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My name is Vickie Malone, my name is Yogita, my name is Mary Larson, my name is Pete Van Auken, and my name is Jonathan Parsons, and we are here interviewing Lawrence Peckler on July 29th, 2008, in San Francisco, California.
My name is Larry Peckler. I was born May 25, 1924, in Chicago, Illinois. I lived in Chicago, Muskegon, Michigan, Knoxville, Tennessee, moved to Cleveland, Ohio where I met my wife in the tenth grade—and we would have celebrated our 64th anniversary in March, she passed away five months ago. My education was at Western Reserve University in Cleveland. I got my degree and some graduate work there on the GI Bill. I was married at the age of 19, while I was in the service. My military career is something over three years. I was drafted and took some basic training into the Air Corps—at that time the Air Corps was a part of the Army, it was the Army Air Corp—I took basic training in Florida, I was sent to Stillwater, Oklahoma, Oklahoma A&M College for some training in the Air Corps Operations and Administration and got assigned to the Columbia South Carolina B25 training base. After a while I got transferred to the infantry and then went to Texas—Camp Howze Texas, "Lousy Howze it was called—for seven weeks of infantry basic, and then went overseas. At that time I was a Corporal and ended up as a Squad Leader in a heavy weapons company. I ended up as a Staff Sergeant.
My military was interesting. We took a convoy, landed in Le Havre, France, and then we were put into box cars and moved up to Roermond, Holland, Holland which was a replacement depot for the 9th Army under General Simpson. I was there for a couple of weeks and I got reassigned to a unit and spent some time going through Germany, the Ruhr, Essen, Munster, places like that. I was there for the Battle of the Bulge which was where I started to lose my hearing. I get my hearing aids from the Veterans Administration, thank God. The Battle of the Bulge was not fun, obviously. People in the states, I think, don't realize what really went on there. We took a lot of German prisoners, and eventually sent them to prisoner of war camps behind the lines.
I saw some concentration camps. I liberated Landsberg. When the war ended I got transferred to the 103rd Division to Linz, Austria. We ran the displaced persons and prisoners of war camps in the American zone of Austria. Austria was divided into four zones: American, British, French and Russian. The zone we were in was headquartered in Linz, which is where Adolf Hitler came from, by the way. And the first thing we did when we went in there we changed the name of the public square from Adolf Hitler Platz, to Linz Platz. The operation I was in was part of—we ran the displaced persons and prisoner of war camps in the American zone of Austria. We ran camps all through the area.
Larry, before you get very far, can we go way back?
What we'd like to start with is just hearing a little bit about when you were growing up, where you were born, your family life with your parents and your siblings, where you to school, things like that.
I was born in Chicago, although I also went to elementary school in Knoxville, Tennessee and Muskegon, Michigan. My dad moved around. But most of my early education was in Chicago schools. We had a wonderful family, my mother and father, I had a younger brother and a younger sister. We were very close. I had a lot of family in Illinois. My father's family originally came from Vilna in Lithuania. He was born in the states in Braddock, PA. They moved to Chicago. My mother's family came from the Austria-Hungary area. My mother was born in Braddock, PA, my father was born in Dekalb, Illinois. I had a great family life. No complaints at all. I loved school as a kid. I loved moving around to different schools, it was something new all the time. I don't think I suffered from it.
Whenever you were growing up, and the war began, what was your life like as a teenager?
I moved from Chicago to Cleveland when I was fourteen and had a very good life. You know, junior high, where I met my wife in the tenth grade, and went to John Adams High School. I had a good life, good family life, a lot of friends, that sort of thing. As I said, I met my wife in the tenth grade in Cleveland. I got married on a furlough at age nineteen.
But when the war broke out, when things started happening, where were you? What were you doing with your life?
I belonged to a youth organization at the time. We were playing basketball games in a tournament at an large Jewish orphanage in the suburbs of Cleveland. After the game our counselor was driving home, because none of us were old enough to drive, and he had the car radio on, and it was there that we heard that Pearl Harbor was attacked.
