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Gerard Bernhardt

East Falls Historical Society Oral History Interview

Gerard Bernhardt, born October 11, 1924

In six detailed interviews, Gerard Bernhardt, an East Falls optician, discusses his Army Basic Training, being wounded in France during WWII, living at four East Falls addresses while raising 11 children, and his involvement and impressions of the neighborhood throughout over five decades. 

Here are summaries of the interviews with links to the transcript of each: 

Interview #1 covers Jerry’s youth and family life in St. Boniface Parish, North Philadelphia where he went to school and church, his family heritage, recreation, the Depression, and local reaction to Pearl Harbor. 

Interview #2 covers the reaction to Pearl Harbor in Jerry’s family and in Philadelphia, details of Jerry’s basic training in New Cumberland and Camp Blanding, and meeting and courting his future wife Eileen from East Falls.  

Interview #3 gives more details of Jerry’s basic training including the types of weapons, furloughs back to Philadelphia, fate of his siblings, the overseas journey to Wales and Southampton, assignment to Patton’s Third Army – Weapons Platoon, Third Battalion, K Company, 109 Regiment. The interview ends with Bernhardt’s arrival in Normandy, France in 1944 on the eve of battle.  

Interview #4 includes hedgerow fighting in France, being given Last Rites after being shot at Gathemo, spending August 1944 – January 1945 in the hospital, and returning home in 1945.  

Interview #5 focuses on Jerry’s return to Philadelphia after WWII, working at Philly Optical, marrying Eileen in 1945, moving to New Queen and Ainslie Streets in East Falls, having 11 children, studying Optical Lens Grinding under the G.I. Bill, becoming union president, opening an optical shop on Conrad Street, and remembering post-war life in East Falls.  

This final interview, #6, focuses on Jerry’s move to Tilden Street, social issues in the 1960’s – 1990’s and their effect on East Falls, the impact on the community of two housing projects, Jerry’s growing family, and his positive feelings about the neighborhood.  

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Interviewee: Gerard Bernhardt (GB)

Interviewer: Michael Daily (MD)

Date: May 29, 2009

Interview #1 covers Jerry’s youth and family life in St. Boniface Parish, North Philadelphia where he went to school and church, his family heritage, recreation, the Depression, and local reaction to Pearl Harbor.

MD: This is Mike Daily of the East Falls Historical Society on Friday, May 29 at 11:30 am. I am interviewing one of our long-time East Falls residents, Gerard G. Bernhardt.

MD: (note: filling out fact sheet with Jerry) Jerry, what is your address?

GB: 3341 Tilden St.

MD: What is your date of birth?

GB: October 11, 1924.

MD: Where were you born?

GB: Philadelphia.

MD: In what neighborhood?

GB: I would call it North Philadelphia.

MD: At the time you were born, where did your parents live?

GB: At St. Boniface’s Parish in North Philadelphia.

MD: On what street would you say?

GB: It was Hancock St. – two blocks from the church at Hancock and Diamond Streets. It was very close. The school was there also and we could walk to school.

MD: Your father and mother’s names?

GB: Mary and Joseph Bernhardt.

MD: Your mom was born in the United States, correct?

GB: Absolutely.

MD: In Philadelphia?

GB: West Philadelphia.

MD: And how about your dad? Where was he born?

GB: My father was born in what is now known as Croatia.

MD: When was your father born?

GB: 1888

MD: And your mother?

GB: 1887.

MD: Close enough for government work, would you say? (laughter) Your church affiliation is St. Bridget’s so you’re obviously Catholic. How long have you been associated with St. Bridget?

GB: Since 1945, 64 years.

MD: Wow. And the address of St. Bridget is at 3667 Midvale Avenue. As you mentioned, you grew up in the parish of St Boniface. Did you attend grade school there?

GB: All through grade school (St. Boniface for 8 years), two years of high school, and two years of business school.

MD: What high school did you go to?

GB: Northeast Catholic.

MD: Which is now known as North Catholic. What about the business school?

GB: The business school was run by St. Boniface. It was separate from the elementary school and I learned bookkeeping and typing – all business courses.

MD: Do you recall what the name of the business school was?

GB: St. Boniface Commercial. After two years of high school, I decided I wanted to go into business so I went to business school so I could make some money.

MD: When you were in grade school, high school or business school, did you participate in any sports or teams?

GB: I played a little basketball in 8″ grade – nothing serious. And I played a lot of softball with the school teams.

MD: Were you involved in any other activities?

GB: I was an altar boy and a choir boy. I was active.

MD: Altar boy at St. Boniface?

GB: Right.

MD: When you came back from the service, where did you work?

GB: My brother, Gene, being the manager there, got me the job at Philadelphia Optical Service Company when I was still in the Army. I tried it out when I was on furlough and I liked it. So when I was discharged, they needed somebody, so they hired me and I wound up in a few years being a manager in the laboratory. I learned it very quickly. In about 5 or 6 years I was running the lab.

MD: Where was the lab?

GB: 221 N. 12 Street – 12th & Race.

MD: And you started working for them when you were discharged from the service?

GB: Right away. 1945.

MD: Later on, you had your own place?

GB: Later on, when I was about 56, I opened my own business for 20 years. East Falls Optician.

MD: And that was….

GB: At Conrad and Sunnyside Avenue. The first few years we were at 3425, and later 3527 right on the corner.

MD: That’s where the East Falls Chiropractor is now. So you grew up at Hancock and Diamond Streets.

GB: There was a square there, and the church was there, the rectory here, the convent there, the school behind it. It was a square block – a huge parish. We had at our disposal in that parish – we had bowling, basketball, and dancing. There was a very famous dance every Sunday night – people came from all over the city. It was a great meeting place at St. Bonnie’s for young adults.

MD: High School and College?

GB: Right. It was a great meeting place for young people to meet each other. Unfortunately today they meet in bars, but in those days we met there – it was much nicer.

MD: As you were growing up – what did you say was the year of your birth?

GB: October 11, 1924.

MD: 1924, so essentially you were a kid during the Depression.

GB: I remember the Depression extremely well. I remember President Roosevelt’s election and all about President Hoover.

MD: As you were growing up in North Philly – and that’s where you went into the service from?

GB: Right.

MD: What would you say were your main memories of your neighborhood?

GB: The neighborhood was great when I was young.  I know it has a bad reputation today, but when I was young, you could sit out on your steps in the summertime; you never locked your doors; you kept your screen doors open all night. It’s just not the same. It was so much nicer and the people – everybody knew everybody on the block. Now today you have your television and nobody comes out. They sit inside with air conditioning and watch television all night. But that was not the way it was when I was young.

MD: Did you listen to the radio programs?

GB: Absolutely. We used to listen to Father Coughlin, who was a very active priest. He had his own views on things. In fact he was called on the “carpet” a couple of times by the Bishop because some of his views.

MD: Was he from Philadelphia?

GB: No. He broadcast from Chicago. He was known nation-wide.

MD: Do you remember his first name?

GB: I’d have to think on it. (ed. note: Fr. Charles Coughlin)

MD: So essentially he was the Bishop Sheen of his time.

GB: Yes. He was very well known and had some really, really nasty views on many things.

MD: And to put things in perspective, Bishop Sheen was a noted tv orator.

GB: Oh he was the foremost spokesman of the Catholic Church.

MD: In the 50s. So as you were growing up, until say, 1939, when the war started in Europe, what was your main recollection of growing up in a neighborhood of Philadelphia with the war going on – what was your attitude, your parents’ attitude?

GB: My father, being from the old country, was extremely interested in what was happening in Europe. We had a round table every night. We discussed what was happening. We were well-informed because my father was so interested in what was happening worldwide that we all got interested with it.

MD: Did this sort of discussion start prior to World War II?

GB: It started while Hitler was taking over Austria and gobbling up territories – Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia and so forth. My father was very critical. I can remember when I was 14 he said you are going to fight this man. He has to be stopped.

MD: So this was about 1938?

GB: Right.

MD: So he knew things were coming.GB: He did.

MD: You mentioned that you listened to radio programs. Besides Fr. Coughlin, were there any other types of radio that you listened to? Abbott & Costello?

GB: We used to listen to “The Lone Ranger” That was a must. And Gracie Allen and George Burns, Jack Benny and all the old programs.

MD: What stations?

GB: It wasn’t KYW. WCAU was one. I remember WCAU because I sang at Woodside Park when as a kid for WCAU – Jack Stick (?); I’ll never forget that.

MD: But essentially, though, the local stations – would you say the main ones were CBS and NBC?

GB: Oh yeah; absolutely.

MD: Was there any ABC at that time? You brought up an interesting point for your childhood – singing at Woodside Park.

GB: It was an amusement park but they had a stage where they had activities for young people – where you could come and sing. It was fun. My brother and I also sang on the “Wilson Line.” It was a boat where you took a ride down the Delaware River. My brother, Bob, and I won first prize.

MD: And what year was this when you sang on the Wilson Line?

GB: I was 12 and Bob was 9 – he’s 3 years younger than me.

MD: And speaking of your family, how many siblings did you have?

GB: I had 8 brothers and sisters – 4 brothers and 4 sisters. There were 9 of us.

MD: Can you just give us the order of them?

GB: It’s pretty hard to remember the dates of birth but I can start – my oldest sister was Marie, Hilda, Gene, Joe, Bill, Alma, me, then Bobby and then Sallie. Hilda lived to be 96 and she died two years ago.

MD: So she was born in 1911?

GB: You got it. And the youngest in the family, my sister Sallie, is still alive and she’s 5 years younger than me. She is going on 80. I’ll be 85 this year. She’s five years younger than me, so she was born in 1929.

MD: That’s a good composite. Did you share much time with your brothers and sisters?

GB: We were very close. I can remember when I was a teenager my older brothers and sisters , for entertainment on a Saturday night, would have a little recording machine and they would push all the furniture back into one room – we had hardwood floors – and we would dance. We’d get together with our friends and have a good time. It was nothing complicated. Wed sing and dance. My brother Gene played the piano – he had a gift – if you hummed a song he could play it. It was an unusual gift. All you had to do was hum a tune and he could sit down and play it.

MD: So he could play by ear.

GB: He could play by ear. Never took a lesson in his life. He played beautifully.

MD: It’s a gift. Did your brothers and sisters have a chance to go to high school?

GB: My bother Gene went to night school and got a diploma. I don’t think any… oh, my brother Bob graduated from North Catholic. My sister Sallie graduated from – not Hallahan – what’s the other one…

MD: Little Flower.

GB: Yes, Little Flower. Two of the younger ones and one of my older brothers had a high school education. The rest didn’t. They were tough times.

MD: Obviously mom was a homemaker and what did Dad do?

GB: Dad worked for Drueding Brothers – it was called a chamois factory. When you have a helmet, it has a ring of material inside; he made it for the military. The cloth was also used for cleaning cars. A remarkable piece of material.

MD: Where was that?

GB: At 5th & Masters Street in North Philadelphia. MD: Did dad retire from there?

GB: Yes he did. He worked there 52 years and he walked to work every day – he never – no matter what weather – would not pay transportation. It was about a two mile walk each way.

MD: When did your dad pass away?

GB: He died in 1961 at 74 years.

MD: What about your mother?

GB: She died 10 years later – no 14 years later – at age 84 in 1973 or somewhere around there. She lived 10 years longer.

MD: When did you move to East Falls? Was it after the Service?

GB: Right after the service I got married in April of 1945. We lived in that little Veterans place – Chalmers Avenue, and then we bought a house.

MD: Before we move onto the East Falls time – we’ll go into your Service and we’ll talk about East Falls after the Service- is there anything else you would like to add about your adolescence, or childhood? Any memories of the part of the city, or about that time of life, anything you did… one thing I want to bring out, you pretty much had family dinner every night. Is that correct?

GB: Absolutely. That was a must. And you better be there. My father was very strict. Having been raised in the “old country” when we gathered around the table, we couldn’t touch anything until he sat down.  We ate about 6 o’clock.

MD: On holiday times, were there any Croatian holidays that you celebrated per se?

GB: No, he was definitely Americanized. MD: When did dad come over from Croatia?

GB: Around the turn of the century. I’m not sure I think it was around 1903.  His age was around 23.

MD: When was he born again?

GB: 1888. No, 1887. Mom was born in 1888 – she was a year younger than him. So he had to be born first. He was about 16 when he came here.

MD: How many aunts and uncles did you have?

GB: Quite a few. On my mother’s side I had about 4-5 aunts and uncles, and on my father’s side, 3 or 4. Probably about 8, 9, 10.

MD: Did dad have any family in Croatia?

GB: My father had a brother here – Frank, and a sister, Anna. Unfortunately, he lost his 16 year old sister who drowned while swimming in the Danube River. She was a little older than him.

MD: So when he came over the family was already here.

GB: His mother and father were here and sponsored him.

MD: Moving right along, so basically, the war started in 1939 –

GB: I graduated from St. Boniface in 1938, and 2 years at North Catholic – 1940. And then I went to night school. I went to St. Boniface Commercial from 1940 – 42.

MD: Starting with the war, where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed?

GB: I know exactly where I was. I’ll never forget it. I was babysitting my sister, Alma’s little girl at the time. It was December, 1941. I was 17 and I had the radio on listening to music.

MD: What time was it, would you say?

GB: If I remember, It was sometime in the morning. They broke in with a special announcement and said the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor. But having lived through Orson Wells with that thing about the aliens, I thought, uh oh, this is another one. So I got up and changed the station – again, all about Pearl Harbor. And I changed another station – again, all about Pearl Harbor. So I thought, oh my God, this is real. I couldn’t believe it, so I quick grabbed the phone and called my mother – they had it on – everybody had it on. It was just unbelievable.

MD: How far away was that?

GB: I was 2 blocks away from home but I had to stay there until they came home. But I was itching to get home because I wanted to talk to my brothers.

MD: When did they finally come home?

GB: Well Alma came home at 4:30. All I could do was make phone calls. I called my brother Gene because he was the oldest one. He was very upset. He knew what it meant. He was thinking of all of us. He said right away: “This is not going to be good for the family.”   MD: You mentioned off the record before that Gene was in the Service.

GB: No, Gene was the only one notin the Service.

MD: I’m talking 1941.GB: Joe was in the Service. He was in the first draft in September 1940 but didn’t go in until November. He was supposed to serve for one year. When they were coming back at the end of November, he was getting ready to be discharged, but Pearl Harbor happened – that was the end of that. Nobody got out.MD: What branch was he in?

GB: The infantry. It was a funny thing – we’ll go into later – I used to drive his wife up to be with him when he was at Indiantown Gap. I knew all of those guys who, later on, I was going to join. But I don’t want to get ahead of the story.

