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Dr. Morton Waitzman - D-Day veteran whose story is told in the new docu-drama

By BERNIE BELLAN
There is probably no date in history about which more has been written and more films produced than June 6, 1944. The week of June 1, the History Channel will be airing a new documentary titled “D-Day in 14 Stories”. (It will be re-aired on the History Channel on June 2 and 6th. It will also be aired on the entire Global Network on June 8.)

 

 

 

This year marks the 75th anniversary of what will probably rank as the most important date in the Second World War: June 6, or D-Day as it was known.
On that day over 156,000 Allied troops, consisting of Canadians, British, and Americans made up the largest-ever invasion force known to date as they launched a massive attack on German troops dug in on the beaches of Normandy in France.
Casualties were extraordinarily high that day– as the invasion’s planners knew they would be: Over 10,000 killed or missing on the Allied side and unknown numbers on the German side. The entire Battle of Normandy itself, which went on until well into the summer, saw over 207,000 Allied casualties, including 37,000 deaths among the ground forces and a further 16,714 deaths in the air forces. It was not until late July, however that Allied forces succeeded in driving German forces from Normandy. From that point, it was on to Paris and eventually into Germany itself.
Over 16 million Americans – men and women – served in World War II. Of those, only about 400,000 remain alive. It is important to recognize the achievements of those who are still able to tell their stories.

Produced by YAP Films in Canada, "D-Day in 14 Stories"  “intertwines 14 personal accounts of that fateful day in 1944, using re-found footage, unbelievable reconstructions, and state-of-the-art VFX. The documentary offers audiences a deep look into the events of that day, using a never-before experienced lens, giving a real feel for the traumatic and heroic events that occurred 75 years ago.”
I was able to watch the entire documentary in advance. For anyone who has seen “Saving Private Ryan”, the re-creations of battlefield scenes are as lifelike – and harrowing, as they were in that incredibly realistic film.


One of the 14 individuals featured in “D-Day in 14 Stories” is Morton Waitzman. Now 95, after the war, Morton Waitzman went on to a celebrated career as an opthalmologist and was, in fact, Director of Opthalmology at Emory University in Atlanta until his retirement.
Only 19 years old when D-Day occurred, Waitzman had already spent a year and a half in the U.S. military, having joined a year after Pearl Harbour (when he was only 17), including six months training in England in preparation for the planned invasion.
Waitzman was trained as a radio operator, with three assignments: He was responsible for intercepting German messages sent by Morse Code (which he had also studied); he was to maintain contact with the French Resistance (he spoke good French, having studied it for four years in high school); and once he made it to the beach he was to radio to Allied gunners on board ships letting them know whether their shells were falling too far or too short of their marks.


I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Waitzman on May 21st. Before I began to interview him, he asked me how long the interview would be, and I answered “just about five minutes” – as I knew he had other interviews scheduled following ours. We ended up talking for over 15 minutes, however, as Dr. Waitzman found himself going on at length about events that followed D-Day, including his involvement in liberating several concentration and labour camps. He wanted to make sure that I understood why he felt such a strong obligation to speak about what he had witnessed during the war, even though, as he explained, for 50 years following the end of World War II he could not bring himself to discuss anything that he had seen, even with his own family.
Since 1995, however, Morton Waitzman has felt it his duty to describe what he saw so as to put the lie to “Holocaust deniers”, as he put it.
Following are some excerpts from my interview with Dr. Waitzman, which was conducted over the phone on a Tuesday afternoon.


My first question – which was based on material I had read about Dr. Waitzman but which is not mentioned during the documentary itself, was: “You were supposed to have been parachuted behind enemy lines into France prior to the actual invasion? What would have been your mission and why did it not happen?”
Waitzman: “I was actually sent to England to train with the 101st Airborne Division and I was supposed to be dropped behind enemy lines to work with the French Resistance, but that training was aborted because D-day was too rapidly approaching and I could not complete their training.
“Instead, I was with the 29th Infantry Division and did contact the French Underground as soon as we hit the beach (in his case, it was Omaha Beach, where U.S. forces suffered the majority of Allied casualties that day). My job was to get in touch with the FFI (French Forces of the Interior, or the “Resistance”, as it was known) for purposes of getting information about German infantry and tank units.”


