Saving Private Busch
Uncle Hirsh Tells His Story
“We were set to sail from Southampton aboard the SS. Leopoldville, as part of a six ship convoy, headed to Cherbourg across the English Channel. God, I was sick as a dog, sea sickness you know down in the hole when we were hit, torpedoed by U-256,” Uncle Hirsh began, as somber as I’ve ever seen him.
“It was U-486, Uncle Hirsh.”
“Yes sir. I am.”
“There were 2,235 American troops on board the Leopoldville, Christmas Eve, 1944. When we learned we had been hit, pandemonium broke out. There were many men who died immediately upon impact. Others jumped to their deaths with their full battle gear on or who snapped their necks because they hadn’t undone the chin strap to their helmets. Many were crushed attempting to leap from the Leopoldville onto the deck of H.M.S Brilliant that tried to position and hold itself parallel to us. You can’t imagine it without having been there.”
“But why? Where was the crew?”
“Abandoned ship. You’ve heard the expression ‘Every man for himself? ‘”
Uncle Hirsh appeared transfixed by his own story. He screwed up his face as distant memories fought their way to the surface. First one, then another, followed by a third and so on until he seemed pleased with all he thought he had forgotten.
I had seen the same expression on my father’s face, the last radiant glow before the embers of memory burn out in the suffocation of old age.
“So I turned and there he was at my side.”
“Who was at your side?” I waited. No answer. Uncle Hirsh appeared as distant as if he had indeed revisited the Leopoldville, but got lost on his way back.
He opened his eyes. “But he died, drowned, you know that day. Before we shipped out, he had taken me under his wing. I was to stick close to him. I went down the ropes that dangle over the sides of the ship … I tried to swim away but there were so many in the water it was impossible … the sinking ship sucked us down … I must have gone pretty deep for I thought my lungs would burst … then I hit the surface of the water and was never so relieved … I was cold and frightened but I caught on to a raft a nd hung on to that … I had a man on my back for a long time in the water … it dislocated my shoulder … finally a big wave came and washed everybody away from the raft including the guy on my back.”
“Uncle Hirsh, who were you talking about before? You said ‘But he died, drowned, you know that day?”
“My mentor,” he replied.
“You mean I’ve not told you about Waldron.” A few tears of regret dribbled down his cheeks.
“Polgreen, Waldron Polgreen.”
Uncle Hirsh sniffled woefully. Sometimes there are just not enough tissues.
One Of Many American Heroes
Thirty-six years old in 1944 when he was drafted, Waldron Polgreen did not have to go off to war. Taking the high ground, he chose instead to do his part “for his sons and country’s sake,” Uncle Hirsh added.
The circumstances leading to the death of Private First Class Waldron Polgreen as well as that of the hundreds of other Americans soldiers on board the Leopoldville, remained unclear for decades following the end of the war in Europe.
“That must have been incredibly difficult to do,” I remarked when he told me that he had contacted Waldron Polgreen’s youngest son, Tobias.
Only nine months old when his father joined the ranks of those preparing for what came to be known as The Battle of The Bulge, young Tobias grew up without the benefit of his dad.
A grave in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial contains the remains of PFC Waldron Polgreen, United States Army, whose body washed up on shore soon after he and seven hundred and sixty two other American troops perished in the frigid waters of the English Channel on Christmas Eve, 1944 just five miles off the coast of France.
How Corporal Busch Saved Private Busch
“Two weeks later after learning about Uncle Hirsh’s near calamity, I received a letter from my father.”
“Grandpa said I had to find your uncle and get him out of the infantry. Not an easy thing to do! Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, Uncle Hirsh was being treated in an English hospital in Southampton, I think it was, for hypothermia and a displaced shoulder.”
“How were you going to do that?” I asked.
“You mean get him out of the infantry? That’s what I wanted to know too, Son. I was really afraid of my father who, when he told you to do something, you did it.”
“Okay, let me see if I get this. Grandpa Louis ordered you to find Uncle Hirsh in an English hospital somewhere and do whatever had to be done to get him reassigned out of the infantry. Is that correct?”
“Yes, it is. You see when Grandpa became angry, he could be a violent man and, as the older son, he blamed me.”
“So, you …”
“went AWOL? That’s right, Son.”