MD: So Pearl Harbor happened and you got home. What was the reaction with your father?

GB: My father was glued to the radio and we couldn’t even get his attention. He was so intent. And again, he had said earlier, when I was young: “We’re going to fight this man.”  (Continued in Interview #2) 

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Gerard Bernhardt Interview #2


Interviewee: Gerard Bernhardt (GB)

Interviewer: Michael Daily (MD)

Date: June 22, 2009

Interview #2 covers the reaction to Pearl Harbor in Jerry’s family and in Philadelphia, details of Jerry’s basic training in New Cumberland and Camp Blanding, and meeting and courting his future wife Eileen from East Falls.

MD: Last time we finished up the first phase, talking about with Pearl Harbor, so to reiterate what we talked about I will read what we have in the transcript. This is about you brother, Joe. He was in the service in the first draft in September 1940 in the infantry at Indiantown Gap. You reflected that you would soon be joining him in the service. And you said your dad was glued to the radio and you couldn’t get his attention and you knew, sooner or later, that you would be fighting Hitler. So let’s continue; I think you were coming home from work at the time?

GB: No, I was babysitting. Naturally, there was great excitement and shock with the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor and it changed everybody’s lives. My brother who was going to be discharged from the Army, was not going to be discharged, along with hundreds and thousands of other young men. In the summertime of 1941, before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, I would drive my brother’s wife to the Gap. The reason I mention this is because later on, believe it or not, after knowing all these guys are future soldiers, I was going to become one of them myself. But there is a big story behind that. My brother Joe was drafted April 19, 1941.  I was drafted April 19, 1943. The same date.

MD: But Joe, you said, was already in the Service. Did they redraft him or something like that?

No. That’s when he went in. That’s the date he went in – April 19, 1941. His number was pulled out in the draft in ’40 but he wasn’t drafted.  They took them in in stages. He was drafted April 19, 1941 and I was drafted April 19, 1943 – that’s the first coincidence. Like I said, I drove his wife up, and I got to know all the guys in Company K, of the 109th Infantry, 28th Division. When I was drafted, I went down to Camp Blanding, Florida for my basic training. When I was down there my brother Joe came down to visit me.

MD: We’re jumping ahead a little bit. So when you came home, your dad was still glued to the radio. What happened, family-wise the next few days because of the December 8 President Roosevelt’s declaration of war upon Japan? What was the reaction?GB: We were all glued to the radio to listen to the President. Not only us, but the entire area. That’s all you heard. No matter where you went or what you did, everything was about Pearl Harbor and how we were going to teach those Japanese boys a lesson.

MD: Did you know where Pearl Harbor was?

GB: At that time I knew it was somewhere in Hawaii, but I didn’t know exactly where it was.

MD: Now, this was around 4:30 and people were coming home for dinner. In your neighborhood, were people outside coming to your house or was everyone glued to their own tv sets?

GB: I had four brothers and four sister and naturally they were all there. Everyone was concerned. We all knew it would affect our family and all the young people we knew would be in the service and the girls would probably be working in factories. This was going to happen.

MD: Did you have any uncles who were in WWI, or good family friends? The reason I say that – within the next few days, were they talking about their experiences or giving you some idea – in other words, did dad or you or anybody…

GB: Dad tried to get in the Army during WWI but he had three kids and they rejected him.

MD: That’s fine, but he was kinda there during WWI.

GB: Oh yeah.

MD: So did you have any idea what it would be like? In other words, as you reflect later on in your service as a veteran, seeing Europe and everything like that, is it a little bit like – did dad or uncles or friends that you knew were in the service give you any idea what it would be like?

GB:  I don’t recall any uncles or anybody like that being in the service in WWI. My father came to this country when he was a teenager so he knew Europe, he had travel all over Europe.

MD: I forget, when did dad come to America?

GB: 1901 or 1902. Somewhere around there.

MD: So he went through the experience of WWI in America.

GB: He did.

MD: So he had a pretty good idea of what the effect on the country would be. Within the time of Pearl Harbor and against your own experiences as you coped with society, did dad mention anything that later on turned out to be right?

GB: Dad forecasted that we would have rationing and we had it. He said “Life’s gonna change. You won’t be able to drive your cars like you did before.” He talked about many things. He really had a good idea of what was to come.MD: Any impact on food?

GB: Oh yeah. Butter was rationed. Tires were rationed.

MD: Did he say that type of stuff, or just give a general idea?

GB: He just said there would be rationing. He wasn’t specific.

MD: As those events took place in North Philadelphia where you lived, then you saw… that was interesting. Getting back to Pearl Harbor and its aftermath…. Monday. You were at school on Monday; correct?

GB: No, at that time I was 17, in ‘41. I had left school and I was working downtown at the Philadelphia Optical Company.

MD: Was much work being done that day? Obviously you had your responsibilities…

GB: I was babysitting that day.

MD: No, I’m talking about Monday, when you went back to work.

GB: The excitement – lots of guys – young people – had left work to volunteer for the service. It was pandemonium for the first couple weeks. It was crazy. People were burned up – they angry with the Japanese. It is hard to believe that anybody would drive a Japanese car today.

MD: Were there any Japanese in the area?

GB: Not where I lived.

MD: Any in Philadelphia that you recall?

GB: Oh they were there, but not in North Philly where I lived.

MD: Were there any reactions to oriental businesses that you recall in that two week period?

GB: I remember reading that some Japanese people across the country, not in our particular area, were accosted and challenged and maybe even molested because tempers ran high. Especially if you might have lost somebody.

MD: On that note, about losing anybody, before we go into that ….the next day, on the 8th, President Roosevelt’s made the declaration of war so was it pretty much the same family situation – everyone around the radio?

GB: Everyone around the radio listening.

MD: What time was that, roughly?

GB: I think it was late morning or early afternoon. I don’t believe it was night time because he appeared before Congress. Radios were on everywhere.

MD: What papers were prevalent? What papers did your dad get?

GB: The paper that I remember was “The Philadelphia Bulletin.” Not the Inquirer.

MD: was the Philadelphia Mirror still around?

GB: It might have been, but we only had the one paper.

MD: You said a lot of guys were going down to volunteer. Were they being called up right away? Or were they volunteering for a future draft?

GB: Our boys were being called up right away because our boys were taking a beating in the Philippines. Our regular armies were being decimated.

MD: As you recall, from your neighborhood and work, where did most people volunteer for – Navy? Army? Marines?

GB: I think most wanted to be in the Air Force but you were told where to go. I wanted to be in the Air Force.

MD: So they were volunteering for the Army because it was the Army Air Corps at the time.

GB: Right. MD: From the time Pearl Harbor happened to the time you got your draft notice – when did you get your draft notice?

GB: I think I got it in February of that year and was called up in April.

MD: You were notified in Feb. 1942

GB: I was notified I was going to be drafted.

MD: But it wasn’t for another year then, because it was April 1943. Correct? So you worked at Philadelphia Optical from 1942, when you got your notice, and were working there at the time of Pearl Harbor. How would you describe your life from Pearl Harbor until the week before you were drafted? Did you work up until April 18?

 GB: I worked almost until the last minute. My life was very normal except for worrying about my brother, Joe, who went on maneuvers, I didn’t go anywhere. Life was quite normal.

MD: Any good friends drafted before you in the neighborhood?

GB: I had a very good friend who had a gasoline station in Southwest Philly, Bill Drybala. He was giving out gas without collecting the rationing stamps. So the FBI came in and he was 20,000 gallons short in stamps. They gave him a choice. He could go to jail or enlist in the service. He enlisted in the Navy. He went in after me.

MD: What was the time frame for this happening?

GB: I think they came in right after I went in.

MD: In between the time of Pearl Harbor and when you went in, did things change for your family?

GB: Absolutely. My brother, Bill, eventually went in the Army. My brother Bob went in the Navy. My brother Joe was in the Army, and I was going to be in the Army, so 4 out of 5 boys in the service. And then my sister Alma’s husband, Bud, was in the Navy.

MD: So it kind of mushroomed out. Let’s start with Joe and then go on to your other two brothers. So Joe was in the service at the time. What was Joe’s life like between Pearl Harbor and when you went into the service?

GB: Joe was all over the country, down in Louisiana – not Camp Polk – they took maneuvers down there with the 28th division. They worked off ship to shore invasion maneuvers at – not Camp Picket, but off the east coast. The division was well trained.

MD: So after Louisiana, he was at Camp Picket. What time frame was this?

GB: I’d say probably – 6 months training at the Gap, then he went to Louisiana for maneuvers – ship to shore maneuvers there – then he had more ship to shore maneuvers off of – can’t remember the name – off of Virginia somewhere. This was sometime in 1942.

MD: Your other two brothers?

GB: Bill didn’t go in until late 1943 and he never left the country. They used him in supplies and logistics, stationed in Mississippi. I don’t know which camp.

MD: Your other brother?GB: Bob went in when he was very young probably about March, 1945; he was 18. He was released almost immediately because my father fell out the 2nd story window hanging up a flag for the home-coming of Joe and I. He survived, but had terrible damage – very banged up.MD: So he got a sympathy discharge – a family discharge.

GB: Yeah, three of the brothers were in the service and Bob was the last one home. Gene was married with 3 kids so he was not eligible.

MD: So you and Joe and Bill were in the service. Anything you want to add before we move on to your service time?

GB: Not really, but we all were worried and concerned about what was going to happen.  We thought Joe would be going overseas a lot sooner but he didn’t go over until October 1943.

MD: In between Pearl Harbor and the time you went in, was anyone in your neighborhood killed?

GB: No. Most of the friends that I had – who I graduated and went to school with – who got into the service and were killed, were after I went in. Definitely.

MD: So there were no Gold Star families in the neighborhood?

GB: No.

MD: Was the “Bulletin” publishing any names of people dying from Philadelphia?

GB: Absolutely.  My mother saved the page when I was shot and Joe was shot 12 hours later. And he was in the paper a couple of days later and I was in the same week and she got two telegrams that same week. It must have been heartbreaking for her.

MD: Do you recollect when you first saw names related to the war in the Bulletin? Names from Pearl Harbor?

GB: You remember I was pretty busy. I don’t recall seeing any until I was in the service. My mother saved news accounts she thought I might want to see.

MD: As far as objective lists, did they start showing them right away?

GB: Oh I think so. I don’t remember the exact date, but Joe and I were in the paper pretty quickly. With a picture.

MD: When you were hit?

GB: No, for being in the service.

MD: So you got your notice in February and you worked until you went in. Where did you leave from?

GB: The Armory at 30″ and Walnut.

MD: The one in University City. Were you assigned to any particular unit?

GB: No. They took us to New Cumberland where we were acquainted with the Army, more or less. A beginning.

MD: Basic training.

GB: An interesting thing happened there.

MD: Before we get into that…. the night before you left, what was your family feeling?

GB: Everyone was concerned. My mother was so upset – she didn’t want me to go.  She thought I was too young to go at 18. I thought I was quite ready to go. I was a little concerned; a little apprehensive. I had never been further away from home than Atlantic City. That was true of most of the guys in the service.

MD: Everyone was there except Joe. Had he gotten any leave up to that time?

GB: Oh yeah. He had been home for Christmas in 1941.  He got furloughed twice.

MD: So he being home gave you a little idea of what service was like?

GB: We had big family parties when he came home because we never knew when we’d see him again.

MD: Did he give you any insight into the service?

GB: You’ve got to remember when he came home, he wasn’t married the first year. He got married while he was in the service, so he was with his girl friend most of the time.  I don’t recall talking to him about the Army because I had my own life and he had his. He did talk about the maneuvers in Louisiana – going out on boats, jumping on sand bars and stuff like that. Joe was a great soldier.

MD: So the night before, would you say the family was apprehensive?

GB: Mom and Dad, and all of us as a family, were apprehensive. My mother would go to church every morning (St. Boniface)

GB: Did you go to bed early?

GB: No, I never went to bed early – I’d be up 12, 1 o’clock. I couldn’t sleep that night. My girlfriend was my future wife. We met at 17. I felt bad about leaving her because we were young and we were in love; it wasn’t easy to part.MD: So you met her before you went in the service? I wasn’t aware of that. When did you meet her?

GB: I met Eileen in the summer of ‘42. We both worked for Exide Battery on 21 and Allegheny Avenue.  I was working in the factory – not on batteries, but doing paper work and taking it over to the office where Eileen worked. I saw her and was trying to figure out a way to meet her. I found out she worked at a movie theater in Mayfair as a cashier in the box office. So I borrowed my brother’s 1941 Hudson – brand new Hudson – drove up, and it took me over an hour to talk her into letting me take her home – she didn’t want to get in the car with me.

MD: Just to back up, when did you leave Philadelphia Optical and go to Exide Battery?

GB: I left in early 1942. They were looking for people for these jobs – that was a defense plant – batteries for trucks.

MD: When did you first lay eyes on Eileen?

GB: When I took the reports to the office. I thought she was beautiful. I’m going to marry this girl.

MD: Do you recall what month this was?

GB: You can believe it or not, but it was love at first sight. I never saw anyone so beautiful in my life. This was in April ‘42. The Mayfair Theater was at Cottman and Frankford. There was a diner there too. I told her “Eileen, you see me every day coming over from the factory. I have no ulterior motive; I just want to meet you and talk to you. And I’d be very happy to take you home. You won’t have to take the bus, then the el and train back to East Falls.” It was quite a trip for her. I remember the first date I had with her I took her to the movie, “My Sister Eileen.” Coincidence.

MD: When you took her home, did she thank you?

GB: She did, and I said “I would like to take you out.” It was a double date. She said she would only go out with me on one condition – it would be a double date. She didn’t know me that well. I didn’t blame her. She gave me her phone number. I called her the next night and made a date for the next weekend. She got her girlfriend and her boyfriend to go and we all went downtown. I had my brother’s car again – and we all went to see “My Sister Eileen.”

MD: Which theater?

GB: The one at 19 and Chestnut. Rosalind Russell was in the movie. I don’t remember the lead. They show on Turner Classic. Afterwards, I think we went to the Mayfair Diner – no, somewhere downtown, to eat. I took the girlfriend to her boyfriend’s car and they left. They lived in East Falls.

MD: And you?

Eileen gave me directions from North Philly to Lehigh, to Ridge and Midvale. The first time it was confusing but luckily I did it. She lived at 3425 Conrad Street in an apartment where the chiropractor now is. Near where I later had my store on the corner. I went from one store to the other. She was above me in the apartment in the first store, not the corner store. We dated from that time until I went in the Army. The next time we went out she was content to go out with me alone.

MD: And your second date?

