Getting Into The Army

Benjamin B. Ferencz

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, “a day that will live in infamy,” I was sitting at my desk in a small attic room that I shared with another Harvard Law School student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We were stunned by the radio report that Japan had launched a massive attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor. Almost immediately, students from all over the University assembled in Harvard Yard in a rally of solidarity and support for our government. Everyone I met was ready to enlist in defense of our country.

Hitler had already conquered most of Europe. His murderous blitzkrieg had spread eastward as he and his allies declared war against the United States. I wrote to the War Department and suggested that I might most effectively be used in the intelligence services. Since my French was pretty good, I thought I might be dropped behind the lines in France. I could probably get by on my skills in Hungarian, Yiddish, and possibly German, and had gotten a 98 on my high school final exam in Spanish, which embarrassed my teacher at Townsend Harris who had wanted to flunk me. Soon the disappointing reply came back from Washington saying that no one could serve in the intelligence services who had not been a U.S. citizen for at least 15 years. My citizenship was derived from my father’s papers issued in 1933. An inquiry with the army paratroopers was brushed aside with the observation that because of my size and Bantam weight I might more likely go up than down. As subsequent events would prove, the army never did recognize my hidden talents as a parachutist.

It was near the end of the first semester and I had won a scholarship for the excellence of my exam in criminal law. The Dean, James Landis, addressed a letter to my draft board noting that I was a student of promise and requesting that I be allowed to finish the term. I presented the letter to the Clerk of the Draft board in the Bronx where I had been registered. He queried me briefly and said there would be no problem in deferring my induction. When the term was over, I packed up my books and went home, expecting to enter the military service shortly. But the summer passed and there was no call. My mother strongly urged me to go back to school to continue my education. I didn’t want to reject her earnest appeal. I was her only son. “If they need you,” she said, “they’ll call you.” Her logic was impeccable. I went back to school.

Back in Cambridge, I continued my efforts to enlist in a military service of my choice. My roommate, Austin Graham, was accepted as an Ensign by the Navy. Although I had qualified as a Red Cross lifeguard, despite my inability to float, the idea of drowning at sea did not particularly appeal to me. Because of my size, I was sure the Marines wouldn’t take me. Joining the army lost its attraction when I considered the war wounds described in Eric Remarque’s great book All Quiet in the Western Front, which had made quite a profound impression on me. The Air Corps, on the other hand, had great appeal. The uniforms were nice, and as a popular song said, I would “wear a pair of silver wings.” Most attractive was their slogan, “Your first mistake will be your last!” That was a nice, quick, and clean way to go.

My love affair with the Air Corps was not mutual. No matter how I tried, they wouldn’t have me. First, I was too short to become a pilot—they said I wouldn’t reach the pedals. For similar reasons, they wouldn’t even take me as a navigator. That was very fortunate for them since I have a terrible sense of direction and if they ordered me to bomb Tokyo I might have been lost over Berlin. When they later lowered the height requirements, I still couldn’t qualify. One of my eyes missed one of the letters on the 20/20 line. An optometrist suggested that I try eye exercises such as following the point of a moving pencil for hours. When my classmates observed my peculiar gyrations in class, some wondered whether I had been studying too hard and had gone out of my mind. The exercises didn’t help; on my next physical exam for an assignment for pilot training, my left eye missed two letters rather than one.

Noting my disappointment, one of the examiners offered me the name of someone at the Boston airfield who could help me become a pilot. I found the gentleman and sure enough, he said he could fix it. He pulled out some papers and said, “Just sign here!” Now, if there is one thing you learn at Harvard, it is not to sign anything without reading it first. The paper would sign me up for training as a Glider Pilot. I didn’t know what a Glider Pilot was. When he explained, I respectfully declined his kind offer. I consider myself a patriot, but if I am going to fly, I want a machine that can go up and not merely down. When, on D-day, I watched from the beaches at Lands-End in England and saw the hoards of little gliders being pulled by aircraft to be dropped over the Normandy beaches, my admiration for glider pilots was unlimited. But, very frankly, I was glad I wasn’t one of them. About 70% of them became war casualties.

My studies during the last two years at law school suffered from the anticipation that I would have to leave at any moment. I didn’t even buy the expensive law books that I couldn’t afford. My primary focus was on trying to get into military service where I could do the most good. I was not a militarist but I was eager to do my share in the war. The thought that others might risk their lives for me, while I remained at home, was not something I could live with. I was waiting for the draft call that never came. My mother kept up her reassurances, “If they want you, they’ll call you.”

As soon as I graduated from Law School, I went back to my draft board in the Bronx. I explained that I had been given a brief deferment to complete the semester and I hadn’t heard anything since. The clerk, who looked familiar, said he would send me my induction notice the next day. I thanked him and left the room. When he followed me toward the elevator, I got a bit apprehensive. “Ferencz,” he said, “How did you do in law school?” I replied that I had done all right. “Do you want some more time to take your bar exam?” he asked. I was really uncomfortable. I noted that I could take the exam while I was in the army. Then, as we stood alone in the hallway, he explained. He told me that he had been a Yale Law Student when World War I broke out. He had enlisted in the air corps and had been a bit of hero, but had lost a leg in combat. I had barely noticed his limp. He told me that he had never been able to return to his legal studies and had regretted that all of his life. When he saw me come in to the draft office and saw the letter from the Harvard dean, he decided that he would not let happen to me what had happened to him. So he had held my file until I became a lawyer. I expressed my appreciation, and never saw him again. The stranger who had quietly taken me under his wing certainly changed the course of my life. Was Fate saving me for something else?