We Pause to Remember
We honor those who fought and died in the Battle of Normandy.
Anybody who has lived through or read about the history of our involvement in World War II knows something about the collective losses suffered by allies and enemies alike. I want to focus on D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, the allied invasion into France, known as Operation Overlord, which took two years to plan and commenced 70 years ago today.
First, let’s consider the collective losses. Wherever you look, you see different numbers. Here’s one estimate.
The cost of the Normandy campaign was high for both sides. From D-Day to 21 August, the Allies landed 2,052,299 men in Northern France. The Allies suffered 209,672 casualties from 6 June to the end of August, including 36,976 killed, 153,475 wounded, and 19,221 missing. The British, Canadians, and Poles suffered 16,138 killed, 58,594 wounded, and 9,093 missing, for a total of 83,825 casualties. The Americans suffered 20,838 killed, 94,881 wounded, and 10,128 missing, for a total of 125,847 casualties. German forces in France reported losses of 158,930 men between D-Day and 14 August, just before the start of Operation Dragoon in Southern France. In action at the Falaise pocket, 50,000 men were lost, of which 10,000 were killed and 40,000 captured. Estimates of German losses for the Normandy campaign range from 400,000 (200,000 killed or wounded; 200,000 captured) to 450,000 (240,000 killed, wounded, or missing, plus 210,000 captured).
I am using this column to tell you about one of these soldiers. He has become a friend of mine. I want you to know him as well.
As you know from last week’s issue, we traveled to Paris and a river cruise on the Seine for holiday. It was a beautiful trip with gorgeous and interesting stops along the way to Normandy. Clearly, the tour of the Normandy beaches was the personal highlight.
At the American Cemetery at Normandy, just astride Omaha Beach, we participated in a very moving remembrance ceremony, with the playing of the Star Spangled Banner and Taps and then a minute of silence. We were then given roses to put on one of the 9,386 graves that appear as endless markers to sacrifice. My wife and I walked out into the cemetery, wondering where we should place our roses. That rose made me think about the individual, not only collective sacrifices made by the soldiers because I would have to select one fallen soldier to specially honor.
I came upon a plot, adorned by a Star of David, for one Jacob Asner. I don't know him or anyone who did; all I know is that he gave his life at the Battle of Normandy. Why did I stop at this grave? Perhaps because he was Jewish as I am, and this was one of very few Jewish markers in the cemetery. His first name was Jacob and that is my son’s name as well. I suppose it was also because he was from New York. Anyway, I placed the rose at the foot of his grave, a stone on the Star and after a few moments of meditation, I walked away. As I did, I felt I needed to know more and do more. He deserved it.
Who was Jacob Asner?
For my Facebook friends, you have watched this story unfold as my research brought more and more information to the forefront.
Jacob has become my friend, as have some of his family members. Let me tell you what I have learned from records available on the Internet and through Ancestry.com, supplemented by family lore.
The Family Asner
Jacob was the oldest son of Charles and Rose Asner, both of whom had emigrated from Russia. Charles was a delivery man for a fruit company and Rose was a homemaker and mother. When I learned that I had placed a rose at the grave of a man whose mother’s name was Rose, I felt that she had also visited him that day.
Jacob was born here in New York, and the family lived in New York City, in Manhattan.
The Asners were crowded into a tenement house located at 25 Jefferson Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Jefferson is a two-block long street that runs between Madison and Henry and the house which appeared to be on the corner of Jefferson.
Jacob was the oldest of several siblings, all of who lived in the family apartment when the United States joined WW II in 1941. His brothers and sisters (and their ages) included his sister Sarah (20), sister Edith (16), brother Harry (14), sister Marilyn (8), brother Sidney (6) and brother Joseph (later known as “Jerry”) (4).
A little bit about Charles Asner – Jacob’s father. He was born on August 5, 1891, in Vilna, Russia. As mentioned, he was a deliveryman, working for a fruit seller, Peter Weinkselbaum, whose business was located at 234 East 6th Street. That address no longer exists, but there are brownstone apartment buildings located at 232 and 236 East 6th Street. The Asners originally lived at 269 East Broadway, just two blocks east from the apartment where they raised their family.
What is incredibly sad is that Jacob's mother, Rose, predeceased him. It appears she died on 2 Sep 1942, 15 months after he enlisted and nine months before he died in combat. How Charles coped with the loss of his young wife (age about 45) and his oldest son within a year can only be surmised at this point.
I do not know whether Jacob was permitted to return for his mother’s funeral.
Later, Charles hired a fellow named Milton Goldstein to create a tombstone for his late wife, and Goldstein absconded with the money ($110). I read part of the trial transcript of the petit larceny trial against the defendant. Goldstein was convicted and sentenced to three months in the workhouse and the judgment was affirmed by the First Department. Charles’ daughter, Sarah (Asner) Eskenazi, was a witness at the trial as well.
Jacob was born in 1918 in New York City, attended four years of high school and enlisted on June 16, 1941, at Fort Jay, Governors Island, in New York City.