GB: I think I took her to the dance at St. Boniface. St Boniface had a wonderful dance for young people every Sunday night. It was heavily attended from all over the city because it was a meeting place for young people.  They had a DJ playing LP records.

MD: Who was the best band in 42?

GB: Glenn Miller had the best band. He stood out because he had a new way of making beautiful music. I loved to dance. As a matter of fact I danced to Glenn Miller in London.

MD: Were you doing the lindy, the jitterbug?

GB: We did the jitterbug and slow dancing.

MD: So the 19th comes – How did you get to the Armory? By train?Gerry: My mother and Eileen wanted to come but I wouldn’t let them. Just put me on the el – I’m a big boy. I didn’t want them crying – I might start crying. They gave me a hard time but I prevailed. I said absolutely not. I took the El myself; it was right around the corner. I left early in the morning to be there by 9:00 am.

MD: Describe what happened when you got there.

GB: We went down there and they put us on a bus to 30″ Street where we got on a train. There were about 3 or 4 buses. We went New Cumberland to the induction center.

MD: How long was the trip?

GB: About 2 hours. It was so strange. We got out there and lined up in two lines. They called us to attention, which didn’t go over too big. So we line up and this lieutenant comes calling names out “Bernhardt!” I answered “Yes, I’m Bernhardt.” I didn’t think anything of it. He didn’t say anything; he kept on going and took us to the barracks. An hour later the same lieutenant came back and said, “Bernhardt” I said “Yeah.” He said “Follow me.” He gave me 24 hours of KP for not calling him “Sir!” Right! After that: “Yes Sir!!” I learn quickly (laughter). I learned my lesson quick and it never happened again.

MD: Any friends come down from the neighborhood?

GB: No, I was completely alone in that respect, but I didn’t mind. I was an outgoing guy who made friends quickly.I even played a little poker on the train going up. You make friends quickly; you have to.

MD: Do you still have a copy of your draft notice?

GB: No. My mother probably had it.

MD: So you get to Cumberland Gap; you get called out for KP for 24 hours. What were the barracks like?

GB: Usual barracks. All the beds lined up on one floor and the second floor. Reasonable space. Foot locker at the bottom. We were issued uniforms.

MD: What were the first couple of days like?

GB: In the first few days we got our shots, uniforms. Some guys fainted getting their shots; I couldn’t get over it.

MD: Name tags?

GB: Yes, the usual army procedure. Everything was done by the book. We were there a very short time, maybe 2 or 3 days. It was all in introductory things – lectures, what to expect, how you should treat your officers, military protocol.

MD: No maneuvers?

GB: Oh God no. I had never handled a gun in my life. It could have been disastrous.

MD: Were you trained at Cumberland?

GB: No. No training. This was all introduction – a big induction center.

MD: And then?

GB: I can remember my name being called, we packed up, got on a bus to the train station and went off to Camp Blanding, outside of Jacksonville, Florida. It was a huge place. There were about four divisions there. Huge area.

MD: How long was the train ride?

GB: About 20 hours.

MD: Did they take you back to 30th Street?

GB: No, They took us right from Cumberland.

MD: Was it a troop train?

GB: Definitely a troop train. A lot of guys. Remember Cumberland was a big induction center. We were getting a mix of men from all over the state.

MD: At that time, were you assigned to the 28th Infantry Division?

GB: No. It was a training division down in Camp Blanding. Basic training.

MD: So you were just guys from Pennsylvania?

GB: Exactly. We weren’t assigned to any division.

MD: Your first impressions of Camp Blanding when you got off the train?

GB: I got off the train and thought, my God, I’m in the middle of a desert. It was a part of Florida that was kind of arid, and not nice, when we got off the train. But when we got into the camp, it was a little better. We had the same barracks of course – no, I take it back, it wasn’t barracks, we had well-constructed tents. Not your usual Boy Scout tents. These were tents with walls on the side and a tent covering over the top, with four guys in a tent.

MD: Wooden sides?

GB: Solid sides with a canvas roof.

MD: And the floors? Dirt?

GB: They were some kind of plywood. No dirt.

MD: How about the temperature, the heat?

GB: It was hot. On some of those marches I thought I was going to keel over. I swear it was 100 degrees on some days. It was really hot down there.

MD: How were you assigned your tent?

GB: You were told where to go, when to go, how to go. I think I was in C Company. Charlie. The other guys with me, one was a hillbilly from Tennessee – Baker. He used to play the guitar “I’m Walking the Floor over You” and use to drive me crazy.

MD: He could bring his guitar? Personal items?

GB: Oh yeah; absolutely.

MD: So when you went down there, you had your uniform, your duffle bag, and your two pairs of boots…

GB: Oh yeah. We had our rifle. We had it all.

MD: Your rifle?

GB: Oh, no; we got that down there. I make friends with two great Southern boys – Jack Shedd and Frank Robinson.

MD: In your tent?

GB: No they weren’t in my tent. That was Bill Baker, I remember. Funny, I never thought about that. We didn’t stay together too long; basic training went very quickly and we were so busy all the time.

MD: When did basic training start – the very next day or was there more classroom instruction?

GB: No, I think we started almost immediately.  We started with close order drill right away. I liked it – it was fun.

MD: When did you get your rifle?

GB: We got a rifle a couple of weeks later. I don’t remember carrying one right away. We did an hour of calisthenics before our 7:00 am breakfast every morning. They were rough. Then close order drill. By lunch you were pretty tired.

MD: What about afternoons?

GB: In the afternoon, there was a lot of lecturing and instruction or marching.  We never marched more than 10 miles in basic training. When I got with the 28thDivision and went overseas, we had a 25 mile hike every Wednesday the whole time I was there. By the way, they didn’t give us an M1 right away. They gave us a 22. Actually, they didn’t have rifles to give us – not enough guns. They were shipping guns over to Russia. We got them eventually.

MD: Did they say what you would do each week?

GB: They would schedule you – you had to check the board for your Company. And then when you got out there, they would give you an M1 to shoot. We had the 22s when we were marching.

MD: Did you have weapons for close order drill?

GB: 22s. No ammo. We probably would kill each other if we had ammo.

MD: Did you have any bayonet training?

GB: Not at that time. I had it later with the 28th Division. Not in basic training.

MD: So in the third week of training you went out for weapons training. Did you walk to the range?

GB: No. They took us out in trucks to target practice. We laid on the ground. Each sergeant had his own squad because they had to be very careful – I had never held a gun in my hands before. The sergeant was good – he was a regular Army guy. He was showing us how to put the rifle on our shoulder.

MD: From the prone position or standing position first?

GB: Prone.

MD: When did you get the rifles, your M1 – on the range?

GB: Good question. We might have gotten them before. They said “If you lose it, $75 bucks.”  Up until recently, I remembered the rifle’s serial number.

MD: Did you fire at the range right away?

GB: No, they put us through motions first – how the rifle will buck, how to hold it correctly, how to aim. They put us through a lot.  We didn’t fire until the second day. We went out in the morning because it was so hot in the afternoon. I wasn’t able to hit the target for a while – I had never held a gun before.

MD: How far away was the target?

GB: We were maybe a hundred yards away, or maybe 50.  It was a big target. They would bring the target up, like in the movie “Sergeant York.”

MD: Do you remember any accidents?

GB: Not at the firing range. When we took the ranger training, right before we were sent to Arkansas, we have to crawl under live machine gun fire. Barbed wire. One boy stood up was shot in the head and was killed. He was in our maneuver. I was there when it happened.

MD: How many men would they send through there – just your squad?

GB: It was laid out over a pretty wide area. Things were going on all the time. I think they were trying to get us used to being in combat. We lost men in amphibious training and in maneuvers.

MD: Did you have rifle training for just a couple of weeks?

GB: Well, I went to the firing range at least twice. Most of the training was close order drill. We had to learn about gas masks, tear gas – General Army training.

MD: Did you have to take your gas mask off?

GB: Oh yeah.

MD: Then they threw tear gas at you and you had to get your masks back on? That’s interesting. Did you have an obstacle course you had to go through?

GB: Oh yeah. (continued in Interview #3)

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Gerard Bernhardt Interview #3


Interviewee: Gerard Bernhardt (GB)

Interviewer: Michael Daily (MD)

Date: August 14, 2009

Interview #3 gives more details of Jerry’s basic training including the types of weapons, furloughs back to Philadelphia, fate of his siblings, the overseas journey to Wales and Southampton, assignment to Patton’s Third Army – Weapons Platoon, Third Battalion, K Company, 109 Regiment. The interview ends with Bernhardt’s arrival in Normandy, France in 1944 on the eve of battle.

MD: This is Mike Daily and it’s August 14, 2009, a Friday. In the last interview we discussed your time in basic training. You were drafted on April 19, 1943, two years after your brother, Joe, was drafted in 1941. As you recall, you had just started your rifle training in Week 3. In Week 4 did they continue that or move on to something different?

GB: Basis training was mostly close order drill, some exercises where we would fall under machine gun fire. Some of the exercises were very, very, interesting.

MD: How many weeks did you have of Basic Training? Eight like I had?

GB: April to September.

MD: That’s a lot. Was that all basic training, or advanced training?

GB: Remember, the 19th I went in and spent a week in New Cumberland, so April was shot. So May, June, July, and August – I’d say about four months. In the beginning of September I got a furlough.

MD: Ok, so you did your basic training of 8 weeks, then advanced training – another 8 weeks. So you combined that – you didn’t have basic training separated by down time before advanced training?

GB: That’s right – Basic and advanced were 16 weeks. They were pressed for time; they knew we were going to invade Europe.

MD: Besides the obvious necessary rifle training you received, when you were on the range, did you fire 1903 Springfield’s or M1s? Were you trained in to fire anything else?

GB: M1s. I also fired a carbine; I fired a 45; I fired a 30 caliber machine gun. Yes, I fired quite a few weapons. I was in the Weapons Platoon. My principle weapons were the carbine and the M1 – those I was highly trained in. But I could fire a 45 so if somebody got shot you could take over.

MD: Right, they trained you to be competent on them. But you had extensive training on the M1 carbine and the M1 garand.  Did you have to qualify in these weapons?

GB: Oh yeah. We had to go out to the range and they put up the targets – yes, we had to qualify.

MD: Was that in the M1 carbine and the M1 Garand or also the machine gun?

GB: It was mainly the Garand and the carbine.

MD: Do you remember how you qualified? Marksman? Expert? Sharpshooter?

GB: I did get something but I don’t remember. I was a pretty decent shot; I qualified in both the M1 carbine and the M1 Garand. I never got to the Weapons Platoon until I joined the 28thDivision.

MD: So after this training you graduated from Camp Blanding in Florida. At the time, did you have any training in leading men in the field?

GB:  No, I was just a PFC at that point. I never thought about becoming a non-com. I was happy just doing what I was doing, being a good soldier.

MD: When you graduated, were you in your dress uniform?

GB: Yes, absolutely. I had one stripe on my sleeve at graduation – a PFC. I graduated in early September, 1943.

MD: What happened next?

GB: They gave us a two week furlough. I was to report back to Camp Robinson, Arkansas. They gave me train fare, directions, everything was spelled out – where I had to go, what I had to do. And I reported to Camp Robinson.

MD: That was after you came back from furlough. For your furlough, did you fly or take the train?

GB: Train.

MD: Did you go with other guys?

GB: No, I think most of the guys were spread out all over the country – Chicago, Florida, everywhere. I caught the train from Jacksonville, Florida, after taking a bus from Camp Blanding.

MD: How long did it take?

GB: It was about 24 hours, overnight. I was too excited to sleep. My mother and Eileen met me at 30th Street Station.

MD: Did you call to say you were coming?

GB: Absolutely. We went home and had a big party, a celebration.

MD: You were still living in North Philly?

GB: I was living on Hancock Street. I visited everyone I could.

MD: Were there any eventful things during your leave home?

GB: Eileen and I thought about engagement but we were so young. She had a little more common sense than me. I said “Look, if you want to go out with somebody, you do that” and I’m sure she did.

MD: What were your ages at the time?

GB: Both 18. MD: Apart from renewing acquaintances, did you go to any movies?

GB: I remember one picture we saw when I was home – John Garfield in “Pride of the Marines.”

MD: No kidding! That was about Al Schmidt from Philadelphia.

GB: In fact my sister Alma, and Eileen were extras in the movie. They were walk-ons. They made $15 for the day.

MD: Where was the scene done?

GB: I don’t know. I saw the film several times but I could never catch them. They were in there somewhere. I didn’t want to leave when I had to go back, but I did. You go home and you see everybody – you see your girlfriend – and you just don’t want to go. But naturally being a soldier…

MD: You had to report to Camp Robinson, Arkansas. Do you recall when you left?

GB: I left early in the morning on a train from 30thStreet. I think it was 9 o’clock. It didn’t take as long as going to Jacksonville. Seemed a lot faster. I didn’t mind Camp Robinson because when I got there the company clerk, when I was assigned to a company, got sick and they wanted someone who could type and I had gone to business school so I volunteered. They were going to go out on maneuvers and I thought “Hey, this is better than maneuvers!”

MD: Smart man!

 GB: I was assigned immediately. I’m trying to remember the name of the first Lieutenant who was in charge of the company – he was a great guy.

MD: What happened the next couple of days?

GB: We were getting acclimated – they gave us some lectures. We were told that in a few days we were going on maneuvers but, like I said, the clerk got sick and they needed somebody to type. I don’t recall anybody else volunteering so I was Acting Company Clerk.

MD: Did you have to get any more shots?

GB: No, not until I went overseas.

MD: How long were you at Camp Robinson?

GB: Not long – I was there from Sept. to, probably, Oct. because when I was Company Clerk a directive came through to all training companies to supply men to fill up the 28th Division for combat to be shipped overseas. So I typed my name right in there to go to the 28th Division because signed up because my brother, Joe, was in the 28th. A few weeks later I’m on my way to the 28th Division.

MD: How many people did they take from your Company?

GB: I think they took 10 from each of the Companies that were there.

MD: Where did the 28th Division leave for?

GB: At that point they were in Indiantown Gap. We went very early October because by the second week in October I was at Camp Myles Standish on my way overseas.

MD: Interesting. You joined a Division….

GB: When we got there we were interviewed by a Colonel and he asked me, “Son, you know that this Division is going overseas and they’re going to go into combat? You are only 18 and I can have you transferred out because you’re not 19 and you don’t have to go overseas.” And I said “Well, wait a minute, Colonel. My father was in a division in WWI. He said “What outfit?” I said “Company K, 109th Infantry” and he said “Well let me see if we have a vacancy there.” He looked it up and said “We do; I’ll put you in there.” My brother was in Company K, 109th Division. My father was never in the Army.

