Lt. Col. (Ret.) Sam Sachs was born during World War I and served as a commander in the 325th Glider Infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II. He landed by glider in Normandy on June 7, 1944, D-Day plus one, and in the Netherlands in September 1944 during Operation Market Garden.
This following is based on a Zoom interview conducted between Lt. Col. (Ret.) Sam Sachs and Command Sergeant Major Samuel Yudin for the 2020 Veterans Day Program by the Alpert Jewish Community Center of Long Beach and the Jewish American Military Historical Society.
Growing Up in North Dakota I grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota during the 1920s and 30s. Life was very different then, much simpler. We attended an Orthodox synagogue, and I remember the rabbi, Rabbi Benjamin Papermaster. He looked like he came from another world. I was impressed by his long robe, silken cantorial cap with its tassel on top, and beads that touched his forehead. He also served as a shochet and butchered chickens that people brought him. On Friday night and Saturday morning, everyone would dress up in their best clothing to go to the synagogue. I wore my good shoes and knickers that reached just below the knees. The synagogue was a two-gallery building, quiet and very orderly. The men were downstairs with the boys; the girls and the women were upstairs.
During the week, when my regular schooling ended around 3:00, I would go to cheder to learn Hebrew. It was a one room schoolhouse in a small building, located on Second Avenue behind some railroad tracks. I was a good student, focused on my learning, and felt I had all the knowledge that one could have as a young child in the Hebraic religion.
There was a bit of anti-semitism; but I never forgot my roots. I think it made me a better person and made me try harder, because I wanted to show that I was just as good as the next person. That forced me to work not at 100%, but 110%.
Joining the Military: When I was 17, I said to myself, “When I grow up I want to be somebody.” There were two avenues I wanted to pursue: get a college education, and become an Army officer. I don’t know why I wanted to be an officer—World War II was a long way off—but I felt that force guiding me. Within a week of graduating high school I joined the North Dakota National Guard.
At university, I joined the ROTC between my second and third year of school. During my third and fourth year I went for training at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. When I graduated in May 1936, in one hand I held my diploma, a business degree from the University of North Dakota, and in the other I held my Second Lieutenant’s commission. It was eight years before World War II. On my first tour of duty in the summer, we went to train at a place called Devil’s Lake in the central part of the state. I remember our machine guns were pulled by mules and the person in charge of it was called a mule skinner.
I was called to active duty on October 1, 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor. I went to Fort Benning, Georgia for refresher training when President Roosevelt declared war against Japan. We were in the stands when I heard his voice declaring war on December 8, the next day.
Remembering D-Day in Normandy: I was head of a logistics company that dealt with supplies and munitions. We had lots of trucks, and these men were truck drivers. As the liaison officer between the Air Corps and the glider troops that were to land in Occupied Europe, I selected landing sites for the gliders. We went through a routine of making clay models of the whole area and briefing officers and non-commissioned officers.
I’ll take you back to Normandy that day in June, some 76 years ago. I remember it like it was yesterday, and I remember the force that guided me that day. The glider had no motors, so we were pulled by an airplane. Sitting in the glider with eight other men, I told them, “We will not be taken prisoner!” They knew I was Jewish. Before we left I told them, “You don’t have to come with me. I’ll put you on another glider, no harm done.” But every one of those men stayed with me. We crossed the Channel, and as we flew overhead I could see all the ships disgorging men from what looked like nothing more than tin cans. They had 20 – 40 men in each of them, and they were put off the boat maybe six feet from the shoreline.
The Germans had already laid iron barricades across five or six miles of the shoreline, crisscrossed with barbed wire. So the men had to get off the ships in five to seven feet of water. Many of them drowned before firing even one shot because they were so heavily loaded. They had two days’ worth of supplies, food, and a foam or rubber mat for sleeping. They also carried their guns, extra ammunition, and hand grenades. The extra weight may have been around 50 pounds. If anyone was lucky enough to get past the barricade, the Germans had a machine gun nest 50 yards up the shoreline, so they had to get through that as well.
I came in on Utah Beach with the Airborne troops. These beaches further up were vertical cliffs, 150 feet up in the air. At the top of the hill the Germans had cement bunkers, three to four feet thick. Prior to the invasion, the Air Force had tried to knock these things out but they couldn’t.
