Norm Waldman has the distinction of being a D-Day paratrooper, a survivor of the Dresden firebombing, and a veteran of the Ukrainian Red Army. His story began when he joined the army in 1943 at the age of 18. He volunteered for the airborne for the extra pay. He jumped from a C-47 behind enemy lines in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, D-Day, fought for four days before being captured on June 9. He attempted an escape, only to be caught and returned to prison.
A good German speaker, Norm volunteered to serve on a POW labor crew in Dresden, which had been untouched by the Allied bombing campaign. He was there, in a bomb shelter, on February 13-15, 1945 for the firebombing of the city. Nearing starvation, he was marched hundreds of miles into Czechoslovakia, where a Ukrainian tank battalion liberated him. For the next six weeks, Norm fought in a machine gun squad with the Ukrainians until he came close enough to American lines to make an escape. He was awaiting shipment back home to train for the invasion of Japan when he heard about the Japanese surrender. He’d survived the war. But the memories and some scars remain.
Our work often takes us to retirement communities across the Greater Pittsburgh area where we meet with veteran residents and record their stories. Sometimes while on-site, veterans from nearby communities stop by our location and sit for an interview, as did Norm Waldman during a bitterly cold February 9, 2013.
On this day, reserve soldiers from the 354th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment joined us to interview several veterans. “These stories told today let my soldiers see the hardships earlier generations experienced during combat and compare it to their own experiences,” said Capt. David Zuzak, commander of the 354th MPAD. “The training today provided them an opportunity to work with their equipment and forced them to process the information for a quality product that will be seen by the public and archived in The Library of Congress,” said Zuzak. “Training like this gives them the full-spectrum of what is expected from being a public affairs specialist in the U.S. Army Reserve.”
Norm Waldman joined the army in 1943 at the age of 18. He volunteered for the airborne because it promised extra pay. The men of his 82nd Airborne Division were a swaggering lot, and Norm fit in well. He jumped from a C-47 behind enemy lines in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, D-Day. It was a low altitude jump, only 700 feet, giving Norm just enough time to see the men landing before him wounded in fiery explosions. The field below them was mined. Norm tugged his parachute’s cables toward a hedgerow. “I figured there was no way the Germans would mine a hedgerow,” Norm explains. He was right. Norm landed in prickly mass of brambles, but otherwise, he was safe.
Norm realized that his entire battalion had landed twenty miles off target. His airplane’s pilot had dropped his human payload too early. His battalion was surrounded. Its mission had been to capture a bridge that linked German reinforcements to the beaches at Normandy. “I never saw that bridge,” Norm recalls.
For three days, Norm’s machine gun squad fought off the Germans. A German potato masher grenade killed one man in his squad and blinded another. On June 9, the noose tightened to within a few dozen yards. Enemy soldiers pointed their rifles, and Norm and the rest of the men of his battalion surrendered.
An odyssey of railroad journeys and long marches to various prison camps began. He studied the German-English vocabulary book he’d been issued before jumping. He picked up the language quickly, and a German guard took note. “Would you like to work on a crew building housing?” the guard asked. “You’ll earn POW wages.” Norm agreed and was sent to Dresden to build housing for German refugees who’d been “de-housed” by the Allied bombing campaign.
Norm was in a bomb shelter just outside Dresden on February 13-15, 1945, when the RAF and the USAAF firebombed the city. The resulting firestorm suffocated those within the ring of flames that utterly destroyed the city. Norm emerged from his bomb shelter to an apocalyptic landscape. The blackened city harbored tens of thousands of corpses. Norm and the other prisoners, which included future author Kurt Vonnegut, were put to work finding and stacking the bodies.
Food was scarce. “We were given 30 minutes a day to scavenge. We pulled grass and weeds to boil and eat. We kept the windows of our barracks open to catch stray sparrows. When we caught one, we ate it raw, bones and all. The protein kept us alive,” says Norm.
In March, hundreds of prisoners, Norm included, began marching southeast into Czechoslovakia. They marched for weeks, stopping to sleep in barns and commandeering any food they could find. One day, their German guards fell away. They dropped their rifles and fled. The Soviet Red Army–specifically, a Ukrainian tank battalion–appeared on the road ahead. They were now liberated. The Ukrainians had food. Norm was given a uniform and assigned to a machine gun squad. He fought with the Ukrainians until just before VE Day–May 8, 1945. He actually escaped from the Ukrainians at night across a river to the American lines . . . but that’s another story still waiting to be told. He was awaiting shipment back home to train for the invasion of Japan when he heard about the Japanese surrender. He’d survived the war. But the memories and some scars remain.
Norman experienced intense combat and saw much death and suffering in World War II. After he returned home, he had nightmares. Support from his wife and other Veterans encouraged him to start talking about his challenges. Counseling helped him get back on track. He urges other Veterans to take advantage of resources that can improve their lives.
Beloved father, “Pop” and great-grandpa passed away on August 26, 2018 at the age of 93. Born December 4, 1924, he was the only son of Margaret and Norman Waldman. He was preceded in death by his wife of 68 years, Marie and by his sister, Elaine Von Stein. Norm served in the US Army during WWII. His 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division was among the first to jump into Normandy on D-Day. After being wounded in combat and captured, he became a POW in Germany. After the war he returned to his hometown of Philadelphia where he worked as a plumber with his father. He met his wife Marie at a picnic. After their marriage they moved to Warrington, PA where they raised their child and attended Redeemer Lutheran Church. Norm retired from the Air Force Reserve with the rank of Master Sergeant. A great believer in higher education, Norm went on to earn his BA and MA in Education at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University, respectively. This led him to teach plumbing at the M. Dobbins Vocational High School in Philadelphia. He served as Director of Green County Vo-Tech Schools in Waynesburg for 15 years. After retirement he became active in many Greene County community groups. As a Shriner, he learned the art of clowning. Later he and Marie founded the “Koal Krackin’ Klowns” and Greene County Hillbilly Band. These troupes entertained folks for years in parades, festivals and nursing homes. Norm resided at Asbury Heights in Mt. Lebanon for 11 years. There he and Marie formed and directed the Asbury Hillbilly Band which entertained area residents. After his wife’s death five months ago, Norm moved south to be closer to his daughter. Norm loved his family, his country and travels with his wife. He took joy in singing, telling jokes and entertaining friends. He will be deeply missed by his daughter, Eileen Marie Davis and her husband, Russ Davis of Charlotte, NC, and by his grandchildren, Jasmine (and Justin) Geisinger, Jade Good and Forest Good. He was a proud great-grandpa to Gray and Cole Geisinger. Inurnment will be held at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies, 1158 Morgan Rd., Bridgeville on September 10 at 2:30. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to www.USO.org to help support our service members. Arrangements are under the direction of PALMETTO FUNERAL HOME, Fort Mill, SC. Condolences may be left at www.Palmettofh.com
Published in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sept. 2, 2018