MD: That’s a great ploy! Boy! So you kind of fibbed to the colonel because it was for the right reason.

GB: That’s a true story. I told him “Colonel, I’m going to have to fight somewhere, sometime. I want to go with the division.” He thought that was great.

MD: And this was the very first day you got up to Indiantown Gap?

GB: It was 2 – 3 days later. I was very familiar with Indiantown Gap. I used to take my brother’s wife up to see him.

MD: But you didn’t tell anybody that. So you knew what was going on.

GB: I knew exactly what was going on.

MD: So you were basically in a holding company. The guys are coming in… you’re in a general status.

GB: But I knew all the guys in the company.

MD: Did you see any of the guys before the colonel…?

GB: No! (laughing) It was a complete surprise! You should have heard them!

MD: So you got assigned the 2nd or 3rd day. Did you go immediately? Did you have to wait for orders to be cut?

GB: No, they put me right in it.

MD: Did you catch up to Joe?

GB: No, Joe and his company were on amphibious maneuvers off of Norfolk so I was there practically alone.

MD: Company K. 109th Infantry Regiment of the 28thInfantry Division, just to get that straight for the folks here. Did you go to the barracks?

GB: I went to the barracks and there were a couple of guys there. Sgt. Murphy was there – he hadn’t gone out for some reason or another. He took good care of me and made sure I got settled.

MD: What was Sgt. Murphy’s rank?

GB: He was a Platoon Sergeant. He had 3 stripes.

MD: So how long were you there before Company K and some of the other companies got back from maneuvers?

GB: They all came back 2 – 3 days later.

MD: So by the end of the first week the company was at full strength.

GB: It was at full strength. We were on our way to Camp Myles Standish outside of Boston.

MD: Was Joe surprised?

GB: Joe was shocked. He couldn’t believe it. He said he didn’t think it was a good idea, but I thought it was a great idea having my older brother there.

MD: There were pluses and minuses.

GB: He was my big brother.

MD: The Sullivan Brothers had already been killed at Guatalcanal off Savo Island in the sinking of their destroyer. (note: light cruiser, USS Juneau)

GB: There was a directive from the President saying brothers were not to serve together.

MD: Was that a directive? I thought you could waive your rights if you wanted to do that.

GB: No, I think it was a directive from the President.

MD: Up until that time it hadn’t been an actual directive. It was a practice – I mean, five brothers – the Sullivan brothers requested that. They signed waivers to be on the ship because it wasn’t a directive at the time. It was more or less a military procedure.

GB: Well it really felt good to be with your brother.

MD: Sure; that’s understandable. So at the end of the week you hooked up with Joe – did you tell your parents?

GB: Absolutely – my parents were thrilled to death. My mother wrote to Joe saying “Don’t let anything happen to Jerry boy.”

MD: Poor Joe! Take care of your younger brother! What was Joe’s rank at the time?

GB: He was a Platoon Sergeant. He was very Army – he was real Army.

MD: Did they put you in his platoon?

GB: No, they put me in the 3rd platoon – the rifle platoon when I first got there. And then later on I wound up in the weapons platoon before we went to France.

MD: So you were in a different platoon but the same company. For the people here, a company was about 120 men roughly. You had squads of 10 men, a platoon was 3 squads of 10 men – 30 men, and a company was four platoons. Usually 3 rifle and a weapons platoon. 1500 – 1800 in a platoon.

 GB: And headquarters.

MD: So maybe 5 platoons. So between 120 – 150 men.

GB: There were 15 – 18,000 in the division.

MD: The companies made up battalions, the battalions made up the regiments. The regiments made up the divisions.

GB: Our division suffered such heavy casualty – 84,000 men went through the division during the war.

MD: Well, not only did you go into D-Day, well, right after D-Day, but you went through the Hedgerows and the Hurtgen Forest. The Battle of the Bulge was terrible, but before that was the battle of Hurtgen Forest when they actually had to call a truce to evacuate the wounded; both sides did.

GB: It was awful.  I lost a lot of friends in Hurtgen Forest. My brother’s brother-in-law got killed in Hurtgen Forest.

MD: How long were you at Indiantown before you went to Camp Myles Standish?

GB: It was very quick.  I spent my birthday, October 11 – the second night – on the boat, so we were shipped out almost immediately. We only spent about two days at Camp Myles Standish before we were on the boat. It happened so quickly from Robinson to Indiantown Gap to Myles Standish. Very quick. We left from Boston Harbor.

MD: Did you bus up or train up to Myles Standish?

GB: Train. They took all our stuff and gave us brand new equipment. It was ridiculous; the stuff was hardly used. We had all new uniforms.

MD: That’s crazy.

GB: This is the Army, Mr. Jones…

MD: What kind of ship did you board?

GB: It was a ship that had been converted. There were about 5000 on that ship but it was very nicely rigged. We didn’t have comfort bunks; we slept in hammocks. The bottom ones had some sort of mattress. I’d switch off with my brother, top to bottom. It was a freighter made into a transport ship.

MD: How low below the main deck were you?

GB: Oh we were down pretty far. We had to climb a couple of stories.

MD: How many were on the ship?

GB: I’d say 5000.

MD: Just your regiment?

GB: I would say so.

MD: The Third Battalion, K Company, 109 Regiment. You were still E3?

GB: Yes, the whole time I was in the Army I was Private First Class.

MD: How long did it take you to cross? What route did you take? Where did you touch land?

GB: We went by way of the North Sea. We had tremendous storms. I thought the boat was going to turn over. The guys were so sick that nobody was eating. We survived the storms and had two very bad submarine scares. In fact they positioned naval officers with guns on top of the ladders – they didn’t want any panic. They wouldn’t allow anybody up. If we had been torpedoed we would have been dead. And it crossed everybody’s mind, believe me. We landed at Swansea in Wales. It was close to Cardiff in Wales – about 60 miles from London. We marched to a little town called Llantwit Major.  We were bivouacked there for a whole year. We landed in October 1943 and we were there until late May 1944 when we moved to Southampton for the invasion. We did maneuvers – every Wednesday we had a 25 mile hike. We did tactics and we went on maneuvers with the 29th Division. We taught them at Barnstable. We taught them amphibious training. They used us as a decoy. They used the 29th on D-Day; they suffered 9000 casualties.

MD: Yeah, because they went in on Omaha Beach. They took a beating. So from the time you landed in October to the time you were moved to Southampton to transport to Normandy, France, you did all types of maneuvers.

GB; It was field maneuvers, artillery – firing in front of us, advancing under artillery fire, crawling under machine gun fire, taking down barbed wire, demolition training. It was pretty rough. I was taught how to blow up pillboxes (blockhouses through which to fire weapons).

MD: You did amphibious training to mirror the invasion tactics. You didn’t know what beach you were going to.

GB: We were highly trained. We had the most amphibious training of any division.

MD: Did you get any leave?

GB: Joe and I were scheduled to go to Northern Ireland on leave but the invasion happened. So all leaves were cancelled.  But we went to London twice, we went to Cardiff and to local dances at Wick and Llandwit Major. I met a beautiful girl, Wendy, and there’s a story behind that too.

MD: Do you want to tell me?

GB: I’ll tell you this part of it. When we went out on one of the maneuvers, I was sent out on patrol. And I was a scout. It was very close to where Wendy lived so I spent the night at Wendy’s house. Her mother and father were there. No hanky-panky. But I was nice and comfortable with a fireplace and Wendy by my side. Very enjoyable patrol!

MD: Were there a civilians around where you were?

GB: All over. We intermingled with them; they had great respect for us and we for them, believe me. It was generally known it was hands off (the girls). The guys would have killed you because they treated us so well.

MD: Did you maintain any friendships or correspondences when you got to France?

GB: I had no time.

MD: Did any marry?

GB:  A couple of the guys got married. The girls were very pretty, like our girls. Some wanted to come to America. So they worked their wiles too.

MD: Was there much devastation there?

GB: Oh my God. Cardiff was bombed. We made friends with a family in Cardiff. We went to visit them – they showed us an iron table that they had – 8’ by 3 or 4’ – made of solid iron, under which they could hide in case of attack. You never knew – the roof may collapse.

MD: Did you know anyone killed there?

GB: No, but I witnessed one of the last big bombs when I was in London on leave. Luckily they were bombing the east end and I was in the west end. But I saw what was happening – the tracer shells went up.

MD: Were these buzz bombs or actual German bombs?

GB: Stuka bombers.

MD: Did you see any buzz bombs when you were there?

GB: Not until after I was shot and I was on my way to leaving on the west coast – the bombs would come over. Zzzzzzzzz.

MD: So you got to London twice. Do you recall when that was?

GB: It was probably November or December of 1943.  MD: How was the weather?

GB: Lousy.  It was always cold and damp. . We had Quonset huts and very little heat. We had shower facilities. You had to carry your stuff. It wasn’t Taj Mahal.

MD: But you had running water, flushing toilets?

GB: No, we had latrines. We had a detail that had to empty it. But I was never on that detail.

MD: You said you qualified with the M1 Garand rifle. Did you do any further qualifications in England?

GB: When I got with the weapons platoon, they taught me how to use the mortar so I qualified on that. I only briefly fired the machine gun (30 caliber air cooled) to know how to do it.

MD: When were you assigned to the weapons platoon? Right away or later on?

GB: No, it was later. We landed in October, so it was probably sometime in February or March.

MD: So things became somewhat routine, you marched every Wed. for 25 miles. Did you have amphibious training every week?

GB: Yeah, there were a couple of weeks when we taught the 29that Barnstable at the Bristol Channel – I’ll never forget that because the weather was rough and one of the boats capsized and 16 men drowned.  We also lost men when we were taking the land maneuvers – a couple of artillery shells. When I was in basic training here one of the guys stuck his head up when they fired the machine gun – he stood up; he panicked. He never should have been in there. Some guys were never meant to be in combat and this kid never should have been there.

MD: You’re right. So after you were in the weapons platoon you concentrated more on amphibious training as time got towards D-Day. Did you have any scuttlebutt going through that the invasion was going to happen a certain time?

GB: Nobody had any idea.  We always thought we were definitely going to make the invasion. We were all prepped for it. We wanted to do it. We were tired of marching…

MD: Yeah, the sooner we do this the sooner we’ll get this over. In retrospect, as D-Day approached and the weather got nicer as you headed towards June, did you get any inkling that you’d be moving from this town?

GB: They moved us about the 3rd week in May (1944) to a staging area outside of Southampton, which further convinced us we were going – we knew something was up. Plus the fact that we had paratroopers all over the place.

MD: Was it the 82nd or 101st that was there?

GB: I think it was the 101 that were right around us at that point.

MD: Any more training?

GB; No, just lecturing. My brother was the gas commission officer, NCO, and gave training lecture on poison gas because we didn’t know whether the Germans might, as a desperate measure …. it was a possibility. We had to be prepared – we were well-prepared.  However, after I was in combat a couple of weeks, I threw the damn gas mask away so I could carry more ammunition.

MD: Did you study any maps?

GB: No. We were not given any kind of inside information. The officers might have.

MD: So before you got on the ship to go to Normandy, you weren’t given any of that information and I think I know why – you weren’t part of the initial invasion.

GB: We were moved north as a decoy.

MD: Were you part of “Operation Freedom” – Patton’s decoy force? (note: Operation Fortitude, codename Bodyguard)

GB: Yes, that’s right. Absolutely. We saw all the cardboard tanks and planes.

MD: Did they have you going back and forth doing little maneuvers?

GB: We were in between all this stuff. Of course Germans spies were everywhere. We were moving around marching.

MD: So from the time you went to Southampton to the time you went to Normandy you had lectures and marching maneuvers so you were part of Patton’s decoy. When did all this stop?

GB: This stopped a few days after the invasion because they wanted to keep those German tanks up there. And they stayed there because they thought Normandy was a fake and we were coming across at Pas de Calais. I thought we were too! (laughs)

MD: When were you billeted for the final time at Southampton?

GB: About a week after D-Day we were brought back. By that time Rommel knew what was happening, so they brought us back to prepare us to go to Normandy, but they never shipped us there until the 2″ of July. We couldn’t believe it. We were on the alert the whole time. No passes. We were kept on high alert. The whole stinking time we couldn’t move.

MD: Did they have guards around the area?

GB: Oh yeah. It was such a tense time. We did a little close order drill and lecturing.

MD: Any studying of objections – this is where you’re going to go in, etc.?

GB: No.

MD: So you came back a couple of days after D-Day. When did you hear about D-Day?

GB: We heard about D-Day when it was happening. There were so many planes in the sky, you couldn’t see the sky. We knew. They had 5000 planes in the sky that morning of the 6th. The paratroopers.

MD: Were you aware of all the ships that left that night?

GB: No.

MD: How far up were you in England?

GB: They trucked us up pretty far, for several hours. The Germans were observing us. They had spies and were probably radioing back. They were probably reporting the 28th Division is moving up for the invasion. The Germans were well-informed.

MD: So you’re back and billeted at Southampton. Near the coast?

GB: We were not far from the coast – we got there pretty fast – about an hour’s drive.

MD: When did you get your marching orders that you were moving out?

GB: We got our marching orders probably in the end of June. We were on the English Channel on July 1.

MD: Did you know where you were going?

GB: No idea. They didn’t tell us where we were going until we got on the boat. Before that we didn’t know if we were going north, south, east or west.

MD: But you knew you were going to France.

GB: Oh yes. We were in the 3rd Army under Patton. We just knew we were going to France.

MD: Do you remember the name of the ship?

GB: No.

MD: Did just your regiment go?

GB: No. there were a lot of small ships. We left Southampton and landed at Omaha Beach. You had to go down the side of the boat on ladders with all your equipment – your rifle, your pack on your back. That’s quite a feat. We were pretty good at it.

MD: When did you land on Omaha Beach?

GB: In late afternoon on July 2. I had my pack, my ammunition – my rifle, several clips for the MI Garand and 2 hand grenades. We were well equipped.

MD: What was the standard issue? A web belt full of clips for the MI?

GB: Yeah, but not until you got into combat. We didn’t carry that on our 25 mile hike or anything.

MD: But when you boarded the ship weren’t you armed for combat?

GB: Oh yes. We were ready to fight. I had two hand grenades, two extra clips for the M1. We weren’t allowed to put the clip in the rifle until we got on shore.

MD: So nobody would shoot anybody accidently. Didn’t you have a bandolier?

GB: No I had that later in combat.

MD: So when you went from ship to shore you only had two clips?

GB: We had to travel light because we were coming down the side of the ship.

MD: So just two clips of M1 ammo, two grenades and you weren’t locked and loaded yet – no clip inside. In your backpack what did you carry? Obviously a trenching tool. What else?

