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My Shield at D-Day

Tzippy Yarom

He enlisted in the US army thinking it would be a ticket to citizenship, but as Reb Isaac Grossman dodged bullets at Normandy 73 years ago, he knew it was his father and brother in the Holy Land keeping him safe

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

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BATTLE SHOCK Reb Isaac (Yitzchak Dovid) Grossman was a new immigrant, straight out of Jerusalem’s Old Yishuv, in America to ease his family’s financial burden. He expected the US army to be a pathway to citizenship but may have gotten more than he bargained for. Grossman’s unit had been practicing debarking for months, but nothing was like D-Day reality — pushing through the rough, frigid waters strapped to waterlogged packs while the Germans were shooting from the bluffs above (Photos: Mishpacha and family archives)

D ark clouds hovered over the shores of Normandy on that fateful day of June 6, 1944 — D-Day. Heavy fog engulfed the sea, while the Allies’ 7,000 warships, transport vessels, and landing craft set sail from England across the Channel, poised to invade Europe with over 150,000 troops who were headed for the beaches of Normandy in German-occupied France.

On landing craft USS LCI (L) 83, 188 American infantry soldiers, too, were eager for their mission — even as they knew there would be thousands of casualties in the best-case scenario. But General Eisenhower’s words, “The eyes of the world are upon you,” helped push their determination to the limits, and one man dedicated to setting out and doing his small part for the pivotal mission was an Orthodox Jew named Isaac (Yitzchak Dovid) Grossman, who had come to America from the alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old Yishuv just six years before.

Thousands of kilometers away, in the Holy City, Rabbi Zalman Grossman (grandfather of the distinguished rav of Migdal HaEmek, Rav Yitzchak Dovid Grossman) was davening around the clock for his son whom he knew was in battle, although he was clueless as to the fateful D-Day mission upon which he was about to embark.

Reb Zalman was davening around the clock for his son, although he was clueless about the fateful mission

“I have no doubt that I was spared thanks to the Tatte’s prayers,” Reb Isaac Grossman reminisces from his home in Clifton, New Jersey. “All around me comrades were falling. It was as if I was enclosed in a bubble of security.”

Normandy’s Omaha Beach might be thousands of kilometers and a lifetime away from New Jersey, but at 96, Isaac Grossman’s memory still serves him well: the first rumblings of war, the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the attack on Pearl Harbor two years later that forced the United States into combat together with the Allies. Grossman had come to the United States from Eretz Yisrael in 1938 to look for work, but when the Third Reich made its sinister plans known and Nazi troops were threatening to march through Europe, he decided to enlist in the American army, even though the country was not yet at war.

“I thought it would make the naturalization process easier, so I enlisted,” Grossman, who was 18 at the time, remembers. But it wasn’t only about making it easier to become a citizen. “I wanted to show that I was a patriotic American,” he says. “And I was eager to take any small part in fighting the Nazis, even though we weren’t officially at war yet.”

His first training camp was in Illinois. “We were training there for almost a year,” Grossman recalls. “Then I was sent to Ohio, to join the First Infantry Division.”

Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the First Infantry Division became a vital force in America’s military apparatus. Grossman was initially shipped out to Africa, and then to Sicily, “to give a break to the exhausted American soldiers in Europe,” Grossman explains.

Grossman kept up as much of a correspondence with his family in Eretz Yisrael as was possible under the circumstances. Both his father Reb Zalman and his younger brother Rav Yisrael Grossman — known as a tzaddik, posek, rosh yeshivah, and father of Rav Yitzchak Dovid Grossman of Migdal HaEmek — were fervently praying for his safety and wellbeing.

Death and Determination

“And boy,” says Isaac Grossman today, “did I need those prayers. Long before D-Day arrived, we were undergoing grueling and dangerous exercises in preparation of the invasion of German-occupied France, practicing debarking from the small landing craft with 60 pounds of military equipment attached and making it to the seashore.”

In the months leading up to the invasion that would turn the war around, the Allied forces conducted a massive deception operation intended to make the Germans think the main invasion target was Pas-de-Calais — the narrowest point between Britain and France — rather than the beaches at Normandy. They also led the Germans to believe that there were plans of an invasion in other locations on the continent. The Allies created and positioned fake equipment (that even included inflatable “tanks”), positioned a phantom army across from Pas-de-Calais, and made extensive use of double agents and fraudulent radio transmissions — all in order to divert Axis attention away from Normandy and, after the real invasion, to delay reinforcements by convincing the Germans that the landings were actually the diversionary attack.

In fact, the Germans sent large forces to Pas de Calais, where they believed the invasion would take place, but, alarmed by the forthcoming invasion, also secured the entire Atlantic coastline. They positioned gun emplacements, wood stakes, metal tripods, barbed wire, mines, and large anti-tank obstacles to delay the approach of landing craft and impede the movements of tanks.

The Allies knew that the mission needed the days around a full moon to be successful, both to illuminate navigational landmarks and for the spring tide that would expose defensive obstacles on the beaches. The full moon on June 6 would have to work in their favor, or else the entire operation would have to be pushed off for an entire month — a strategic impossibility as thousands of troop formations were already in process. But while the stormy weather on June 4 and June 5 prohibited the attack, a marginal improvement forecasted for the next day propelled General Eisenhower to order the invasion to proceed. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 663)

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