“You went AWOL in war time! You could have been court-martialed and sent to prison. Even worse. Where were you at the time?” I had never before felt so incredulous.
“Well, I’m not really sure, in France, I think, so I caught a ferry across the Channel.”
“Dad, how many days were you gone?”
“Oh, seven or so.”
“You’re telling me you were gone for seven days and nobody noticed your absence?”
“Son, I paid off the roster clerk. Cost me a hundred bucks. If your name is on his list as ‘present’, then you’re ‘present’. Get my meaning?”
“Even if you’re not.”
“Now you’re catching on.”
Maybe my father wasn’t another Audie Murphy, but chutzpah? Plenty!
“So I landed in England by myself looking for my brother, didn’t know where to go or who to speak to, you follow?”
“But I saw some of our guys so I figured I was close to an American base.” I scooted my qawwaawchair in closer.
“So I walked on over and tried to fit in, but I must have stood out like a sore thumb. Two burly military policemen approached.”
‘Take it easy. Easy does it.’
‘Corporal Busch?’ The senior MP, staring at my name tag addressed me Sort of a gruff looking fellow.
‘May I see your orders, please?’
“I don’t have any, sir.”
I must have looked like a deer transfixed by high beams.
‘What did they do next?”
“They drew their weapons and cuffed me.”
‘Sergeant, please we’re on the same side. I need to speak to your captain.’
“And you know what? He believed me.”
“He did it? He took you to the captain?”
“Yes, he did, to Captain Sidney Finerman,” Dad smiled mischievously.
“So I told him my story about Grandpa and Hirsh.”
“And he let you go?”
“Not only that but he made a few calls to find out where Hirsh was.”
“ So what did he say? What did he do?”
‘Corporal Busch, we never had this meeting, understand?’
“Yes, Sir. Thank you.”
“He told me I was dismissed. I saluted him sharply and turned to leave and was just out
the door when …”
‘Corporal Busch, just a moment.’
“Alan, I gotta tell you. I was shaking.”
‘Be seated corporal. Sergeant O’Malley?’
‘Draw up a letter of transit for Corporal Albert Busch, b-u-s-c, h, Albert.”
‘This document will exempt you from any molestation by military police. Understand? For one week. After that, corporal, you’ll be on your own.’
‘Yes sir. Thank you.’
My heart was pounding.
‘One more thing, you’ll burn this letter after it expires. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, Sir. It is.’
‘If ever found, I’ll deny any knowledge of it and claim you stole the stationary from my office.”
“Son, I’ll never forget what he said next.”
‘You see these two bars? He leaned into me real close and stuck the tab of his shirt collar right in my face.’
‘You see these captain’s bars on my collar?’
‘If ever push comes to shove, you know they’ll believe a captain over a corporal, don’t you?’
‘Yes Sir I do.’
‘Listen, Busch, my younger brother was killed at Omaha Beach. When my father received the telegram, he collapsed on the floor and died on the spot. Do you have a weapon, Corporal?’
“So help me God, he reached into his drawer and drew out a holstered 45 caliber with two fully loaded magazines.”
‘You’re dismissed, Corporal. Oh, by the way, that weapon you took off the body of a dead lieutenant, got it?’
“Well, Son, with the information he gave me about your uncle’s whereabouts and the procedure I should follow, you’ll never believe who I ran into in charge of personnel transfers.”
“Ben Burack. Remember Aunt Hynda’s brother in-law?”
“I sure do.”
“So I told him about my predicament, how my father had instructed me to get Hirsh transferred out of the infantry into a safe job.”
‘Albert, I don’t think I can do that.’
‘Well, Ben, I’m going to have to kill you.”
“You threatened him, really? What did he do?”
“He fell back into his chair completely stunned as if I had shot him.”
‘I’ll be back in three days to visit Hirsh, understood?’
“Three days later I returned to the hospital.”
‘Albert, Albert, you’ll never believe this but I have been transferred to the Air Courier Corps! I’m to report to the military postmaster in London as soon as possible.’
“Oh my God. You did it. You really pulled it off!”
Relishing this moment as none other, Dad leaned back in his chair with his fingers interlaced behind his head, a smirk on his face and his toes sticking straight out.