GB: The back pack carried K ration, C ration, the shovel, a part of a tent, pegs, poncho, 3 change of socks, a carton of cigarettes.

MD: Did you have tie on leggings?

GB: No I wore combat boots; no leggings. I had a field jacket. Remember it was July. It was hot but cool at night. We were dressed appropriately. I had a brown sleeveless T-shirt, probably a change of underwear and a shirt. Never had a blister.

MD: When you got on shore, what happened then?

GB: When we got on shore, somebody found a dead German rotting away from D Day. Everyone had to run to see him. Every once in a while we could hear the shells coming from a distance. The Germans weren’t that far away. We weren’t under fire – it was long range shelling. The first night we were there the Stuka bombers gave us a visit. They hit our supply truck; they killed our cook, and, being with the weapons platoon, I had the job, with a few other boys, of picking up the grenades and mortar shells – very gingerly. That was the first night.

MD: Were you on the beach?

GB: We were off the beach at the time. We were up against the hedgerows. And those guys came down so low I swear you could see them. They were machine gunners. They were trying to kill us. They were Stuka dive bombers, streaming down – very effective.

MD: How far inland did you march to the hedgerows?

GB: From the beach we marched about a mile to bivouac for the night. We thought we were pretty safe there.

MD: How far were you from the front lines?

GB: We were 4 miles from the front lines.

MD: This is the night of July 2 and that night your positions got dive bombed by the Stukas.

GB: We were to relieve the 29th and the 9thDivision, who took a terrible battering. 

 MD: From D-Day.

GB: We relieved them in hedgerows along with the 2nd Armored and another division – the 1st I think.

MD: Well the 1st Division landed in Omaha also. The 29thdid. So maybe it was the 9thwho replaced the 1st

GB: Yeah, the 9th replaced the 29th. They were chopped up.

MD: So the 9th replaced the 29th and you replaced the 1st Division. And also on board came the 2ndArmored – one of Patton’s favorites.

GB: That’s right. Those guys were great.

MD: Did you have any insignia on your left shoulder saying 3rdArmy?

GB: That was taken off only when we got to France. We had them on for the decoy. They made us take them off when we got to Southampton the first time. The keystone.

MD: And you put them back on for the invasion of France. For the decoy.

GB: So the Germans would know.

MD: Before D-Day you had the insignia off. The keystone designation was on the left shoulder –the right shoulder was combat. When you went to France you had the keystone emblem on your left shoulder.

GB: We went into combat immediately. We marched the first night, and the 2nd and 3rd days we were moving up the hedgerows and snipers started to take their toll and we were fighting right away.

MD: Did you have any company objectives that you knew of? Did your company commander say “Look here’s what we gotta do”

GB: We were briefed on specific objectives every day. We took a particular farm house which was pretty big with a huge barn. A German unit was in there and part of them were Sturmtruppen- storm troopers, fanatics, the SS, were in there. We were trying to get them out because we were hopelessly surrounded. They tried to kill a guy who had his undershirt on a branch trying to talk to them and they shot him. Luckily he came down – he did not get killed. They brought us up to weapons platoon and we used mortars – we set the house on fire – they came out shooting.  They wanted to die for the Fuhrer.

MD: Did you shoot any of them?

GB: No, I was with the mortars.  I never had to shoot anybody face to face. My brother Joe did, but I didn’t have to. He was with the weapons – those guys had it rough. We backed them up with the mortars but we couldn’t much to help them because of the stinking hedgerow. You had to go in it and do it. And to do that, they had to go into the hedgerow and 9 times out of 10 the first couple of guys in got whacked. It was brutal. I helped set the house on fire.

MD: I’d like to stop now, so let’s wrap this up. To recap, because now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty combat, so essentially on July 2 you got on the beach, you saw a dead German, you marched inland as a group, then the next few days you were in combat . You said you had limited objectives each day, but do you remember the name of a town other than the farmhouse? When was the farmhouse the objective – the first day off the beach?

GB: The biggest town I remember is Percy because we had a hell of a fight there- house to house.

MD: We’re stopping on July 3 after Jerry’s first night in France when they were bombed and had to bury the cook.

GB: Five guys were seriously wounded there, too.

MD: Did the grave detail come and take the bodies away? You didn’t have to bury them there?

GB: No. We didn’t stop for anything.

MD: Thanks very much Gerry. (continued in Interview #4)

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Interviewee: Gerard Bernhardt (GB)

Interviewer: Michael Daily (MD)

Date: October 8, 2009

Interview #4 includes hedgerow fighting in France, being given Last Rites after being shot at Gathemo, spending August 1944 – January 1945 in the hospital, and returning home in 1945.

MD: This is our fourth interview with Jerry Bernhardt and this is Mike Daily. It is Thursday October 8, 2009. Jerry, the last time we finished the interview you had just arrived at Normandy on the 2nd of July, 1944. You had seen a dead German soldier on the beach. We went over the equipment you had. You were moving inland, you had bivouacked at night and you indicated your division, the 28th of Pennsylvania, was moving in the line along with the 9th Division of the 2nd Army. You guys were going to relieve the 29 Infantry Division which came in on Omaha on D-Day along with the First Division. Those boys got chopped up pretty well on Omaha Beach. You mentioned that you were in the mortar crew, that your unit had encountered some fanatical SS units in a farmhouse and that your mortar crew hit the farmhouse and set it afire. The SS came out firing because they didn’t want to surrender and they were shot down.

 GB: True.

 MD: Basically, you said you were going into the town of Percy.

 GB: There were several little towns but I can’t remember the names of all of them. But they were like hamlets. The Germans didn’t defend them that well. They would just pull back. But Percy was a major town, a crossroads. And they didn’t give them up easily. We had to dig them out of Percy.

 MD: When did you attack Percy – on the third of July?

 GB: No, I would say it was about the 5th. We replaced the First, got our orders before we attacked the town. I was a private first class. They wanted me to go to non-com school but I didn’t want to do it. My brother was meeting with me and we were having a pretty good time. On the day of Percy, the weather was beautiful. The 2nd Army advanced in front of the tanks and we were behind them. I was in the weapons platoon so I was the last guys going in. The rifles were before us. We took that town within 48 hours. It was funny because somebody found a wine cellar, so we were going to do some rejoicing. And all of a sudden the Germans counter-attacked. So that was the end of our celebrating. We held the town and the Germans pulled back. We didn’t see them again for 20-30 miles. By the 7th of July we had the town secured.  That was one thing the Germans did that we found out: if you took the town, they counterattacked. They didn’t have much armor against us, it was mostly infantry. Our air force did a fantastic job. If they saw them in the open, they attacked. At that point, the 15th Panzer division up in Calais, was not released because Hitler thought all those beaches, Omaha and Utah, were fakes. It’s incredible that he could think that. The Germans being there for all those years had it nailed down. We had to be extremely careful because the shells would come raining down on us. I don’t recall having too many problems with mines because the Germans had to fight on the same ground we did, so they didn’t plant mines. There were a lot of mines on the Normandy Beach though. That was ground they were going to defend, not fight on.

 MD: Did you get any air support?

 GB: We got air support. The night we were bombed in Strain we thought “Where is the Air Force?” They were really working us over. After that, I never had any German air force over us. After they made that initial attack, which wasn’t very heavy really, they literally disappeared until after we got into the town. I don’t recall us losing many – not a sole in my platoon was wounded.  Snipers had to be dug out from church steeples tunnels, roofs of buildings, places where they had the advantage. They would usually let the scouts come through and pick off the leaders. The officers took their bars off. They had vertical stripes down the back while the non-coms had horizontal stripes. We got into the hedgerow country and the fighting got bitter.  We lost a lot of guys in the hedgerows because of the nature of the fighting.  The Germans had encroachments built in the hedgerows. The hedgerows were thick as this table. There were these great high hedges that were thick like trees. There was a little embankment off the road and they weren’t solidified. They had little dirt embankments that would go up and then come down. That is where they were implanted. The tanks couldn’t go there. There might be several hundred yards of clearance and then more hedgerows, and these hedgerows could go on for several hundred yards to the front. So you would go through, and the Germans would have machine guns placed at the end of each of the hedgerows – plus they had panzers.  When our tanks went up these hills to bust through, the soft underbellies of the tanks were exposed. The German had an excellent tank called the Panzer Bus. They did a number on the Sherman tanks which were inferior to the German tanks and everybody knew it. The hedgerow country was where the allies got bogged down. The Germans had such an advantage at the hedgerows because they were so thick you couldn’t see through them. We suffered heavy casualties. We dug them out but we had a hard time.  The Allies suffered up until Operation Cobra. We took one hedgerow at a time and the rifle companies deserve the credit. Those guys were amazing. They suffered heavy casualties.

 MD: How long were you in hedgerow country before you broke though? Were you part of the breakout under General Patton?

 GB: We were. I would say several weeks. In late July we had Operation Cobra. We had great advances. We were to meet up with the Canadians and the British, who were coming down. We positively captured Caen under Monty. It took a lot longer than was anticipated – a lot longer. The Germans gave a sturdy defense of Caen because it was a major crossroads.

Operation Copra was under Patton when he came over from England. By this time the army unit had broken through with the modified bulldozer type. They saved a lot of lives. It looked like a bulldozer and took down the hedgerows, machine gun placements and mortar placements. They would make a big hole in the hedgerows. To my knowledge that technology was used on a preliminary basis, not on a mass basis to prep up during Operation Cobra.

MD: Getting back to the break out – was there much action before the break through?

 GB: It was pretty much hedgerow to hedgerow. If a guy had a bead on a German they would do what they had to do to take them out.

 MD: So did you get orders that day?

 GB: Actually, my platoon, after Percy, didn’t do much fighting. Because it was hand to hand, face to face, because you couldn’t send and you couldn’t see through the next hedgerow anyway. It was up to the rifle boys to do it.

 MD: Was there any “scuttlebutt” coming down about Patton taking over?

 GB: I don’t think we realized anything about Patton at that point. Until about August 1st when he landed, then the rumors started. That was a morale booster. Everybody had respect for General Patton. He knew how to fight a war. In fact, he shortened the war; no question about that.

 MD: It’s not so much going out and fighting and killing but sometimes the toughest job is the attack and the sooner you attack the sooner you beat the enemy. That means less casualties. The sooner the attack, the sooner you get home and that is what you wanted.

 GB: Right. Most of us there were not Army people. We were ordinary guys in the Army.

MD: Citizen soldiers… Did you get news officially that Patton was now in charge? 

 GB: Well, it didn’t get down to us.

 MD: Was the 28th Division part of the main break out in Operation Cobra?

 GB: I would say so. They went all the way over to Elbe and beyond. They covered a lot of ground.

 MD: Did you get any indication of Operation Cobra?

 GB: We knew something big was happening because the 2ndArmy was with us. They couldn’t do much for us in the hedgerows but whenever we needed them in towns or hamlets they were there. We just kept moving, advancing. We weren’t the main thrust of Cobra but we were a part of it. We fought and covered a lot of ground.  After the hedgerows we went to this little town called Gathemo. There was a huge fortress. Germans were up in the trees and all around and that’s where I got shot by a sniper on August 15th. We were just there and at that particular time the Germans kept retreating. There wasn’t too much fighting. Mostly, just harassing.  The guy who shot me was cut in half by a fly-by. The tactics of the Germans at that time was mostly snipers. They were pulling back. They knew they were in trouble – big trouble. Where we were was all open area. There was always dead livestock around. I don’t know if they were used for target practice or what. They were just dead in the road. Maybe some sheep. We saw one column. The Germans were using horses and were caught in the fields by our boys. Everything was dead, the horses, the men. It was an awful

sight. The stench was terrible. Maybe about 50 or 60. It was terrible. Not pleasant.  The weather was gorgeous. No rain. Long days – 6 am until 10:30 pm sunsets. We had a bit of a lull until we came to Gathemo.  We didn’t have to fight for it. We cleaned them out.  So starting on August 15: I had just gotten up. I was trying to find something to eat. We were outside the town. The lieutenant was right in front of me and he took a bullet right in the face or neck. He died. Then they tried to pick me off, but I must have turned my head. He was trying to hit me in the head. I didn’t hear the shot. It all happened in a matter of seconds. It was only two shots.

He was a hell of a shot. He knew he was going to die. Snipers were not taken prisoner. At first I didn’t know I was shot. I didn’t go down right away. I got a hand full of blood and didn’t know where it came from. I started hemorrhaging; then I collapsed. When I got hit, it felt like a punch. After the sniper shot the lieutenant, he gave his position away and he was shot. They cut him in half.  When I went down, Father Cummings came over and gave me the Last Rites. Father Cummings was with the division in WWI. He lived up around Scranton somewhere. I couldn’t talk; the pain was incredible. Taking a breath was like someone stabbing me. They got me on a stretcher right away. The guy who saved my life, got me on the jeep which was bouncing around. I went into shock.  I don’t know how many transfusions they gave me but it was quite a few. The hospital was about 4 or 5 miles. I remember vividly being in the jeep. The medics on the ground did what they could to stop the blood flow. I got excellent treatment at the hospital. The funny part about it was once we got back to the hospital they took me off the jeep with the prisoners of war. I thought maybe I was captured.  The doctor who operated on me had lost his own son that day. He told me afterwards. Casualties were coming in all the time to the hospital.  Father Cummings was great. One night when we first got to France, before we got to hedgerow country, my company was bivouacked and somebody said. “There’s Germans out there” and everybody’s up against the hedgerows. K Company started shooting, then C Company started shooting. Father Cummings road down through them shouting “Stop shooting, you damn fools! You’re going to kill each other.” It was chaos.

I was at the field hospital 4 or 5 days. My brother came down, he was hit 12 hours after me. He came back to the hospital to see me. When they found out we were brothers they sent us together back to England. That was my brother, Joe – he was a platoon sergeant, K Company, Infantry.