And how old were you?
Seventeen. So that's when we found out what was going on. When I graduated high school, I was drafted very shortly afterwards into the Army Air Corps, actually, at that time the Air Corps was part of the Army.
Hearing about Pearl Harbor
When you heard on the radio about Pearl Harbor and then you got home, what was going on at home with your folks, your mom and your dad?
Everybody was obviously very worried and very concerned as to what was happening and what was going to happen to everybody else.
Did you still have relatives in Europe?
Yes, my wife had relatives—most of her family died in the Warsaw Ghetto, her parents were in this country, of course. Some of the family escaped and got to Sweden. She had two cousins who got to Sweden as young children—one of them became PhD head of the Chemistry Department at the University of Uppsala and became the chairman of the Nobel Chemistry Selection Committee. Wonderful guy, he used to come to the States frequently to stay with us.
Drafted and Training
When the war first broke out, and you were home, and you said that you were drafted, how old were you then?
So it was just maybe a year or less from the time...
Less than that because we got married at nineteen and I was already in the Service, I got married on a furlough.
When you were drafted, were you expecting to be drafted? Were you wanting to serve?
I knew I was going to be drafted and I was trying to get in some education in the meantime, and I finished a couple of courses at night before I was drafted to get a start, at Western Reserve University.
As a mother myself, I just have to ask you, how was it at home, with your mom and dad and your siblings, knowing that you were going to be leaving for this war?
They were upset obviously and worried, but there was nothing we could do certainly. I got drafted. I had a younger brother who was nineteen months younger than I—he died a couple of years ago—he went into the service shortly after I did. My sister was five years younger so she was still in school. Everybody was worried but you did your part, you did what you had to do.
Prior to Pearl Harbor, how aware were you and your friends of what was going on in Europe?
We were very interested, obviously, and particularly, I must say, my circle included a large number of Jewish fellows like myself, and I think many of them had family going way back who were still in Europe and many of them ended up in concentration camps. So I think there was, obviously, a particularly strong interest in what was going on because of that.
Hearing About European Jews
But, as a young person, did you at that time realize that depth?
The newspapers did not have all the information of what was going on, and I think a lot of it was really kept quiet. They didn't want to disturb what was going on. It was a long time before I think the American public realized fully what was happening at that time during the war. But, everybody was interested obviously, but everybody felt that they had to do their part, whatever it was.
One of the interesting things as kind of a side light, the German's had built a big Herman Goering Steel Works in Linz, and they built a big, modern apartment project to house the workers, mostly German technicians. Best housing in Linz. When we took over we kicked the Germans out of that apartment project and we put in Jewish survivors from the concentration camps since they were the ones who deserved it, and we used the German prisoners of war, under armed guard, as janitors and gardeners and everything else. Ironic justice, I think. Outside of Linz was Mauthausen concentration camp which was basically a large quarry. The slave laborers, the concentration camp survivors, had to carry loads of granite and marble and stone from the bottom of the quarry up 280 some steps to the top on their backs. When they couldn't work any more and they were just too weak, the Germans just threw them over the edge down into the quarry. When we got there the bottom of the quarry was just filled with bodies. That was one of the bad things we saw. But I saw other concentration camps.
The first one we saw we were in a motorized convoy going up a road, and up ahead about quarter of a mile there was a large number of one-story barracks type buildings, and what looked like cord wood stacked next to these buildings. As we got there we realized it wasn't cord wood but these were bodies of the concentration camp people who had died, and they just stacked them up like cord wood. People here just did not know what went on, you know? And that was just two of the camps that I saw there. Thousands, the Germans massacred 12 million people, 6 million of them were Jews. I took a special interest, being Jewish, I was very interested in what was happening there, obviously. It was not easy, I will tell you.
One of the things that we were curious about was your activity with temple. Was your family very religious?
Just average, not especially. We went to a synagogue, I had my bar mitzvah, of course, and that was almost the end of it. But later on in life I got married and my wife and I and our family we became very active in synagogue, we belonged to the temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City for many, many years. I was chairman of the adult education committee for a number of years, I was on the Board of Directors. A lot of our social life was centered around that.
