World War II Oral History Interview
Date: July 14, 2005
Veteran: Sergeant George Pushkal
Company F, 501st Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division
Interviewers: Joseph Bilby, Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Joseph Bilby
George Pushkal was born in College Point, New York in December, 1919. In 1936 he left high school to join the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the New Deal Agency that employed young men in public works under the supervision of army officers. He joined the CCC so that he could send money home to his mother, who, in those depression years, could not afford to pay her $21 a month home mortgage. As a CCC worker he earned $30 a month and was able to send home $21 for the mortgage and keep $9 a month for his personal expenses. He recalled that he was actually younger than the minimum age of sixteen required for joining the CCC. When asked for his birth certificate as he boarded a train to a CCC worksite, however, he said he forgot to bring it and was allowed to proceed. Pushkal was assigned to Camp Smith, near Lake Placid, New York. Food and shelter were supplied to workers by the government, and he recalled that he ate well during his two year stint at Camp Smith, clearing debris from lakes, building campsites and planting trees.
Pushkal was drafted into the army on October 13, 1941 while working at Lily Tulip Company in College Point. He was in basic training at Fort Eustis, Virginia when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, and recalled that soldiers were running around yelling “the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor” that day, but that most of them didn’t really know where Pearl Harbor was until they consulted some maps. On December 8 Pushkal and his fellow trainees were issued live ammunition and traveled by truck to perform guard duty at local reservoirs. Two days later he was on a train for New Orleans, where he boarded a ship to Panama.
While stationed in the Panama Canal Zone, Pushkal was assigned to an air defense artillery battery equipped with 37 millimeter antiaircraft guns, participated in jungle warfare training and rose to the rank of sergeant and command of a ten man gun section. His unit built several base camps in the Panamanian rain forest. After two years and two months in Panama, Sergeant Pushkal returned to the United States, traveling by ship to San Diego and then on by train to Camp Upton, New York, an induction center for new troops, where he was advised that he would be given command of a training unit, a job he did not want. In order to avoid that assignment, Pushkal volunteered for airborne training, even though he “hated heights.”
Sergeant Pushkal attended jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia in early 1944. He liked the school, even though the course was physically demanding. The trainees ran five miles before breakfast each morning, and participated in five practice parachute jumps, the last one a night jump followed by a fifteen mile march back to camp. Following his airborne training, Pushkal attended demolition and chemical weapons schools. He worked as a chemical weapons instructor for a while before being sent to England, where he was assigned as a replacement to the 101st Airborne Division, then serving in Belgium. Pushkal joined F Company of the 501st Parachute Infantry of the 101st on December 16, 1944, as a squad leader, as the unit moved forward to halt the German offensive in the Battle of the Bulge. At this point Pushkal was asked if he thought the film “Band of Brothers,” which told the story of the 506th Parachute Infantry’s E Company, accurately reflected his own experience with the 101st Airborne at Bastogne. He said that it did, although he thought some scenes were overly graphic.
The 501st passed through Bastogne and established a defensive line astride a road a short distance beyond the town. Pushkal recalled that he and his men were told to dig foxholes, and to “dig deep and reinforce them, because this is where we’re going to stay.” He dug his own foxhole with a shelf cut into the rear of the hole to provide a safe sleeping spot. He did not have a sleeping bag, just an overcoat, and he was very cold, although initially there was no snow on the ground. Company F was deployed in an open field, and the adjacent Company E in the woods. Pushkal explained that it was better to be in the field than the woods, since shells going off in the trees would rain both shrapnel and large broken branches down from above.
While the paratroopers waited for the Germans, it began to snow. The men of Pushkal’s platoon moved into an abandoned house for better shelter, but the Germans arrived and fired some tank shells at the house. The Americans ran down to the cellar and then abandoned the house to return to their foxholes once the shelling stopped. Shortly afterward German infantry with “five or six tanks” in support advanced on Company F’s position. When heavy American rifle and machine gun fire cut down the advancing foot soldiers, however, the tanks retreated. The siege of Bastogne had begun. Pushkal recalled that a typical day at Bastogne involved receiving indirect artillery and mortar fire, as well as small arms fire from the German lines. As the siege progressed, it snowed more and the temperature plummeted. Pushkal finally acquired a sleeping bag when another soldier became a casualty and didn’t need it anymore.
The German lines were on the edge of a wooded area about 500 yards away from Pushkal’s position. On one occasion he got out of his foxhole to attend to a call of nature, and became a target for a German machine gun. He recalled that he could hear the bullets cracking around him as he dove back into his hole. Soon after Pushkal reached cover, the Germans opened fire with mortars, and “the ground shook.” A round landed every twenty seconds as the enemy walked the fire down the line of American foxholes.
On another occasion, Sergeant Pushkal heard some noise, looked out of his foxhole and saw ten tanks with a large number of German infantry gathering around them in the tree line to his front. He recalled that “my heart stopped, and I thought ‘this is it.’” He eased his M-1 rifle up above the foxhole and emptied a clip into the mass of German infantrymen, thought he saw some fall, then ducked back down. When he raised his head cautiously again, the infantry were gone, but the tanks remained.