Joe was hit in the arm. He had the muscle shot out of his arm. His friend was hit in the stomach and he went out to get him when he was hit. He was a big guy, 6’1″. He wasn’t decorated but he should have been. His friend lived and came back with him.  We were transported on a hospital ship out of Normandy. We were in England in a matter of hours. The channel was choppy. We were strapped down. When we got back to England the doctor told me he had every reason to believe I would recover. The hospital was in Wales. I spent several months there because my wound was quite serious. I was hit in the lung, the bullet hit my clavicle and came right through my lung. It went in and came out again. The caliber was a 31. It did the job. I was in Bristol, England, east coast. I was in the hospital from the end of August 1944 until January 1, 1945.  I boarded the ship to come home on New Year’s Day, 1945. It was a hospital ship with a big Red Cross painted on the side. The Germans did respect that and wouldn’t torpedo those ships. I had a cast for 30 days after the operation. A whole body case but my arms were free. They didn’t want me to move. It wasn’t too bad. The nurses came in and signed the cast. It was really fun. After 30 days they took the cast off. I got to know everybody.  There was one person I was enamored of, I think I married her. Her name was Betty Day. She was the English equivalent of our WACs. She worked in the hospital. She volunteered at the hospital. My brother Joe was moved to another hospital where they tried to save his muscle. But he only had half a grip and pain all his life from it. He refused to have it amputated. (continued in Interview #5)

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Gerard Bernhardt, Part 5


Interviewee: Gerard Bernhardt (GB)

Interviewer: Michael Daily (MD)

Date: November 22, 2009

Interview #5 focuses on Jerry’s return to Philadelphia after WWII, working at Philly Optical, marrying Eileen in 1945, moving to New Queen and Ainslie Streets in East Falls, having 11 children, studying Optical Lens Grinding under the G.I. Bill, becoming union president, opening an optical shop on Conrad Street, and remembering post-war life in East Falls.

MD: This is Mike Daily and this is our fifth interview with Gerry Bernhardt and the date today is November 22, 2009, the date of Kennedy’s assassination 46 years ago; amazing. In our last interview, Gerry, you had been discharged from the service. Just to reiterate, you were discharged when?

GB: June 25th 1945.

MD: And you were in your training company at the time you brought you in – you, along with other people, had been what they considered seriously wounded. You did have a gunshot wound to the upper chest near your lung, nicked your clavicle, but you recovered very well and were doing also very well in the retraining. You were 19. Then you get the word that you were going to be discharged and you were discharged. How long did it take to be discharged? A couple of days?

GB: Two weeks. I got notice the first week in June and a couple of weeks later, June 25, I was discharged – the papers all came through and we were out.

MD: Where were you training at the time?

GB: A camp in Virginia.

MD: Did you call home?

GB: Absolutely; my wife knew I was coming home. If I remember, I think I took the train.

MD: On June 25 – that was Custer’s Last Stand.

GB: Was it? That was my last stand!

MD: What time did you leave?

GB: As best as I can recall, by the time we got our papers, I probably left the camp around noon time. They provided transportation right to the train station. They had schedules for us; everything was well-planned. They really did a nice job.

MD: Was there anybody else besides you coming home to Philadelphia?

GB: Nobody that I knew. But there were thousands of guys in the camp. The guys I knew were in my training company – most of the guys were from out of state. About 20 – 30 got on the train.

MD: Did you sit with any of the guys?

GB: I might have bought a paper and just read it to catch up on everything.

MD: And the weather?

GB: The weather was beautiful. I came home on a sunny, beautiful day and it felt great. I arrived at 30thStreet station. My brother Gene was there to pick me up in his car. He drove me up to my wife – we lived with her grandmother on New Queen Street.

MD: The house you eventually bought. What about your folks?

GB: After I got settled and my wife came home from work – she worked at Wanamaker’s at the time – we got on the African Queen on Ridge Avenue, because I didn’t have a car then, so we took the African Queen – that’s what I always called it – and took a trolley to the old neighborhood in north Philly where my parents were. In those days it was quite different – it was quite safe.

MD: The 61?

GB: It was electric, not a bus, but I don’t remember what it was. We went down that evening and had dinner with my mother and father and my brother Bob. We just talked – they were so happy I was home safe and didn’t have to go fight again.

MD: It was June – the war in Europe had been over, but people were training for Japan, known as Operation Downfall.

GB: To take Japan would have been over 4 million casualties for us and 8-9 million for the Japanese.

MD: Was there a party for you or anything like that?

GB: No, we had had several parties when I came home on leave. We were pretty much partied out. I had to knuckle down and decide what we were going to do – where we were going to live. Then I found out about the Veterans apartments on Chalmers Avenue. It was right off Lehigh and 30th Street – I don’t remember exactly where it was, but it was like barracks – apartments, but they looked like barracks. So we had a little apartment there to begin with. We probably moved there in September – before we moved in with her aunt and grandmother for good. We were in the apartment for about a year.

MD: What kind of amenities did they have since they were just built? Washing machine? Phone?

GB: We had to go to a laundromat. It was expected to be temporary until you found something more suitable – a stopover.

MD: All married couples?

GB: Yes – all married couples, all veterans. It was huge – about a square block with apartments all around and a field in the middle. We had volleyball games, touch football games. It was great – all these young guys. A lot of pep and something to do with it.

MD: How far was that from Connie Mack stadium?GB: About a mile.

MD: So you could walk to the games?GB: Oh yeah. And I did.MD: Was Eileen interested in baseball?

GB: No, my wife was never athletically inclined. She loved horseback riding and she was very good at it; she did it until the children came but, other than that, she was never sports minded. She thought football was too physical and she didn’t care for it.

MD: The apartments were called…?

GB: I always referred to them as the Chalmers Avenue Apartments.

MD: Were you looking into getting a job at the time?

GB: Oh, I had a job promised me. My brother Gene was a manager at the Philadelphia Optical Company.MD: So you went back to that?GB: Yes.MD: Was Gene in the service?

GB: No, he was the oldest and the only one out of the five who was not in the service. 4 out of 5 was enough.

MD: So he continued to work there. When did you start back to work at Philly Optical?

GB: Right away. I never took advantage of the “52-20 Club.”

MD: That was 52 weeks and $20.

GB: I was making more money than that, and it just didn’t appeal to me.

MD: But it was helpful for guys who didn’t have a job yet. So you began working; when did your first child arrive?

GB: Well we were married in April 1945 and Eileen arrived in February of 1946. About 10 months later – she got pregnant quickly. We were very prolific – aw geez – 11 kids.

MD: You were there until about September of ‘46 and then you moved to New Queen Street with Eileen’s grandmother and aunt? Eileen’s mother and father were still alive?

GB: They were. Her father had gone to New England and he remarried.

MD: Were they divorced?

GB: No, they weren’t divorced. He just left and did it. Nobody ever did anything about it – he had another family up there. More children. He abandoned his beautiful family he had here.

MD: How many siblings did Eileen have?

GB: Five – 3 boys and 3 girls.

MD: Can you give the names of them?

GB: There was Peggy, Eileen and Jane, Jimmy, Jerry and Francis. Eileen was the second oldest girl.

MD: In 1945 when you married, was she 19 or 20?

GB: She was almost 21 – we got married in April and she was 21 in August. I was one month younger than her. I was 21 in October.

MD: Eileen arrived in 1946; you were still at the Chalmers Avenue Apartments?

GB: Then we moved with Eileen into Aunt Jen and Granny’s on New Queen Street in September 1946. We stayed there until Granny died in 1948 and Aunt Jen died in 1949. Then we bought the house in 1949 from the heir, Mary Kilroy, who was Aunt Jen’s sister.

MD: Do you recall what you paid for it back then?

GB: $4500

MD: Did you take a loan out?

GB: Oh yes. We didn’t have any money like that. That was a lot of money in those days.

MD: Did you get a G.I. Loan?

GB: Absolutely.

MD: From the regional office up near Wissahickon; Germantown?

GB: I think that’s the one. I know it was near; it was really great. They set us up nicely. The mortgage was only$45 a month – and I paid it off ahead of time.

MD: Getting back to Chalmers a little bit – did you have a phone in your apartment or was it a pay phone?

GB: We had a phone. We had all the amenities except we had to go to the laundromat. No air conditioning.

MD: Between 1946 and 1949, can you give us a progression on the births of your children?

GB: Eileen was born in February 1946; Jerry was born Jan. ’47; Helen was born in 1948 and Jane was born in 1949. 4 in 5 years.

MD: What are your recollections of life in East Falls?

GB: I got very interested in St. Bridget’s. At that time Father Allen, who was the pastor then – he wanted to – there were so many young people and children in East Falls, we wanted to build a new school. So Father Allen wasn’t too excited about doing it; he had his doubts. I remember having a conversation with him. I said “Father – you have the greatest guy in the world behind you; what’s the problem? I meant upstairs.” He finally decided to go ahead with it. My wife and I had one of the first money raising facilities in our house on New Queen Street. We had a bingo party. We utilized the backyard, the first floor and the basement. I had micro-phones hooked up and Joe Shirer, who was a neighbor of mine, called the numbers out. We made several hundred dollars for the new school.

MD: When was this?

GB: Probably 1949 or 1950. Summertime.

MD: Who was born after Jane?

GB: Frances. She was born in ’51; Theresa in 1953, Bruce in 1954, Mary Ann in 1957, Dolores in 1959, Celie in ‘61 and Joe in 1963.

MD: To skip ahead a little bit, you were in the house from September 1946 until?

GB: December 1963.

MD: Were all the kids in the house?

GB: Oh yeah. Eileen was still there. I graduated 8 daughters from Hallahan. And my wife graduated from Hallahan and her mother graduated from Hallahan.

MD: And you graduated from?

GB: No, remember I told you I had one year at North Catholic, one year at St. Boniface Commercial School, 1 and year in night school? I could have got my diploma with one more year in night school and I didn’t do it – and I could have taken advantage of the G.I Bill of Rights but we had all those children.

MD: Didn’t you get a G.E.D. later on?

GB: What’s a G.E.D.?

MD: High School Equivalent.

GB: No, I never went back for the final year. I should have, but it didn’t seem to affect me – I became the youngest shop foreman in the optical business. I became head of the union for 25 years, and I became head of the Opticians Society. I often wonder what I would have done if I had gotten a higher education.

MD: So we covered the kids. And then you moved over to Ainslie Street?

GB: I was there from 1963 to 1987.

MD: And that’s where we met.

GB: I had really gotten along so great with your mother and father – we had a lot in common – we had a lot of kids, we used to get together and talk.

MD: When you were living on New Queen Street and getting involved, what was your work history until you retired?

GB: I love the optical business. I worked at Philadelphia Optical when I was still in the Army when I was on 30 day leave, so I decided I was going to make it my career. When I came back, I started in the shop as a grinder – just grinding lenses. Then the foreman got transferred to a branch up in Meadville – we had two branches, one in Sunbury and one in Meadville – both in Pennsylvania – and the owner advanced me to foreman. In the summers, for about five years, I took the foreman’s place in Sunbury.

MD: When were you promoted to foreman?

GB: Probably about 1955. Before that I was just one of the guys, but I studied and learned how to be a foreman – how to set up for the other guys to do the work.

MD: Where did you study this?

GB: Under the G. I. Bill, I went to a school at Mastbaum School.

MD: Did Philadelphia Optical send you?

GB: No. I did that on my own – I wanted to advance, and I did. Then I found out how to be an optician and make glasses for people.

MD: How long did you go to school?

GB: It was night school – I did that for about 2 years – about 1953-55. Now, in 1955 the union comes into the picture. All the little shops were being organized by the teamsters. The boss called me down and said “Gerry, is there any way we can avoid this union business?” I said “No Mr. Heffner; you’re going to have to face it.” He offered me $5000 if I could find a way to keep the union out. Imagine $5000 in those days. I said “I’m sorry; I can’t do that. If the men want the union there’s nothing you can do about it.” He very reluctantly accepted it. They voted for it and they wanted it. But I decided that as long as I was going to be in the union, I was going to head it. So I ran for election the second year and I got elected and was President for 20 yrs. I never had a strike. I believed in negotiations and I thought strikes were a failure of leadership.

MD: Interesting. When did the union come into Philadelphia Optical?

GB: 1955.

MD: And when did you become President?

GB: 1956.

MD: Were there other officers?

GB: Oh yeah, there was a vice president, Andy Virella (?), sergeant at Arms, secretary – an Italian boy from South Philly. We’d meet once a month. I ran the meetings. Very orderly, though once in a while someone got out of order. They were ushered out promptly. I was President for 20 years: 1956 – 1976, and in 1976 I started my own business.

MD: Did people run against you?

GB: Oh yeah, people ran against me, absolutely, but they never won. My vice president was with me all the way. He was a great guy and very capable. He helped me quite a bit. We got along great. The secretary was related to our neighbors on Ainslie Street – the Italians – Altomare’s – a cousin. I can’t recall the treasurer. The vice president Vincent Sims (?) was with me the whole way.

MD: Did you run as a team?

GB: Yeah, but we didn’t have to run for much because the business agent was very good – a little Jewish guy. He was very clever and did most of the negotiating. We just gave him the ok.

MD: How many contracts would you say came up?

GB: We had 29 shops, all little shops – optical, dental, and jewelry. About 14-16 people in each. We had some shops around Willow Grove.

MD: Where was the Philadelphia Optical building?

GB: 221 North 12th Street. It’s still there and converted to apartments. Occupied by some famous lawyers. All the little shops are gone. Like the supermarkets gobbling up the ma and pa places.

MD: So in1976 you retired from Philadelphia Optical?

GB: I did, and opened up my own place on Conrad Street in East Falls. MD: Where I got my glasses from you all the time.

GB: At 3425 Conrad.

MD: When did you become an optician?GB: I actually worked part time in a place in Norristown where I learned a lot, and I worked with a doctor in Germantown – the name escapes me. He was an optometrist across from a gun shop on Germantown Avenue. So when they had the big riots, we had lots of protection. There were about 15 cops surrounding that gun shop. When I worked there, I had a gun in the cash drawer because it was in a questionable neighborhood, in Germantown, and, of course, I knew how to use it. And I would have used it if I had to. I worked part time from about 1956 to 1976.

MD: What made you decide to do that?

GB: Well it was extra money – all the children, a nice extra income. And I was getting a chance to learn how to do all this with a doctor’s help.

MD: Were you contemplating opening up your own business?

GB: Oh yeah. That was always on my mind. As the children grew and got out on their own, it gave me a chance to be able to do that.

MD: So essentially that was the method to your madness – you took this up not just for the money, but you could learn and open up your own business in this field.

GB: Exactly.

MD: An ophthalmologist is an eye doctor. The optician…

GB: Is a semi-professional who fits the glasses, fills the prescription that the doctor gives, and makes the glasses.

MD: And the optometrist?

GB: He also examines and sometimes does the work of an optician. He can do both, but in most cases he’s just busy examining. But he’s not as credible as the ophthalmologist – he’s limited in what he can prescribe for medicinal purposes. You’re better off going to an ophthalmologist; he’s trained to see things in your eyes.

MD: How would you describe your life in East Falls at the time when you first got the house and the children were arriving? You gave us a little of your employment history – let’s say up until 1976 when you opened your shop on the corner of Sunnyside and Conrad. That corner shop – didn’t Eileen live above it for a while?