Governors Island, which is located at the tip of Lower Manhattan, provided a stage where a local military community participated in national and international events. From its military beginnings as a colonial militia in 1755, Governors Island became a major headquarters for the U.S. Army and Coast Guard, making it one of the longest continually operated military installations in the country until its closure in 1996. Military decisions made throughout the island’s history reverberated through communities and neighborhoods across vast oceans.
According to the Governors Island website, the site became nationally recognized as it played a greater role in international affairs through two World Wars. By World War II, the island was the headquarters of the U.S. First Army. Originally established in Europe in 1919, First Army initiated early planning efforts for the D-Day invasion in 1944 and led the American landing in Normandy.
Jacob started at the place that planned the events that would lead to his sacrifices on behalf of our nation.
He was assigned to the 29th Infantry Division whose motto was "29th -- Let's Go" and to its 175th Infantry Regiment, Second Battalion, Company F. More about that group later.
A Legacy of Asner Service
Harry Asner, Jacob's younger brother, enlisted in the Navy on 11 Aug 1943, nine months after his mother died, and was discharged on 4 December 1945. He lived until October 1, 1991. He is buried in the Calverton National Cemetery, a VA Veteran's resting place, on Long Island. Two of his children and his oldest grandchild have since become my friends. When Jacob died, his brother Sidney was 10 years old. I mentioned earlier that brother Harry was a Navy veteran. To add to the Asner legacy of service, Sidney joined the Navy in 1952. He spent the next 19 years in Navy service, including service in Vietnam. He died, short of his 59th birthday, in 1993. “Jerry,” the youngest brother, enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 and served in Korea during that conflict.
The 175th in the Battle of Normandy
Jacob was assigned to the 29th Infantry Division, 175th Regiment, Second Battalion, Company F. Jacob and his comrades in the 175th landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day plus 1, June 7, 1944, arriving at 1230 hours. Several of F Company’s and one of L Company’s landing craft were destroyed by under-water mines and machine gun fire as they approached the beach. The 1st and 2nd Battalions landed abreast one mile east of Vierville sur Mer. Machine gun and small arms fire were encountered on the beach. Four hours later, the remainder of the regiment landed one mile east of Saint Laurent sur Mer.
Once ashore, the leading battalions moved inland to Vierville encountering occasioned mortar and machine gun fire. The regiment, in a column of battalions, first, second and third, marched to Gruchy. During the march, detachments were deployed from time to time to wipe out small pockets of enemy resistance and snipers.
At 2330, in the vicinity of Gruchy, Company “F” and Regimental Headquarters Company were hit from the flank by enemy gun and artillery fire. Supporting tanks of the 747th Tank Battalion moved up and supported the motion to clean up the opposition and the advance continued.
From 0200 to 0400 8 June, a halt was made for reorganization. Then turning west on the highway to Isigny, the 1st Battalion passed through and captured La Cambe about 0900. Outside La Cambe, the column was attacked and strafed by aircraft bearing allied insignia at 0930. Six men were killed, 10 wounded.
At 1600, the 3rd Battalion was committed to reduce an enemy strong point at St. Germaine du Pert consisting of infantry and mobile 88s. This strong point was reduced and driven back across the causeway after heavy fighting.
At 1800, the 2nd Battalion attacked through the 1st Battalion to reduce the strong point at Cardonville, a radar station, which was strongly held and in concrete emplacements. Assisted by fire from the cruiser, Glasgow, the 2nd Battalion, despite heavy resistance consisting of machine gun, mortar and 88s, captured this position.
Meanwhile, the 1st Battalion had continued the advance toward Isigny. They reached Isigny at 0430 on 9 June and by 0730 had pushed in through the city.
From Isigny, “K” and “E” Companies, supported by three tanks, were sent West to take Hait, secure the bridge over the Vire River and protect the right flank of the regiment. This was accomplished and concluded the first phase of operations.
At 1005 on 9 June, the Regiment marched South and East with Lison as its next objective. This order of march was 3rd Battalion, regimental Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion. The column moved through La Madeleine, Pont Renard and La Heresneserie. South of the latter place, it encountered elements of the 352nd Field Artillery, acting as infantry. These troops lay in the ditches, head to foot, while our troops and tanks slaughtered them. An estimated 125 were killed, together with 30 from 513 Schnelle Battalion.
The advance was resumed, passing through La Foret and occupying La Potelaie with little resistance by 1800 9 June.
From D-Day +1 (June 7) under D-Day +14 (June 14), the brave men of the 175th fought valiantly with the mission of crossing the Vire River, attacking Montmartin en Craignes and securing crossing of the Vire et Taute canal against use by panzers. This was only 20 miles southeast of Omaha Beach where they had landed and they were suffering heavy casualties. It was fierce and terrific warfare with many injured and killed.
On the 14th of June, a new division attack order was issued. The objective: St Lo.
Jacob has only three more days.
