 474th Infantry Regiment and, for the next four months, serves under the command of Gen. George Patton. At the tail end of this chapter in Herman’s military odyssey, he would witness the atrocities that would be indelibly etched in his mind.
Germany, Early April 1945
Herman acknowledged that when he entered the service, anything he heard about the Holocaust was shrouded in rumor. He heard something about the Germans “relocating the Jews.” That he would see the reality of the horror in the spring of 1945 was not something he could have ever prepared for.
Though he wasn’t a part of the motor pool, Herman is surprised when a captain orders him to drive him to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Herman thinks it’s more than just a coincidence he was singled out for the assignment for no other reason than he is Jewish. He vividly recalls in chilling detail when they came within several miles of the camp. Herman distinctly remembers telling his captain that the maps were no longer needed. Death was in the air and death was now their navigator.
Herman and his captain arrived at Buchenwald the day after its liberation — the same day as Gen. Eisenhower. A somber Herman recalled, “The ovens were still warm … [everywhere] there were bodies in box cars.”
Herman would battle for a couple more months in the European Theater. Then, while positioned at the border of Czechoslovakia, came the news the world had been waiting for: The Germans had surrendered.
VE Day 1945
After the Germans surrendered, “none of us believed we would avoid going to Japan,” Herman said, “but because we had already fought in both the European and Mediterranean Campaigns, we were given a choice to volunteer for a Norwegian assignment.”
Herman, now 20, was finally in charge of his own destiny. Norway was to be his last stop. His orders were to process and ship out an estimated 300,000 Nazi troops back to Germany.
Early June 1945
Herman describes a dramatic first encounter at the Oslo airport. “I was approached by a high-ranking German officer who preceded to hand over his Luger to me,” he said. There Herman stood, face-to-face with the mortal enemy whose goal was to conquer the world and, in the process, persecute and murder millions of his fellow Jews.
His final mission, the deportation of every last Nazi out of Norway, in no way provides solace for the death and destruction he witnessed on the frontlines and at Buchenwald. That he would consider that assignment the least challenging of his tour of duty only underscores the horror he had to endure and the dark memories he still carries with him today.
It’s only fitting that Herman Kasoff spent most of his professional career in the construction and real estate business. Like all of our treasured WWII veterans, his post-war life was in need of rebuilding. At the same time, he continues to recognize and embrace the significance of his WWII experience. To that end, Herman has maintained enduring relationships with the American and Canadian forces he served alongside in the First Special Service Force. To do so, this vibrant 91-year-old puts on the miles to preserve the memories.
He estimates he’s attended 50 reunions over the years and has served three times as president of the Veterans of the First Special Service Force. In August, Herman traveled to his outfit’s 70th anniversary celebration in Ottawa. And then over the weekend of Oct. 21, he was on the road again.
He attended the American Airlines Sky Ball in Dallas to benefit the Airpower Foundation, described as “one of the oldest military support organizations in the United States … funding projects that directly support the members and families of all branches of (the) military.” It was a star-studded patriotic weekend with Herman among the veterans receiving the red-carpet treatment from American Airlines. Once again, Herman Kasoff was in the middle of the action.
After numerous phone conversations, I finally had a chance to sit down with Herman a few weeks ago at his Farmington Hills home. After some prompting, additional information about his WWII saga slowly surfaced; just some “small” details he happened to leave out earlier, like the fact he’s the recipient of two Purple Hearts and a Presidential Unit Citation. Plus, there are awards shared by members of his outfit that include a commendation from Canada and the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal.
Like so many of his generation, Herman has kept his wartime experiences to himself except for one memorable Shabbat dinner his daughter Judy recalled from 20 or 25 years ago.
“He was getting ready to travel to one of his First Special Service Force reunions,” she told me, “when all of a sudden he just started talking, telling us about his WWII experiences and how he was wounded.” She remembered “how proudly he spoke of the comrades in his unit.” In turn, Judy marveled at her father’s courage. “He was very brave, this young 18-year-old kid they plucked out of high school.”
Judy said her father would talk for at least two more hours. The more he talked, the more his family took advantage of this rare opportunity to ask questions.
“It was a one-time thing,” Judy said. The intimate gathering also included Herman’s wife, Sylvia, and their youngest daughter, Peggy, both now of blessed memory. The Kasoffs lost Peggy to lung cancer at the far-too-young age of 45 in 1997. Sylvia passed away at age 90 in November 2015. They were blessed with 68 years together. Thankfully, for one special Shabbat, the entire Kasoff family could learn the intimate details behind the hero they already knew was among them.
While Herman Kasoff has never wanted for praise, he deserves it. And the fact that a king decided to recognize him 71 years after the fact proves it’s never too late to say thank you for helping save the world. It is in that spirit that we celebrate Veterans Day this week — a time to thank the Herman Kasoffs of our nation and all our service men and women, past and present, for selflessly dedicating their lives so that we may enjoy ours.
Photos by Jerry Zolynsky