GB: Yes she did. That’s where she lived when I met her – she had the apartment up there. Right above where the chiropractor is now. I found East Falls very clannish. Now when people came into my store they would say “Oh, you’re Eileen Lawlor’s husband.”I found the people very nice, very sociable, but they always felt you were an outsider unless you were born here.

MD: And Eileen was born here?

GB: Oh yeah.

MD: That didn’t help?

GB: Oh that did help quite a bit, but like I said, it’s funny that you’re never really one of them unless you’re born here.

MD: What did you do socially?

GB: Well, we used to have block parties in the summertime when streets were blocked off. We had great times on Conrad Street, and when I moved to Tilden Street, they had block parties here every year.

MD: Did you go to movies a lot?

GB: Oh yeah, there was a movie down on Midvale Avenue which we could walk to – the Alden.

MD: As you recall, when you first starting coming to East Falls, after you met Eileen and when you worked at Philly Optical – didn’t Eileen work there to?

GB: No. Eileen worked for the Reading Railroad when I met her. Then she got a job at Wanamaker’s. MD: Did you go to the Roxy or the Orpheum in Germantown?

GB: Oh yeah, absolutely.MD: Did you take the bus?

GB: Yes. I didn’t have a car until we had about 6 kids. When Theresa was born is when I got my first car. The boss gave it to me. That’s when my brother-in-law, Jimmy, talked me into going to Malvern. I didn’t want to go because I was trying to save money to buy a used car and he said “Go to Malvern.” I came back, and the boss called me down and said he had an extra car in Sunbury that didn’t need and he gave me the car. That’s actually a true story.

MD: What year was that?

GB: When Theresa was a baby. Around 1953. It was a gray 1950 Plymouth. A stick shift. Four door. It was great.

MD: Did the doors open from the middle of the car?GB: Yes, exactly. That was my first car. Yeah, we had a lot of fun with the neighbors – when it snowed the neighbors came out – especially on New Queen Street. And we would shovel together and have snowball fights.

MD: Who were your neighbors?

GB: Oh my God; all veterans. The guy next door was a veteran of World War I, then Howard Green was a vet from World War II. Harry Macarchick lived a few doors up. There were veterans all over the place – up and down.

MD: Did you have other friends you and Eileen hung around with?GB: Oh yeah, we were very friendly with – Claire Taylor married a guy named Ed Papernick and they lived on upper Ainslie for a little while before they moved out of town. There were four couples: Charlie and Dolores Strain, Ed Papernick, “Maje” McDonnell from the Phillies and his wife Millie. We got together all the time and did things together. And then Eileen had friends of her own which she saw because she was born here and knew everybody.

MD: How long did she work at Wanamaker’s?

GB: Only until Eileen was born, then she never went back to work. And I always believed the mother should be at home with the children. When you have children, they need you. We didn’t have any major problems – no smokers, no drinkers. We did something right.

MD: What were some of the things you recall happening in the world at the time?

GB: I was very concerned about the Korean War because I thought there was a possibility, if China really entered in any more than they did when they hit the Marines, that I would be called back to the service.

MD: Was there a chance of this?

GB: Well the only thing I had in my favor was when the war broke out in 1950, I already had four kids. So chances were slim, but you never know. A lot of guys were called back.

MD: The war finished in 1953. Did anybody from New Queen or East Falls go in the Korean War?

GB: Not that I recall.

MD: Anything city-wide? Mayors?

GB: I remember when Rizzo was elected.

MD: That was later. Who was Mayor back then?

GB: Dilworth was the one I remember. He was a good man. He got a lot done without taxing us to death. Unfortunately today Philadelphia is the most heavily taxed city– more than L.A. or New York. Tough to live in the city.

MD: Ok, we’ll stop right now. We’ll want to talk more about East Falls; we’ll have one more session. There’s more I’d like to ask about East Falls. Signing off at 6:23pm on November 22, 2009. 

(continued and concluded in interview #6)

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 Gerard Bernhardt Interview #6


Interviewee: Gerard Bernhardt (GB)

Interviewer: Michael Daily (MD)Cameraman (CM)

Date: June 4, 2010

This final interview, #6, focuses on Jerry’s move to Tilden Street, social issues in the 1960’s – 1990’s and their effect on East Falls, the impact on the community of two housing projects, Jerry’s growing family, and his positive feelings about the neighborhood.

MD: Ok Jerry, let’s get started. Just to set the record straight, this is Mike Daily from the East Falls Historical Society. The date is June 2, 2010 and I’m continuing our ongoing interviews with Jerry Bernhardt of East Falls. Before we get into the essence of the interview – since we’re pretty much on the East Falls time period – we’ve covered your post war years, starting at Philly Optical, being union steward, and moving on to 3548 New Queen Street – which would you prefer, going on from various decades or would you like to describe the history in your own words from about 1953?

 GB: I would pick it up from 1953. My wife and I continued to have quite a few children, so in 1963 we bought a huge house on Ainslie Street – 3537. The youngest child, Joe, was born in April 1963.

MD: April – that’s the month you were married – April 1945.

GB: In fact this past April, were my wife still alive, we would have celebrated our 65th wedding anniversary.

 MD: Just to reflect a little bit, what year did Eileen pass away?

GB: January of 1999. So, we bought the house on Ainslie Street and it was the settlement of an estate – a lawyer named Joe Furlong handled that for me. The place needed a lot of work – I had to put windows in, tile the floors. I built a whole new laundry in the back – tore a shed down and built a laundry for my wife so she wouldn’t have to climb the stairs. We did all these things and we lived on Ainslie Street from 1963 till I moved up to Tilden Street in 1987. I’ve been on Tilden Street ever since – 23 years now.

MD: I’m sorry, when did you move up to Tilden Street where you are now?

GB: I had the house up the street – 3311. When Jane, my daughter, moved to West Chester, I took this place over.

MD: And when was that?

GB: 1995, I believe.

MD: So from 1973 to 1995 you lived at 3311?

GB: The street has always been very quiet – it never had a lot of children on it like we had on Ainslie Street. We had almost 50 kids on that street. I don’t think there were more than four or five on this street. It’s quite a difference.

MD: You moved onto the street in 1963 – you usurped our family, which had 10 children and you had 11.

GB: Yeah, I used to come up and sit with your mom and dad and talk together. We had some great times.

MD: From 1953 on, do you remember anything that went on in the Falls that stuck in your mind? Not so much world events – was there anything going on in the city that affected East Falls, like the expressway coming through?

GB: Things were pretty quiet. We had the two projects – the Abbottsford and the one down on Ridge Avenue – and there was a lot of concern about that because a lot of people felt that one project was enough in this area. There was a great talk about trying to get City Hall to eliminate the one on Ridge Avenue but nothing ever occurred at that time.

MD: Speaking of Abbottsford, when was it built? Was that for service people or for World War II workers?

GB: Originally I believe it was for the service people – and during World War II they used it for people who worked in industry. We had Nice Ball Bearing, Budd – we had a lot of industry. They needed that housing. But then after the war it was given to the underprivileged people and unfortunately things tended to go down.

MD: Do you recall when that was built?

GB: No I don’t; it was built before I came. I would guess during the early 40s.

MD: Because across from MCP (Medical College of Pennsylvania) – the row I live in now – that was built in the early 40s, to my understanding, for WWII workers and potentially for returning GIs. What year was the Schuylkill project completed?

GB: That opened up later. They had that high rise there – I had patients there when I had my store. It was originally for elderly and retired people on Social Security but that didn’t pan out either. They moved people in there in such numbers – I understand that some people had apartments there with 2 or 3 families in them – in one apartment.

MD: Really. I do know some people – the Daltons that I was in grade school with and a few other people.GB: Yeah, in the beginning it was great, but it deteriorated.

MD: Later on there were problems with drugs and things.GB: And later on the whole thing just became empty – they took everything out of there they could take – pipes, toilet seats. They stripped it.

MD: In your opinion, when some of the, say, criminal element moved in, do you think that affected people living in East Falls?

GB: I think for a while it did and I think a lot of people moved out on account of it. Absolutely. I had some friends that left because of it.  But look how East Falls has bounded back – the house across the street sold a couple of weeks ago for $280,000 – on Tilden St.! SMD: So to reiterate, pretty much from 1953 to 1960 it was pretty much the status quo.GB: Nothing great happening that I could recall, other than people being concerned about the project and the crime element.

MD: As far as social activities?

GB: Well, the church. I ran the yearly Catholic Charities for St .Bridget – I did that several years. I called people on the phone, lined up people for collection – we used to go door to door. We don’t do it anymore – it’s done by mail now, or internet. That was a job. And a lot of friends worked at the church for the social activities – the beer nights – all these things that we had. It was a lot of fun.

MD: I recall your son Jerry was just a year below me. We had Sodality and the Holy Name Society.GB: Eileen was very prominent in Sodality and I was involved in Holy Name, but the big thing for me was Malvern. I just attended a 50 year dinner.

MD: And Malvern, is that in Malvern or just called Malvern?

GB:  It’s a retreat house in Malvern.

MD: Who supervises that?

GB: They have a priest appointed by the archdiocese who takes care of all the religious requirements connected with an operation like that, but we own it – the people that go there – the archdiocese does not own it. We own it. We have about 15,000 to 20,000 men who contribute every year for upkeep, and when they go to their retreats, they pay for their retreats while they’re there. We have a tremendous record of men contributing.

MD: When did you first start going to Malvern?GB: My first one was in 1953 – 57 years ago. I go once a year. My weekend has always been the first weekend after Labor Day. A very beautiful time and the place is gorgeous. We have so many acres of ground and a huge dining hall. Every man has his own private room; it’s really quite an experience. No telephone, no television, no radio. Fantastic.

MD: Just for a weekend.

GB: Friday to Sunday.

MD: Getting back to the neighborhood, didn’t St. Bridget have a 4th of July picnic?

GB: Glad you mentioned that – the 4th of July picnic used to be terrific. When I first came out of the Army I got interested in the Boy Scouts, so I got the little guys together, Gerry include, and I used to work out of that church on Hunting Park Avenue – St. James the Less – and I had the guys – the Cub Scouts – and trained them how to march. I actually had to do a little close order drill, believe it or not. They loved it. We used to march up Midvale Avenue in the parade.

MD: How long were you involved with the Boy Scouts?GB: I’d say about 4 or 5 years,

MD: Were you a scout master?

GB: No, just an associate who worked with the scout masters and trained the boys.

MD: When you moved into the Falls, was there a parade then?

GB: I felt there was always a parade on July 4 and on Memorial Day. We all went up to McMichael Park.

MD: Was the parade held through the auspices of St. Bridget?

GB: In the beginning the picnic was up there in McMichael Park. It was a really wonderful thing because everybody joined in the neighborhood.

MD: When they had the Memorial Day service up in McMichael Park, were you involved with any of the local Veterans posts – the American Legion or the VFW Loudenback post?

GB: That’s the one I’m thinking of.

MD: That was on Stanton Street and the one that runs along McIlvaine’s. Wasn’t it on that corner?

GB: Eveline. I believe it was.

MD: Did you get involved with any of the ceremonies on Memorial Day?

GB: I did at times.

MD: Were you ever an officer of the post?

GB: No, with all the children and all… I was pretty busy.

MD: As social things go, you were involved with church, Scouts, Veterans organization….

GB: One of the big things that happened to me in 1976…

MD: Let’s not skip ahead – so as we head into the ‘60s and President Kennedy, Eisenhower is out – a WWII general – what’s your impression of East Falls in the 60s as the world became more involved with Vietnam, drugs became more prevalent?

GB: They were very ahead of years with Civil Rights action and a lot of our black brothers here in the project – both projects – so there was a little tension with the rioting that was occurring all over the country – not only after Kennedy got killed, but especially when Martin Luther King, Jr. got killed. The country was in a state of…

MD: Turmoil, but also growth and progressive change in one sense.

GB: But East Falls remained relatively calm. There was no rioting and I don’t recall any protests.

MD: When I was growing up, it was pretty much a Christian era and everybody was open to the things going on. It wasn’t like scenes of mass prejudice. Post WWII, they had raised the kids, we were going into high school – Gerry and Eileen, who was my age – in1960 when Kennedy was the first Catholic president to be elected.

GB: That was quite a feat.

MD: In November of 1960 I remember my folks talking about that. Was there much talk about his chance of winning or losing?

GB: Well I think people were really, really excited about Kennedy becoming president. A lot of people who probably never voted Democratic before voted for Kennedy.

MD: Plus Kennedy was a WWII veteran.

GB: Exactly. That was another big factor that drew votes for him, and he certainly got the Irish vote – no question about that.

MD: I guess you’re right there, Gerry! (laughs)

GB: Funny, at the taproom at the top of Ainslie – Quinny’s – I used to go up there to get a little drink of something and they’d say “Here comes old Bernhardt!”

MD: Was there much of a celebration for St. Patty’s Day in the Falls? We did have the Beneficial Club down on Cresson Street.

GB: I used to go there.

MD: And the Italian Club.

GB: I used to go to the Italian Club too.

MD: The Italian Club was more of a social club – a little enclave for people in the neighborhood.

GB: That was pretty well attended for many years and then the members just died off. Joe next door was the bartender.

MD: You mentioned going up to Quinny’s and I recall the Catholics at the time couldn’t eat meat on Fridays, so I remember my mom sending me to the back of the bar, which had a ladies entrance – and was it Mrs. Flynn or Mrs. Casey who made those great French fries? You’d order fish.

GB: We used to get platters. Quinny’s was a neighborhood bar and you could walk and didn’t have to park. It was the best thing going.

MD: Were you involved with any of the local sports teams? McDevitt? Gerry and I played a lot of ball.

GB: Just my children. I was so busy doing what I was doing – my own work – I instituted the first grinding of plastic lenses in the country under the auspices of an optical company in Virginia,

MD: What year was that?

GB: 1967 I think.

MD: You were still head of the union at the time?

GB: Yeah, if I was going to be in the union, I was going to run it.

MD: Did the union have a number?

GB: Local 28, associated with the teamsters. I had 2 unions – Local 349 Dental Workers, and Local 28 with the Optical Workers. And I also had the Jewelry Workers but I can’t remember the number.

MD: So you were doing neighborhood social stuff with the church?

GB: We ran dances for the young people down at St. Bridget; I would chaperone.

MD: I remember that, because in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, we would have dances in the auditorium.

GB: That was good because people got to know each other, meet each other, and it would possibly grow into something.

MD: Does anything strike you about your family life, the neighborhood life, or the city life when we go through the 60s?

GB: Like I said, East Falls remained very calm – no riots or anything in the area. It was a pleasure to be living here – like an oasis in the middle of a desert.