The US Army Center of Military History, explains:
ST-LO, capital of the department of Manche, can be used as one symbol for First U. S. Army's victory in a most difficult and bloody phase of the Campaign of Normandy: the "Battle of the Hedgerows," during the first three weeks of July I944…
Much more was at stake in the Battle of the Hedgerows than possession of a communications center on the Vire River. In June, First Army and British Second Army had won their beachheads and had captured Cherbourg (26 June). Supplies and reinforcements were building up for a powerful offensive, designed to break out of the Normandy pocket and scheduled to be mounted in the First Army zone. But more room and better jump-off positions for the crucial offensive were needed before this blow could be delivered. The attack that began in early July was planned to gain this ground, on a front of 25 miles. Four corps, employing ultimately 12 divisions, were involved in the effort. All these units faced similar problems of advance, and all contributed to the measure of success achieved.
June 17, 1943, D-Day +11. Jacob Asner had been in Normandy for 10 long and miserable days, fighting for freedom, fighting for our country, fighting for those who were being oppressed. This was his last day. He and so many of his brothers died in the battle to capture the strategic city of St. Lo.
The attack started on schedule. By 1118, the 3rd Battalion had captured its objective, in the vicinity of Amy, despite determined opposition. The 1st Battalion also encountered stiff opposition being hindered by apparent mine fields, which proved on coordination to be dummy mines. By 1305, it had cut the road East of La Meauffe.
At 0730 on 17 June, the 1st Battalion again moved out in the attack with Hill 108 as its objective. During this advance, Lieutenant Colonel George, the Regimental Commander, was seriously wounded by an enemy hand grenade while leading a patrol against an enemy machine gun position. At 1045, the battalion was held up by heavy machine gun and machine pistol fire. An enemy counter-attack, launched against the right flank of the 1st Battalion, was beaten off by the 2nd Battalion.
Meanwhile, the 3rd Battalion was attacking South from Amy and captured the town of Le Meaune at 1100.
At 2210 on the night of 17 June, the 1st Battalion was only 600 yards from its objective, but encountered determined resistance. Patrols located the German position about this time and after artillery and mortar preparations, an attack was made and the ground which was being organized by the enemy was occupied just as it became dark. An 88mm gun, a 150mm mortar, a 20mm gun, and much miscellaneous equipment were captured and 15 prisoners taken. Under continued enemy fire, a temporary defensive position was assumed for the night. At 0620 the following morning, while preparation of a defensive position as ordered by the Division was under way, the Germans delivered a strong counter-attack. Although many casualties were suffered, including the battalion Commander and Executive Officer, the ground was held with the exception of about 200 yards. This was finally organized completely. During the entire remainder of the day until after dark that night, the battalion was completely isolated by enemy mortar and artillery fire from the balance of the regiment. Further severe losses were suffered during this period, but the position was maintained.
Jacob Asner made the ultimate sacrifice on that fateful day in June, as the 2nd Battalion joined in the capture of St. Lo. It would fall the next day.
As Martin Blumerson wrote in his review of the Normandy campaign:
In capturing St. Lô the divisions had sustained the high losses that had become typical of the battle of the hedgerows. The 35th Division lost over 2,000 men; the 29th Division suffered over 3,000 casualties. On 19 July, in compliance with corps instructions, the 35th Division relieved the 29th, and General Baade deployed his troops across the entire corps front from the Vire River east to the Couvains-Calvaire road.
Jacob – known to “Jack” by his friends – Asner was one of those 3,000 casualties, giving his life so that we can live free. His passing and those of his comrades should never be forgotten. He rests now, in the American Cemetery in Normandy, perhaps 20 miles from where he died. The bodies and gravestones of 9,357 Americans will reside there for eternity, and a nation and world are forever indebted to them for their service and sacrifice.
On Memorial Day, and every day, when you think of those who served and those who died, remember that each one had a life, a family. Each one had dreams. Remember them collectively but never forget them individually.
Jacob Asner, God bless you and those with whom you served. Rest in peace and know that a thankful nation and world will never forget.
Post Script: You remember Jack’s brother, Harry, the Navy vet? I was able to track down his children. They have then passed this thread on to other Asner family members, and I have received heartwarming messages from several. I will not share the private remembrances, but this public posting to the Facebook thread reflects the importance of honoring these soldiers individually as well as collectively:
I'm Cynthia Asner the middle daughter of Harry Asner, Jacob’s niece. Being the third daughter I lacked so much identity growing up. My mother was Catholic, my dad was Jewish. I didn't have a lot of religion or any knowledge of my father’s family. So you can imagine the excitement I feel reading about this wealth of information!!! The way you documented Jacob’s time line in Normandy is riveting!! My husband has been to Normandy, and we were fascinated when we read about his final days. This may be one of the biggest gifts I have ever received. Reading this is so emotional and has brought streams of tears down my face. Thank you so much for picking Jacob’s grave to research; you have changed my life and filled in large holes of who I am. I feel the need to have a family reunion this summer where we all can gather pictures and documents, and share what we have on the Asner family. YOU have woke me up!!! And I am so grateful!! I'm hoping we will meet soon.
Take a moment today to say “thank you” and say a prayer for Jacob and all of his colleagues in that war and others, those who survived and those who did not, for their sacrifices so that you and I can live free.
Dan D. Kohane
Hurwitz & Fine, P.C.
1300 Liberty Building
Buffalo, NY 14202
E-Mail: [email protected]