JP&N: “I was able to watch an interview you had done with CNN in which you describe the absolutely harrowing situation when you were dropping down from the troop carrier that took you close to the beach and into the landing craft that took you the rest of the way. You talk about some of your buddies missing the jump and drowning as they were all weighed down by the heavy equipment they were carrying on their backs.”
Waitzman: “I was a communications person, so I had a radio on my back, I also had a rifle, hand grenades, ammunition and a spool of wire. I had to climb down a cargo net into the infantry landing craft, hand over hand. Remember, it’s pitch black, it’s raining, it’s cold – we’re all very seasick, and my first exposure to injuries and fatalities came that very descent. A few of my buddies dropped into the water and they were gone; there was no way of rescuing them. They went straight down; it was more than 40 or 50 feet of water.
“But I got ashore. We were helped a lot by the combat engineers. They made a path for us. There were booby traps there and there were all kind of obstacles we had to worry about. I had three missions that I had to worry about. I had to be in immediate contact with the French Underground – which I did, by radio. My second mission (as explained previously) was to get in touch with the American gunners on the ships. My third mission was to fire at the enemy. I got to the seawall (which provided some protection from the Germans firing from above) at about 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning.”


JP&N: “I don’t want to get into any more detail about what went on during D-Day. (It’s all fully dramatized and told with narration during the film.) But, I did want to ask you about the days that followed D-Day.“You participated in something called the Battle of St. Lo. I’m not familiar with that battle. What can you tell me about that battle?”
Waitzman: “St. Lo was an initial objective of the American military. We were supposed to get there about a week after landing on June 6. We didn’t get there for about a month. There was intense fighting along the “bocage” (terrain of mixed woodland and pasture). It was devastating fighting in St. Lo itself. As a result the city was destroyed; there was nothing left…If you realize the amount of death and destruction I witnessed – starting from the landing on the beach itself, the blowing apart of bodies and intense munition explosions, the noise, the smells – that was a very intense experience. It impacted us to this day – those of us who survived.”


JP&N: “I read in an article about you that it took you 50 years before you could speak openly about what you went through.”
Waitzman: “On the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings my wife and I decided to go to Europe and retrace my battlefield steps. The reason that I started to talk about it then was that many of my comrades and I had liberated Europe and gone through concentration camps and we realized that, 50 years later, there were a bunch of people out there who said the Holocaust never happened. We had been to the camps. Seeing that was as bad as any of the experience we had fighting – seeing what happens to the human body when they’re subjected to the horrors of Nazi torture. So we agreed that these Nazi Holocaust deniers could not be ignored. We had to start talking about it. That’s what we did.”


JP&N: “But you yourself suffered from the same trauma that the Holocaust survivors would have endured, it sounds like.”
Waitzman: “We had a lot of the trauma. You know, they use the term today, PTSD. It was not used at that time – but I went through many years of psychological help – until recently. The experience is still there, I’m still affected by it.”


At that point I thanked Dr. Waitzman for his time, for what he had done for his country, and for what I told him was his “heroism”. I said that I knew he had to conduct more interviews (for the documentary), so I wouldn’t keep him any longer.
Dr. Waitzman said: “I want to say one more thing. These interviews are very emotional for me. I want to make sure that I’m talking to folks who are really there to get a history lesson – for no commercial purposes whatsoever. It’s important that young people today are aware of that.”
I started to mumble something about how the true heroes of World War II were often men who we would not have thought of beforehand as stepping up so courageously, but then it occurred to me to ask one more question of Dr. Waitzman: “How long did you actually remain in a combat role?”
Waitzman: “I was in the liberation of Paris, with General Leclerc. That was in August of ’44. I was in combat from that month until exactly one year later when the atom bombs fell on the Japanese. We were in Europe, getting ready to invade Japan – that was in August of 1945.
“I was back in the hospital a few times with various things – but that was part of the game.”


JP&N: “Thank you, Dr. Waitzman.”
Waitzman: “Thank you – and good luck.”

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