Bernard Rader and his wife, June, receive a certificate of appreciation from Sandy Friedman, center, copresident of the Middlesex chapter of the Brandeis National Committee on Nov. 5.
Photo by Debra Rubin
November 18, 2008
When his 94th U.S. Army Infantry platoon was ambushed by German soldiers during a battle in Brittany in the fall of 1944, Bernard Rader, then a 20-year-old private, knew immediately he had to hide the fact he was Jewish.
The greatly outnumbered 55-man platoon of soldiers fought valiantly for about four hours before being captured near Lorient and taken as prisoners of war to Ile de Groix, an island off the coast.
“I remember the French people we passed as the Germans led us away waved or flashed us the victory sign,” recalled Rader.
Rader, a Brooklyn native now living in Freeport, NY, spoke Nov. 5 ahead of Veterans Day at the East Brunswick Public Library. The program was cosponsored by the library and the Middlesex chapter of the Brandeis National Committee.
Rader’s appearance with his wife, June, came through a chance meeting with Sandy Friedman of East Brunswick, the chapter’s copresident, when she sat next to the couple on the auto train to Florida last year and, she said, asked them “to come to East Brunswick to tell their story.”
Rader recalled that when they were captured, he and the other four Jewish POWs buried their dog tags. When the commandant in charge demanded to know what had become of those ID tags, Rader fell back on the Geneva Convention.
Private Bernard Rader
Photo courtesy East Brunswick Public Library
“Name, rank, and serial number,” said Rader. “I told him I lost the tags.”
“We had no food,” he said. “They gave us a slice of bread with lard each day and watery soup.”
One time, two French women gave him an apple and, Rader said, he was so hungry he even scarfed down the core.
Being taken POW gave Rader a chance to be part of history as one of only 149 Allied troops ever turned over by the Germans during World War II in a prisoner exchange. The two exchanges in November 1944 were arranged by Andrew Gerow Hodges, a captain in the Red Cross attached to the 94th Infantry.
“This was a nice, good man,” Rader said.
Hodges had been asked by Maj. Gen. Harry J. Maloney, commanding general of the 94th, to get desperately needed supplies and medicine to Allied POWs in the Lorient sector.
He began making trips behind German lines and finally suggested the exchange of British, American, and French prisoners would simply be less trouble for everyone. The first exchange, including Rader, took place Nov. 17 in the fishing village of Etel. The second occurred on Nov. 29. The exchanges made headlines and newsreels across the United States.
However, Rader and many of the other men didn’t meet the man who saved them until about six years ago, when Hodges’ alma mater, Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., brought them together for a weekend reunion at Hodges’ home. Hodges died three years later.
It also produced a documentary of interviews with Hodges and the POWs, For One English Officer, that was shown to those gathered in East Brunswick. June Rader said the documentary was aired on PBS stations in Alabama and the Midwest.
She said that several years ago her husband asked his fellow POWs to contribute $100 each to have a plaque erected in France thanking the French for their kindness toward the imprisoned Americans despite having so little themselves.
A French woman gave them an American flag with 36 stars on it that her mother made during the war. The woman would hide it in the chimney and tell the Germans she was curing ham if she was asked.
“I told her it was part of her family history and she should keep it, but she insisted,” said June who was curious why the flag had only 36 stars.
“She said her mother had never actually seen an American flag in person, so she didn’t really know how many stars it had,” said June. The flag was donated to the Museum of the 94th Infantry.
When June Rader went to the French consulate in Manhattan to discuss the plaque she told the woman there her husband’s story. Shortly afterward, the consulate called to inform the couple that France would like to honor him for his service.
The couple was flown to Washington; at a ceremony at the French embassy, President Nicolas Sarkozy last year made Rader “chevalier” of the Legion of Honor, the highest award given by France.
“It was very exciting,” recalled June. “President Sarkozy kissed him on both cheeks and thanked him on behalf of the French people.”
As payment for the appearance, the Raders asked that a donation be made to the Red Cross. A Red Cross representative was on hand and said the money would be used to assist families of American military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.