I never met Robert Herbert Sanders, but I know a little bit about him. He was born in 1909 and graduated from West Point in 1934. His father-in-law also attended West Point and was, apparently, the first Irish-American to do so. He fought in the Spanish-American war and became a brigadier general.
After graduation, Robert married and had three children. The family was stationed at Pearl Harbor when the base was attacked on December 7, 1941. My guess is their son Robert, Jr., who was then only four months old, is the youngest survivor of that attack.
Eventually, Robert Sr. was sent overseas, and he found himself on the front lines in Europe in charge of what must have been a bunch of scared kids and that he performed with honor. I also know from his letters home that he missed his wife and children terribly. Then in the dark of night of February 24, 1945, he was walking through a trench on his way to check on a forward platoon when he stepped on a mine, and his brief life was over.
Memorial Day honors the sacrifices of people like Robert Sanders, as we should, but look more closely and you realize that when a single soldier is killed a lot of things die with him. Lieutenant-Colonel Sanders’s Â death shattered a young family. His widowâ€™s grief lasted long after she took the gold star down from her window. In fact, though she lived well into her 90s, she never recovered from it, and Iâ€™m sure that in countless ways his three children, now in their 60s and 70s, continue to be affected by their motherâ€™s continual sadness and the premature loss of their father.
In turn, while raising their own families, their lives and their choices must have been influenced by their grief and their fears and as a result their children are who they are partly because of what happened that night in February 1945.
I know itâ€™s true, because Robert Herbert Sanders was my wifeâ€™s grandfather, a man she obviously never knew. Who knows how her life would have been different had he survived the war? Â (I know my grandchildren will have it drummed into their heads that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were innocent and that a life without rooting for the Mets is a life not worth living).
I do know her father (who served in Vietnam) is about the best grandfather Iâ€™ve ever seen. Iâ€™m sure one reason for that is his growing up without a father. I also know that he doesnâ€™t like surprises and finds a certain amount of security in planning things out in advance. My wife is the same way. Doubtless any family that has experienced the knock on the door feels similarly.
In that sense, Robert H. Sandersâ€™ death more than 65 years ago continues to reverberate today. I suppose it will continue to do so until the memories of him and of those directly affected by him, just peter out over time like fading ripples in water that had been set in motion as powerful waves.
Robert H. Sanders was just one of some 292,000 American deaths on the battlefield in World War II. But to one family, he might as well have been all of them.
What follows are a few pages from a scrapbook of his life (the texts are clickable):
High school graduate, 1926:
West Point: 1934:
His last letter home, written less than two weeks before his death (later retyped):
The telegram recopied by his widow:
The West Point flag at half mast
His grave in Holland:
Being the father he never had (my wife in the rear):
When I was researching my television book, I came across a series of articles in The New Yorker, profiling a local grocer named Harry Dubin. What was so unusual about Dubin that in 1947 made him worthy of a ten-page article in The New Yorker? He owned a television set, and the article was all about the author spending an extended period with Dubin and his family as they enjoyed this new electronic miracle. Â It was a marvelous story, typical of the magazine, puckishly fun, insightful and slightly condescending. I’ve uploaded a copy here. [It's a long file, so it may take a minute to download - well worth it though].
After I read the piece in 1993, it occurred to me that Â Dubin was Â young enough in 1947 to still be alive, Â so with fingers crossed I looked up his name in the phone book, and lo and behold, he was still living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I picked up the phone and called him. He laughed when I told him I had just read The New Yorker article and was charmed by it, and when I explained to him what I was up to, he eagerly agreed to be interviewed again.
A few days later, he greeted me warmly at the door to his apartment and led me into his living room. As I set up my tape recorder, he asked me if I had a copy of the article. I said I did He then asked if he could read it over to refresh his memory before I turned the machine on. Since this wasn’t a quiz, I gladly pulled the article out of my backpack and handed it to him.
“While I read this, you might enjoy taking a look at that,” he said, pointing to a small photo album, embossed with the words “Dubin at Work.”
I picked up the album and opened it, and my eyes nearly jumped out of my head. Inside were some 30 color photographs taken in and around the city in the 1940s. I had never seen such vibrant photos of the city in those years. In fact, I had never seen any color photos of the city in those years, yet here they were. It was such an interesting collection. Each of the pictures depicted a man in uniform intently doing his job, whether it was a street sweeper, gas station attendant or hansom cab driver. When I looked at them twice, I realized something, all of them were Harry!
Needless to say, while our subsequent interview was wonderful, the album left me speechless in delight. These were the most evocative photographs of old New York I had ever seen. Harry explained that all of them were taken by his son Ronald, who was then a teenager, after Harry managed to convince each worker to change clothes with him in an alley and let Harry do his job for a few minutes so the picture could be taken.
Eventually, Harry let me make copies of the album and I brought it to the attention of Jan Seidler Ramirez, an archivist at the Museum of the City of New York in the hope that she might be interested in adding them to the museum’s collection. Well, not only did she jump at them, the photos became a special exhibit at the museum in 1996.
I wrote a short piece about the photos and their provenance for American Heritage. Here’s the article, and here are two of the photos. I’ll keep adding more over the next few weeks, but these two will give you an idea of Harry’s brilliance while affording a view of old New York that you probably never thought still existed. I certainly didn’t.
Click on the photo to see the full-sized image.
Click on the photo for the full-sized image.
I miss the John Birch Society. Actually, they’re still around. They even have a Web site where you can not only get some great books about the international conspiracists, but you can also purchase official John Birch Society pens, mugs, even water bottles. When I was kid growing up in East Meadow, right across the street from Ed’s Glassworks (famous for the “GL” in its sign constantly being whitewashed) was our local John Birch Society bookstore. We never actually saw anyone inside, but we loved their prominent display of books (None Dare Call it Treason, being the one I remember. Its author, Â by comparison, makes Ann Coulter look like Noam Chomsky.) and riotous bumper stickers (“Don’t like the police? Next time you get in trouble, call a hippie”).
Below is my favorite piece of John Birch propaganda, for very personal reasons. They must have sold thousands of these.
On an unrelated topic, I got an email today from my friend Bill Barol, pointing me to this great early TV video on YouTube. It’s actually a Â World War II propaganda film on the future of television. I recognize several of the people in the film, including Ray Forrest, the aforementioned WNBT television announcer. Click here to see the video.
My oral history of New York City ended with the onset of World War II. After the book came out and it was somewhat of a success, I entertained the idea of a sequel. This book, I thought, would cover New York City during the war. I did a few interviews, and they were pretty interesting, but then I happened to see an article about early television, and I was suddenly busy for the next six years.
I remember talking to my buddy Lenny Del Genio about the war. Lenny was a sweet guy Â but also a former boxer who had been rated the No. 1 lightweight contender in the world. He later became a part-time actor (his claim to fame was shooting out Moe Green’s eye in The Godfather). It was either he or his wife who was an air raid warden during the war. I remember one of them Â telling me that the job basically entailed walking down the street and yelling at people to pull down their blackout curtains or turn off their lights and then accepting heaps of verbal abuse for doing so. So much for patriotism.
It was a great interview, but mostly because Lenny loved to play the guitar and sing, and we did a medley of Â Mills Brothers songs during the interview. I don’t remember what he said, but I’ll never forget our sing-along. Hey, look at me, I’m a World War II air raid warden!
Yup, the hat is the real deal. Also, In connection with my research, I happened to pick up a pile of World War II ration books. This one still had the stamps in it. Here’s what it looks like:
Here’s the back:
And here are the stamps. Clearly, Mary had an in with the butcher, because all the stamps are still in the book.