Once the war broke out and you knew about the involvement of so many Jewish families in Europe, did that change the way your family...?
Everybody was concerned and worried.
Pre-War Family Life
I mean as far as them being Jewish, as far as your family being Jewish. If you were not real active at temple, then did that begin to change as a child?
I think some people then became more involved. You know Jews are—it's either a religion or a peoplehood sort of thing. Sort of a combination. And everybody looks at it differently. I think at the time of the war, I think a lot of the Jewish people then became more religious, actually.
That's what I was thinking.
Which I think was typical of almost everybody in the country at that time. I know a lot of my friends or families went to church more often on Sunday and all of that.
Where did you live the longest as a child?
Chicago. Cleveland from the time of fourteen until I went into the service.
Can you remember the house you lived in?
Can you go there in your mind and take us on a little walk through the house?
When we moved to Cleveland we rented—we had half of a duplex, I can remember that. I had a great life as a kid, I was active and everything. I loved school. If I had a broken leg you couldn't keep me home. I wanted to go to school. I enjoyed every bit of it.
What was your favorite thing about school?
My favorite subjects I think were English and history. When I was young I had two ambitions as a child. I wanted to be a surgeon, then I changed and I wanted to be a history professor. I think I would have been a good doctor. I just kept at it. My wife and I went to school together, junior high and high school.
Meeting HIs Wife
Can you remember the day you met your wife?
Yes, tenth grade English class.
Tell me about it.
I think I was sitting in back of her, I'm not certain, when I moved from Cleveland. I thought at the time that she was the prettiest girl in the class and for the rest of our life I thought that. She still was when she died in February of this year. Miriam was a very intelligent, sweet, loving person.
But in tenth grade, you did know all that. So tell me about...
I knew it, I knew it then.
What was it about her in tenth grade?
Number one, she was beautiful. She was smart, she was sweet. She was a little on the shy side. As a matter of fact, our first date, she invited me to a party. That took a lot of moxy. Nobody ever thought she would ever do that, invite a boy to a party. But she invited me to a party.
So the feeling must have been mutual.
That's when it all started.
How was the party?
It was fun. It was a Jewish youth group she belonged to. That was the start of something good.
Did you know each other through synagogue as well?
No, it was through school primarily. It was just a good life. We both had great families, great parents. I met her father once when I was picking her up for a date at about fifteen and he died when she was very young. He died of a heart attack when my wife was fifteen. We've always felt that it was great that at least he got to meet me once. So that worked out okay.
Were you a driver at that time? How did you pick her up?
I took the streetcar and the bus. I was too young to drive, so we walked three blocks to a street car. Wherever we went, we took streetcars and buses. You thought nothing of it.
You had known her for over three years. It must have been very difficult to leave her?
Yes. We had a great relationship, I got married on a furlough at the age of nineteen.
Were you engaged before basic training started?
Yes, I gave her an engagement ring shortly afterwards. Then we got married six months afterwards.
Did she come down by you?
No, we got married in Cleveland. I don't think—her mother wasn't too happy. She liked me, she was crazy about me, but she wasn't happy that we were going to get married so young. And my parents felt almost the same way. When I came in for the wedding, we had to go to the city hall in Cleveland because I had to get my mother's signature on the marriage certificate. That's how young we were. But it worked out. It worked out fine.
And how did your wife respond to the fact that you were leaving? It had to be so hard.
Obviously she was worried and we hated being apart and all. But you had to do it, that's all.
Where did she live while you were away?
She was with her mother in Cleveland. When I came back out of the service I moved in there for a short time also until we found a place of our own.
Did you correspond a lot?
Oh yes, I don't how many letters came through. The letters I wrote to her were censored. They took out a lot of stuff. But we weren't the only ones going through it. Everybody had to do their part.
Exactly. It was a different time.
Exactly. But we just felt it was a duty. The army wasn't bad. I was young and healthy.