Pushkal wanted to call in artillery fire to hit the tanks, but the telephone line to his company headquarters was cut, so he scrambled out of the hole and started to run up the slope to the rear. Bullets began to crack in the air and he hit the ground, and laid there for five minutes before making another dash, which brought him over the crest to safety on the other side. The town of Bastogne was a short distance away, and he went there to find his lieutenant and tell him about the tanks. The officer’s response was “let me worry about that and get back to your goddamn hole.” As Pushkal went forward again, artillery rounds flew over his head and impacted in the distance. When he returned he saw that several of the tanks had been disabled and the others had retreated.
One night Pushkal switched foxholes with one of his men, a Polish-American soldier he remembered as “Stash.” Stash was a big man and the sergeant’s larger foxhole was more comfortable for him. During the night the unit was hit by a German artillery barrage, and Pushkal heard Stash screaming “I’m hit.” Pushkal jumped out of his hole and ran to Stash, who was covered with blood, then ran another hundred yards to get a medic, who he ordered back to help Stash. Before Stash was taken to the rear, he asked Pushkal to hold on to his captured German Luger pistol for safekeeping.
Sergeant Pushkal remembered that it did not bother the men of the 101st much that they were surrounded in Bastogne, a fact of which they were reminded constantly as firing took place all around the perimeter of the defense. His platoon leader said that airborne soldiers “were always surrounded when we land.” Although the siege of Bastogne was finally broken on December 26, 1944 by General George Patton’s Third Army, the 101st stayed in the line until mid-January, when the paratroopers finally got a chance to return to the rear to rest and relax a bit. Pushkal remembered that the men of the 501st didn’t think they needed saving by Patton, since they had stopped the Germans every time they tried to advance. Of the 240 men of F Company of the 501st who walked into Bastogne, only forty, including George Pushkal, now a platoon sergeant, walked out.
Sergeant Pushkal recalled the Belgian civilians fondly. On one occasion when he and his squad stayed on a Belgian farm, the family invited them for dinner. He said that the Belgians “didn’t have much” but graciously shared what they did have. The Americans gave the family all their chocolate bars and some Belgian money they had acquired. He also noted that Belgian families gave their white sheets to American soldiers to use as camouflage in the snow, since the Americans didn’t have any US supplied winter camouflage garments.
To their dismay, the men of the 101st Airborne, who thought they would be returned to their role as a reserve unit, were deployed as regular infantrymen for the remainder of the war. They pushed on into Alsace and then into Germany, ending the war in Bavaria, where they were the first Americans to reach Adolf Hitler’s retreat at Berteschgarten, near Munich.
Pushkal and his men had expected fanatical Nazi last ditch defenders to fight to the death to defend Berteschgarten, but he recalled that there was no one to be seen as the Americans approached Hitler’s abandoned vacation home. It seemed unnaturally quiet, and he recalled that as he walked up the steps at Berteschgarten, he felt an eerie sense of “pins and needles.”
At around the same time Pushkal recalled visiting a Bavarian concentration camp liberated by the 101st. He remembered that “you could smell death all around” and recalled the experience as “horrible.” He said bodies were piled one atop another, and that the American soldiers were told not to give the survivors a lot of food as they could die from overeating.
Around the time the war in Europe ended, Sergeant Pushkal slung his loaded M-1 Garand rifle on his back while he helped one of his men move a machine gun. Pushkal had his platoon’s only rifle cleaning rod, and had stuck it down the muzzle of his rifle. The soldier he was assisting had “liberated” a decorative cane from a German house and had it stuck in his belt. As they moved the machine gun, the tip of the cane entered the rifle’s trigger guard, pushed off the safety and hit the trigger. The gun fired and, because its barrel was blocked by the cleaning rod, exploded on Pushkal’s back. Miraculously, he was not injured. He recalled that the explosion “stung the hell out of me,” but that “the Lord was with me – I owe Him.”
When the war in the Pacific ended Pushkal was in the process of returning to the United States. Due to his long service and overseas time, he had enough “points” for discharge, even though the 101st Airborne Division was packing up to move to the Pacific theater. At a port in France, he heard someone call “hey Sarge.” It was Stash, recovered from his Battle of the Bulge wounds and on his way home as well. Stash asked Pushkal if he still had his Luger. He did, and returned it to him. Recalling the sergeant’s run for the medics that night near Bastogne, Stash said, “Sarge, thanks for the other thing too.” It was, Pushkal thought, enough to say.
On September 20, 1945, following his return to the United States, Sergeant Pushkal was discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey and awarded the bronze star for meritorious service. After arriving in Flushing, New York from Fort Dix, he took a bus home to Long Island, which he remembers as “stupid” since he had almost a thousand dollars in his pocket in mustering out pay. “I shoulda took a cab,” he said.
George Pushkal said that he didn’t really talk much about the war until five or six years ago. He believes that the films Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers were responsible for the increased awareness of and interest in World War II. In the wake of those films, people began to ask him about his experiences.
He remembers the 101st Airborne Division as a “great outfit” with high quality officers and noncommissioned officers and is glad and proud to have served with the division.