MD: Calm in the storm. Do you think it was because people were just going through their everyday lives, or more because people were involved in the neighborhood, like people are asked them to do now? Did they do it back then?

GB: It was such a small town and everybody knew everybody, so you could more or less get something together for everybody to enjoy quite easily.

MD: Do you credit that with family life at the time – kids went to local schools?

GB: The kids all walked to school – we didn’t have school buses. You walked to church. We had a movie on Midvale Avenue – the Alden – we went to the movies. It was good living here.

MD: A little microcosm of America.

GB: Absolutely. It was a town within the city.

MD: As we move into the 70s, were there any protests here about Vietnam?

GB: No, I never saw any protest in East Falls on Vietnam. There were some in the city in other neighborhoods, but not here.

MD: What is your recollection of East Falls in the 70s?

GB: As I said, East Falls remained very stable. In spite of the projects, people didn’t panic and move out like they did in some neighborhoods in the city.

MD: I recall that’s how Northeast Philly got built up.

GB: My old neighborhood in Kensington is all black and Puerto Rican now. People just moved right out – they were afraid they would get mugged. People got scared when black people moved in but, in a way, it wasn’t fair in a lot of ways – we have to learn to live together. I’m not biased by any means. In fact when we moved to 3311Tilden, my neighbors were black. East Falls didn’t change.

MD: I went to school at St. Bridget where there were African-Americans and everything was fine. That’s one good thing about East Falls – of course every neighborhood has its element of prejudice so it wasn’t perfect but, for the most part, everyone was good. If I said certain words in my house my father would whoop me.

GB: The most amazing thing. They changed that Abbottsford project – ¾ of it is gone, but when that thing was there – one of my neighbors collapsed one night and I went down to give him some CPR, but he was dead. I came home, his wife called 911 and they came and took him out to MCP (Medical College of Pennsylvania), right across the street from Abbottsford project. A little later, my wife said “Oh Jerry, you have to go down and take his wife over to the hospital.” So I go to the hospital – I drive her over – park my car in the emergency parking, go in and get her settled. Then her brother came, so I left to come home – I was in the hospital several hours with her – and my car is gone. All that’s there is a big pile of glass. They stole my car right out of the parking lot (laughs)

MD: What year was this?GB: It was in the 70s, about 72, 73.

MD: From the early 70s maybe through the 80s, the neighborhood was getting hit a lot from drugs.

GB: Yeah, but the crime went down. With that project the crime changed – we used to have three pages of crime in the Fallser in East Falls. Now it’s down to half a page. There was a dramatic decrease in crime.

MD: From my studies, and readings too, because I was getting involved at that time with volunteer work, it was because of the drugs. And once they kicked the drugs out – before they even started cleaning the houses up – the crime rate would drop. That’s why there was a slight exodus out of East Falls in the 70s. There were some drug problems at Ridge and Midvale.

GB: The church became more active with the people during the 60s and 70s than they did at any other time.

MD: That helped ease potential tensions.

GB: Now one of the big things in 1976 was that I opened my store at 3425 Conrad Street.

MD: And the correlation is that Eileen grew up on top.

GB: It was just a coincidence.

MD: And you resigned from the union and left Philly Optical?

GB: Yes, I decided I was going to work for me.

MD: How long did you operate the shop?

GB: Until 1995. I know I opened the shop in warm weather so it must have been spring or summer, and I believe I closed it sometime in the fall.

MD: Anything else in the 70s?

GB: The neighborhood was quite stable and the crime dropped.

MD: You mentioned MCP – were a lot of East Falls’ people working there?

GB: They employed a lot of people in East Falls and when it closed it hurt this neighborhood. I think it closed around 2004, 2005.

MD: What was your impression of East Falls in the 1980s?

GB: Well most of my children got married. 9 of my 11 children went to college. 9 out of 11 married. Two are still single.

MD: How many got married in the 80s?

GB: The first 4 were born in ‘46, ‘47, ‘48, and ‘49. Most were married between 1975 and 1985.

MD: Who was married first?

GB: Eileen. She was the oldest. Jerry didn’t get married until he was 39 years old in 1987.  Outside of normal family life, going to school, getting married with all the children – a lot of activity along those lines in the 1980s.

 Also, we planted those trees on Midvale Avenue from the railroad going down in the late 1980s. They formed a volunteer corps of people to take care of them.

MD: Were you involved in Tree Tenders?

GB: No, I forget what I was involved in then besides my shop. I was still involved with church and Malvern.

MD: What about the 4th of July parade?

GB: That stopped. I don’t know why it stopped. I don’t recall it after 1980, 81. We may have changed priests – the pastor had a lot to do with that parade. At that time it was probably Father Murphy. Father John Cartin may have still been alive – I used to watch him walk past my store.

MD: He was Pastor Emeritus at that time. What about the St. Bridget picnic? That always used to be after school got out. When did it stop? And the dances?

GB: That’s interesting. They stopped too. I imagine the pastor didn’t want to do it.

MD: That would have been Father Cartin.

GB: Well it depends. If you get a real conservative priest, they don’t want to get involved in all that social activity. Their job is spiritual.

MD: So true. So before we move on to the more recent 90s, anything else about the 80s?

GB: Pretty quiet. We were doing family business all the time – school, weddings, and social activities.

MD: Were you doing any traveling with Eileen?

GB: I went to my reunion every 2 years from WWII. Company K. We started with 55 guys in 1955 – we went every 2 years all over the country – I must have visited at least 30 states. The last one was held in Portland, Oregon in 2004. We started doing it every year around 1994 because the guys were dying off.

MD: So Company K, 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania – the “Bloody Bucket” (note: named for the shape and color of its keystone insignia)

GB: There’s only seven of us left.

MD: In the Division or your Company?

GB: My Company. There was a Regimental Reunion that we also attended.

MD: Tell us about your grandchildren.

GB: Eileen got married when she was about 20 and had a child about a year later. Born in 1946, married in 1966, she had a baby girl a year later, in 1967. I have 24 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren. They’re all pretty young. I would guess the oldest is Helen’s daughter Missy, who has a child about 6 years old.  All are 6 and below. The first one came around 2004.

MD: The 1990s – I know that’s when Eileen passed on, but overall, in the Falls and in your family life…

GB: I can’t recall. The most upsetting thing was that I lost my wife. That was devastating to me and I’ve been without her now for 11 years. It hasn’t been easy but my family is keeping me alive. The big thing was that in the beginning of the ‘90s she started a school for the underprivileged. She went over there and got permission for the use of rooms and certain areas – they would have little picnics for the children – they brought them in from North Philadelphia and taught them different things. She had 2 teachers working with her who volunteered their services. This was late 80s or early 90s.

MD: Was that through St. Bridget or the Archdiocese?

GB: No, she did that on her own. She got permission from Ravenhill. They bussed the children in. They were young – 1st, 2nd grade.

MD: Anything else in the ‘90s?

GB: We were very busy with family life – my daughter Helen was a professional singer; she sang over at the Marriot. When my wife gave up that school for the underprivileged after 3 years, she took over the cloak room at the Marriot on City Line Avenue. Helen sang there. She sang all over the country – Chicago, New Orleans – for four or five years in the ‘90s.

MD: The other kids?GB: All my sons are lawyers. Gerry didn’t go back to school right away – he had to be in his mid 30’s when he went to Drexel. He had a tremendous law firm downtown. Joe graduated from Bucknell in the 70s and went right to Villanova Law School around 1976. Bruce went to Temple and got his degree in between Gerry and Joe.

MD: Where are they practicing?GB: Jerry had his own law firm downtown, Bruce worked as a lawyer for AT & T, Joe worked with Gerry as a Junior Partner but he left and is working with Geico insurance. He works for Warren Buffet and said he’s the most generous boss. Treats people well.

MD: Let’s talk about the 2000s.

GB: People were concerned about the year 2000, as you recall – what was going to happen…

MD: Computers were going to crash!

GB: I wanted to mention that our library here in East Falls has really been fantastic. I had my card for many years, but after my wife died I didn’t keep it up – I let it go. But I patronized that library quite a bit. I love to read. And like I said, other than the church, I was never involved in a lot of the activities in East Falls that occurred, but East Falls was a very nice place to raise a family.

MD: So you were most heavily involved in the church.

GB: Exactly.

MD: As we head down to our last few minutes, any other comments about East Falls?

GB: If anybody were to ask me about coming here to live, I would recommend East Falls very, very much. Very highly. I feel it’s very friendly, it’s safe, it’s a nice place to live. For transportation you can go anywhere – you can get on the Schuylkill Expressway and find yourself on the road to wherever you want to go. You can go down the expressway and pick up 95 – you can just go anywhere.

MD: Anything you recall about growing up in North Philly before you went into the service? Would you access that? Happy?

GB: Absolutely. In those days we didn’t have television, so in order to have a good time you were out there playing sports. It’s so sad today when the kids come home the first thing they do is turn on the boob tube and watch cartoons and all kinds of nonsense. That’s why so many children are obese; they don’t exercise. We didn’t have time for that – we were out there playing basketball or doing something.

MD: And you mentioned before that home life centered around the dinner table, then after that, homework and radio.

GB: The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Lum and Abner, Joe Penner. It was a good time to be living. People in the summertime came out and would talk to each other, sit on the steps, have a glass of soda, bottle of beer.

MD: This was just getting past the Depression – Civilian Conservation Corps.

GB: My brothers were in the CCC. Then the war came along and changed everything.

MD: Your recollections of the service before you went into combat?

GB: When I first went in the service I was extremely homesick. I had never been further away from home than Atlantic City and probably that was only two times in my life.

MD: And now you’re down in Camp Blanding, Florida.GB: Among a bunch of guys I don’t know. I thought “What am I doing here? I’m going to be trained to kill people? I don’t want to kill anybody.” It was a dramatic change, but after about two weeks and a couple of poker games, forget it! (laughs) I’m a different person! It was an incredible change.

MD: Did you feel your personality changed? GB: I enjoyed the service; I loved close order drill and when I was being discharged, I didn’t want to be discharged. It was on order of the President.MD: Now, adaptation to the service, was that because of how family life was, neighborhood life?

GB: I can answer that in one sentence: General Omar Bradley said that he thought that the Catholic young men were the best soldiers because they had discipline. That answers it right there. We could accept discipline because we had it in school.

MD: We went over your service life, but just for a composite, as you got your orders, and this is approximately after D-Day happened and you were part of the fake army and you had fake patches on and you’re going to embark to France, what were your feelings about the service at that point? Were you scared all the time?

GB: No, I think we were frustrated because we thought we were going to make the invasion. We had the most amphibious training as a division in the ETO at that point. We trained the 29th at Barnstable, we knew those guys, and I was astounded when they used them because as far as I know they only had about 3 -4 weeks of amphibious training. They did it to draw off the German tanks.They thought we were going to go into Calais – the shortest distance.

CM: So did you go into Normandy or did you go in afterwards?

GB: We went in to Normandy July 2, 1945.

CM: You were both in the Army and I wasn’t, so I was wondering if you could try to draw a picture for someone like me, in my generation who hasn’t experienced that?

GB: We were loaded up. We came back down to Southampton again; they loaded us onto boats. We were going over (to France) and we had two alerts going over in the channel. We were playing pinnacle and everybody was rushing on deck with life rafts and we just played pinnacle the whole time because I couldn’t swim and thought I’d die anyhow.

MD: The attitudes of your friends and soldiers going to France – you didn’t get your vests on and this was a submarine alert – were you thinking the hell with it?

GB: We were so tired of training and waiting for this thing to happen. We were ready to fight. We went down the side of the boat like you see in the movies and the waves were coming up – you had to make sure you were hitting that boat – that LST down there (landing ship, tank)  that was waiting for you down there – if you missed it, you had your rifle and pack and you could drown.

MD: Did anyone fall in and drown?

GB: I don’t recall anyone falling. We were well-trained.

MD: Most of the guys with you, obviously they were scared?GB: They were all older than me – I was the youngest guy in the Company. I don’t think we were scared until we really got into France and the first night we were there we were bombed.

MD: By Stuka bombers.

GB: We got damn scared.

MD: So now you’re in the real world.

GB: That’s right. Everybody was gung-ho – “Let’s get ‘em!” I was 19 and I thought “Hey, I’m immortal. Nothings gonna happen to me!” and then a couple of my friends got shot and killed and what a sobering effect that was.

MD: Was that the first couple of nights or later?

GB: The first night our cook was killed and several guys were wounded and they hit the ammunition truck.  I was with the mortars and machine guns platoon, and I had to help pick out the mortars and the grenades (laughs) but you do what you have to do. You know, it’s amazing what you do in the fire fights – once you get a hold of yourself, you control it. You have to control your fear. You must control it.

MD: You became involved in Operation Covert, which was the breakout – what were you and your friends thinking? Were you scared all the time?

GB: I don’t think we were scared all the time, but when you were actually fighting and exchanging fire, you’re scared. If you’re not, you’re crazy (laughs)

MD: This is when training takes over. You can be scared but you’re focused.

GB: Absolutely. When they say “Gerry, bring the shells up” I’m there. I don’t care – bullets or anything else. If you need the shells for the mortar, I’m there.

MD: You know you have a job to do – not so much to protect yourself, but to protect your fellow comrades. And to me that’s the driving force when you’re in battle – to protect your comrades.

GB: We lost a lot of guys, but it was tough fighting – the Germans had such an advantage – they were dug in. The scouts would be probing the hedgerows and the Germans would open fire.

MD: Plus they had snipers in the hedgerows.

GB: Oh yeah. The snipers were not taken prisoner.

CM: You got hit by a sniper in hedgerow country?

GB: We had just come out of the hedgerow country.  I was down on the peninsula – a little town called Gothemo. I went back in 2008 to see where I got shot. At the place where I got shot, at the time, there were a bunch of trees, a big orchard. The sniper was up in a tree. He aimed for my face and my head – he was going to take me out, but I turned and the bullet went here in my collarbone and went right through my right lung and out the back.

MD: And that’s right after he killed your lieutenant.

GB: That’s right. He killed the lieutenant in front of me. Then my friend literally cut him in half with a BAR (Browning automatic rifle). They found him; he died. Unless the guy would come down with his hands up, they shot him.

MD: Did you get over for any of the anniversaries – like 2004, the 60th Anniversary?

GB: No, I never did that. My son Bruce, who also served in the Army, took me back in 2008. We went down the whole area where we fought through – Percy, St. Lo, and all that fighting.

MD: You retraced your steps of the 28th Infantry Division?

GB: Absolutely, and the people were magnificent. They gave us wine when they found out I was a World War II veteran, oh my God!

CM: I don’t mean to be morbid, but when you were shot, what were your thoughts?

GB: I was never out; I was never in shock.


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