World War II veterans from South Florida share emotional stories

Published: Mar. 15, 2023 at 5:10 AM EDT
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The number of World War II veterans in Florida is fading each day. The Veterans Administration has a record of a little more than 20,000 right now.

They might be the grandparents or great grandparents in your family.

From their homes in Jensen Beach to Boca Raton, a group of four World War II veterans recently met up in West Palm Beach.

They have a special distinction: they were prisoners of war in German prison camps.

The amount of American servicemen that are former POWs from World War II is hard to track, but also a dwindling number.

They told their stories to each other and WFLX.

Richard Lewis, of Jensen Beach, was in the Army during the war.

"We were taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge in St. Viths, Belgium," Lewis recalled. "I was in two different prison camps — 12a, 13c, and our meals consisted of black bread. And we called it grass soup. There wasn't much in it. I lost. I went from 188 pounds to 116 in four months."

John Doniger, 102, of Boynton Beach, was in the Air Force during the war.

"We were on fire, so I gave the instruction for everybody to bail out and we did," Doniger said. "Fortunately, everybody got out. They were shooting at me while I was being parachuted down, so I was captured immediately."

Irv Booksin, of Palm Beach Gardens, was with the 78th infantry division during the Battle of the Bulge.

"When I was captured, I was the only one in a prison camp," Booksin said. "The others, I don't know, were either dead or they went somewhere else. It was the coldest winter ever recorded in Europe, and I had a torn field jacket. ... I was freezing. I was on the ground. I was eaten up with lice."

Jack Goldstein, of Boca Raton, was serving with the Army when he was captured in Italy.

"You take a young kid, 21, 22, you give him a rifle and you tell him go fight and he goes to fight, and before you know it, he's in company's hands," Goldstein said. "I was a prisoner for 14 months."

Doniger hangs on to the dog tag the Germans issued him while he was in prison camp for 15 months after his capture.

“When you hold that, when you see that, even this amount of years later, what’s that feeling like when you’re holding that?” WFLX’s Mike Trim asked him.

"Nothing, really," Doniger said. "I just look at it and say, 'So? I beat you.'"

Booksin said U.S. service dog tags identifying his Jewish faith were too dangerous to keep.

"I threw my dog tags away," Booksin said. "When they questioned me, I said it got caught in a barbed wire."

When Doniger was asked if he was proud of his service and if he would do it again, he didn't hesitate.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Because, I was a volunteer in the first place."

Lewis was asked the same question.

"I would do it again," Lewis said.

"And why?" Trim asked.

"I would go fight for my country, if I was able," Lewis said.

What these four veterans would like to see now is a part of how things used to be.

"I think back in my generation, patriotism was the biggest thing, but it's starting up again now," Lewis said. "More and more people come up and shake my hand."

Added Booksin: "All it takes is people to say five words — thank you for your service."

More than just their war stories, they are men who are 102, 100, 98 and 97 years old.

Getting to know them is like taking a walk through history.

After hearing their prisoner of war stories from World War II, Trim asked a few other things he was curious about.

"What was your favorite decade?" Trim asked.

"The next 10 years after the war," Doniger said. "That was, I think, the best part. You got married, you had children and things were looking up. Things were getting back to normal. Yes, I think that was the best part."

For Goldstein: "When I had my children."

Lewis said his favorite decade was the 1950s.

"And why so?" Trim asked.

"It's after the war," he said. "I met my wife. Things were a lot better."

Trim asked Booksin about the heroes' welcome home.

"When I came home, I was in parades and a hero, supposedly," Booksin said. "I was drinking water in one of the buildings, drinking water, and someone says, 'Hey, soldier,' — I had my uniform on — 'Would you like to go to the show? It's an audience participation.' I said, 'OK.' So I went in, they put me up in the balcony and one person came — it was soldiers, sailors — and they chose me to be on the stage."

Trim asked about their favorite fashion trend in their lives.

"Zoot suit," Doniger said.

"Zoot suit with the pleat, the long jackets with the chain and, I don't know," Booksin added. "The jeans came out and that was the fashion."

Trim asked the veterans their thoughts on the war in Ukraine.

"I don't think it should have happened at all," Lewis said.

"How many wars have we been in, unnecessarily?" Doniger added. "This is another unnecessary war, but it happens."

Booksin agreed.

"It's not necessary," he said. "You don't gain anything and the hatred that's built up in people, for what? That they can't live together?"

Trim then asked what they thought about the the direction of the country they served.

"Down. Not up," Doniger said. "It's being torn apart by ignorant ignoramuses who will destroy anything to get their gain."

Lewis fondly recalled the patriotism of his generation.

"Do you see that now?" Trim asked him.

"Not like it was when I was young," Lewis said.

Booksin told a story about a trip to the Empire State Building and tourists complaining.

"In my mind, I repeat being crushed into these boxcars that I was in," Booksin recalled. "I couldn't sit down, went through hell. And they said, 'Oh, we're starving to death,' (and they said) in an elevator, 'Oh, it's so crowded.' Four people, it's so crowded. So all these things brought back (memories), and [I thought], if you only knew what toughness was."

When asked how it felt living such a long life, the 102-year-old Doniger's answer was an honest one.

"Just can't believe I'm still here," he said, laughing.

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