NAME: Brigadier General Henry G. Pitt, US Army Reserves
TIMEFRAME: World War II
Henry George Plitt was born in New York on November 18, 1918, two weeks after the armistice of World War I. As a young man, Plitt originally planned to practice law, but after earning his degree from St. Lawrence University School of Law, he joined the military. His change of heart was caused by world events that affected him in a personal way.
Just before World War II broke out, Plitt’s parents were involved in the effort to rescue their relatives from Germany. When they arrived in America, they told heartbreaking stories about how the Jews in Europe were being persecuted and how their businesses were destroyed. In an interview years later, Plitt explained how their words sparked his resolve to enlist:
When I heard their stories about what was going on, I made up my mind that one man was responsible for all this, and his name was Hitler. Somehow or other, I just wanted to kill him. Now that sounds terrible in the light of today’s world. But at that time when I heard those horror stories, you couldn’t do anything but want to destroy this person who was responsible for it.
During the war, Plitt served in the rank of Captain in the 502nd Parachute Regiment, a regiment of the celebrated 101st Airborne. That unit was the first to land in Occupied Europe, with the first parachutist landing at 00:15 on 6 June, 1944, and CPT Plitt not far behind at 00:20. As the 502nd plowed its way through the continent, Plitt fought bravely with his men—eventually being awarded two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, four Purple Hearts, the Croix de Guerre and the Dutch Orange Lanyard of the Military Order of William—a remarkable haul of ribbons.
In 1944, Plitt returned to the US as a war hero, where he was sent on speaking tours at war rallies to raise funds for the war. But he was itching to rejoin the fight, and soon he was redeployed to the advancing Army.
When his unit initially set out through the region, Plitt saw groups of strange people wandering the Alps, but he didn’t recognize the stripes on their uniforms. He recalled thinking, “What is this? They got another army here that we don’t know about?” It was only when his unit of paratroopers stumbled onto a camp that he realized these people were actually Jewish survivors who had escaped from concentration camps after the SS guards had fled. The Americans were entirely unprepared for what they found at Dachau. “That’s a moment that will live forever,” Plitt remarked. “It was a horrible sight and I will never forget it. We saw the huts they lived in, the furnaces they were burned in. The people were sitting on stoops and on the ground. Their bodies were totally emaciated and their legs were swollen.” he paratroopers were deeply affected by the scene. “No matter who you were or what your religious background was, it was going to plague you,” Plitt said.
With victory in hand, now-Major Plitt volunteered for duty to find hiding Nazi officials, he soon bagged some of the most loathsome Nazis, including former German Labor Minister Robert Ley, Karl Olberg— known as the Butcher of Paris, and the infamous Der Sturhmer editor Julius Streicher. The latter was captured due in part to a surprising twist of the tongue. In Plitt’s own words:
“We also got a tip that there was a high-ranking Nazi living in the town of Waidering in Austria and his name we didn’t know. I thought it was Heinrich Himmler from the description, but I didn’t have a jeep of my own and I didn’t have an interpreter of my own at the time, so I borrowed another guy’s jeep and his driver and the three of us went up the hill to this house. I entered, my .45 in hand, and I went upstairs. There was a man sitting on a chair with an easel to his right painting the Alps opposite him, and I asked him his name and he told me, ‘Joseph Seeler.’ I said, ‘Where’s your identification papers?’ He pulled out an identification paper made out to the name of Joseph Seeler. Now it didn’t hit me quite that fast that this was Julius Streicher, and I began asking him things about Himmler, because I thought I had the wrong guy. He said he knew nothing about politics—he was a painter. He knew nothing about anything that had to do with what I was interested in. And then, I don’t know why I said it, but I said, “And what about Julius Streicher?” And he said: “Ja, der bin Ich—that’s me.” Now we had no further interrogation. In the car, in the jeep on the way, he and I were in the back. I had my gun riding his ribs so nothing was going to happen there. He wasn’t going to jump out or commit suicide or anything. When I got to headquarters at Bertchesgarten, as he was getting out of the jeep, I booted him a little bit, so that accelerated his departure…”
After Plitt brought Streicher in, members of the press gathered. A reporter turned to Plitt. “You know, you just killed the biggest story of the war,” he said. “Could you imagine if a guy named Cohen or Goldberg or Levy had captured this arch anti-semite?” Plitt asked the reporter why. He said, “Because a Jew would have done it.” To which Plitt responded, “But I’m Jewish!” Instantly, he was mobbed by the group of reporters, and the story was reported widely.
While settling back into civilian life, Plitt entered the movie industry, initially as a pencil pusher but eventually working his way up as an executive at Paramount Pictures and ABC in New York. He used his sharp business sense to develop the largest chain of independent theaters in 21 states. Later, he rejoined the Army Reserves, eventually rising to the rank of Brigadier General.
Plitt’s generous nature led him to becoming a major philanthropist. He supported many organizations, Jewish and otherwise, including United Cerebral Palsy, the IDF, and Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1991.
When asked about his wartime experiences, Plitt would turn introspective. “One person can make a big difference,” Plitt told an interviewer in 1992. “The words that are used in Israel to this day, which should be a key phrase for all of us, Jew and gentile alike, are the words ‘Never again.’”
Brigadier General Henry Plitt passed away in his home in Beverly Hills, CA, on January 26, 1993.
Originally published in the Three Weeks 5782 Jewish-American Warrior