So imagine getting out of the boat, facing the barricades right at the shoreline, attacking 50 yards up the shore if you wanted to get inland to the German nests, and then this cliff 150 feet high where the bunkers
sat. Once a soldier managed to get to the bunker they would go around the side and slip a hand grenade into the eye slits of the bunker, which faced the beach. When the grenade exploded inside, hopefully you could then dismantle that particular bunker. The Rangers attacked those cliffs not during the daytime, but at dawn. I have tremendous respect for those guys.
As our glider approached the beach for a landing area, I heard all kinds of bullet sounds whooshing by. When you’ve been in combat long enough, you get a feel for the different kinds of weapons that are used against you. These were 50-caliber machine gun bullets and slugs, and the difference between the two is this: A bullet goes 750 feet per second, and the slug goes a little slower. But if the bullet strikes a vital organ, you’re done for. If it doesn’t, then you have a chance, if it goes through the body or lodges in a place that is not quite so dangerous. The slug is a heavier thing—it travels 600 feet per second—but once it lodges in the body it has a tendency to stay there. Consequently, a person could bleed to death because the metal expands inside the body and causes more bleeding.
So bullets were fired at us as we came in at a height of 600-700 feet, and we had to get down as quickly as possible. The longer you are in the air, the more of a target you are for the enemy. As all this firing was going on, I said, “How can they not miss us?!” But miss us they did, and when we landed I checked the glider and saw we had one bullet hole in the wing. Only one bullet hole after all this mayhem!
Fortunately, the area we landed in was very quiet. There were no German soldiers there—it was fairly peaceful for a wartime situation. Seeing this as I checked the glider, I took my helmet off, placed it over my heart, looked up at the beautiful blue sky—it was a gorgeous day— and said, “Thank you dear G-d, thank you!” with a tear in my eye. Even now I can’t get over the emotion. Seventy six years later I still feel it.
We started with 3,000 men and wound up with 1,000. We had 125 officers and ended with 25. This shows you the amount of casualties involved in a situation like this. War is hell, believe me.
I went back to Normandy for the 50th anniversary in 1994. I looked at the ocean and thought, “What a difference 50 years makes!”
Liberating a Concentration Camp: Contrary to popular belief, the Germans had innumerable concentration camps. Our unit actually liberated one—a tiny camp, maybe the size of one square city block. It was surrounded by barbed wire 12 feet high. The camp was fairly new—I could tell because the wood looked like it was still fresh; some of the corners of the buildings were still just turning brown from green saplings.
The guards had left about 24 hours before we got there. We saw some kids running around, teenagers with striped prison-like suits on them. I remember seeing a woman who was totally out of it. They didn’t know whether this was really liberation or not, because they were afraid the Germans had opened the gates just to taunt them and play games with them. Their skin was shriveled like the skin of an 80 or 90 year old person. Walking further into the camp, I saw a latrine with a pile of what looked like carved wood. But as I got closer I realized this pile was actually made up of human bodies at least 10 or 12 feet high—the skin on the bodies had eroded, making them look like logs.
When we got further into Germany, we could see the faces of the German people. They had to have known what was going on, but it didn’t look like they felt sorry. You could still see the hatred. We occupied an apartment and found instruments of torture buried in the ground nearby. The Germans knew what was going on.
Last Thoughts: After my service I became a high school teacher and taught for 32 years. I could tell you a bit about longevity. We all make choices, down to the basics of food. I have been asked many times what the secret to life is. There’s more to it than this, but here’s what I recommend in very bare terms:
• Be moderate in whatever you do, especially eating and drinking. The knife, spoon, and fork kill more people than alcohol and drugs. Obesity is a problem in this country!
• Exercise! Keep the body moving even if it’s only walking. I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours exercising, lifting weights, walking, running, and this is what’s keeping me going.
• This is the most important: Handling stress. Everyone has stress—it’s there, and we have to live with it every day.
I’ve had to make many decisions about life to survive 105 years. And who helped me? That force I mentioned earlier, G-d. Folks, if you doubt there’s a G-d, believe me, somewhere there is one. I have been most fortunate to reach the age of 105. I have always felt this force guiding me in a certain direction, and I always seemed to have picked the right path. I don’t believe it was just luck or an accident. Even now I feel that there’s a force guiding me in everything I do. It’s unexplainable. It makes me humble, and all the fancy words in the world can’t change the feeling one has about it.
Originally published in the Purim 2022 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.