Monday, December 9, 2013

Remembering General Al Ungerleider

On Halloween Day 1945, just months after World War II ended, a young U.S. Army captain stationed in Denmark wrote a postcard to his sister Annette back home in Carbondale, Pennsylvania. Sixty-eight years later I found the postcard on e-Bay, and it led me to a remarkable American hero.

That Army captain was Al Ungerleider. Sixteen months before writing the postcard he was a 22-year-old lieutenant leading a platoon of men through deadly German fire at Omaha Beach on D-Day.  Despite being wounded twice he continued to lead soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division as they fought their way across Europe.

He went on to a distinguished 36-year Army career, serving in Korea and Vietnam and attaining the rank of Brigadier General. In 1994 he was chosen to accompany President Clinton in laying a wreath at Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-day.

In the closing days of World War II he helped liberate the horrendous Dora-Mittelbau slave labor camp, part of the Nordhausen concentration camp. In a Congressional tribute to General Ungerleider after his death at age 89 in 2011, Virginia Representative Gerald Connolly described the Nordhausen experience:

In April, 1945, after taking heavy fire from the Nazi soldiers guarding the prison, Lt. Ungerleider and his men liberated the camp. Years later, General Ungerleider said that although he had become battle hardened, nothing had prepared him for what he encountered at Nordhausen. To quote General Ungerleider, ‘‘We thought we had entered the gates of hell.’’

At Nordhausen, he and his men freed approximately 300 prisoners, most of whom he described as ‘‘living skeletons.’’ He and his men shared the small amount of food that they had with the prisoners. Lt. Ungerleider then led them in reciting Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Only then did the prisoners accept that the horror of the Nazi death camp had ended.

After retiring from the Army Gen. Ungerleider served as a synagogue administrator in Virginia and was active in Jewish causes. His hometown of Carbondale, Pennsylvania, will place a bust of him in a local park in a ceremony to be held next summer.

Now about the postcard. I found it on e-Bay in early 2013. Given General Ungerleider’s prominence it was easy to track down his family. I contacted his widow, Ruth, who confirmed that the card was written by her husband. Gen. Ungerleider’s daughter, Ilene, told me Annette was a postcard collector herself and wondered how this particular card got out of the family. I asked the e-Bay seller, located in Syracuse, New York, and here’s his reply:

That postcard and most all the others I have been selling this past year came out of a very large lot of 10,000 postcards I purchased in March 2012. The seller was in Peoria, Illinois and they belonged to an old friend of his who had died and he was selling them to donate the proceeds to cancer research.

That’s a typical story for the WWII postcards I research. It’s often impossible to figure out how they got from one place to another.

Annette now lives in Israel, and I sent the postcard to Ruth to forward to her. As it turned out, Gen. Ungerleider’s son Dan was about to visit Annette in Israel and he delivered the postcard in person.

What a long journey this postcard took -- from Captain Ungerleider in Denmark in 1945 to his sister Annette in Pennsylvania; to who-knows-where for nearly 70 years; to a postcard dealer in Peoria; to an e-Bay seller in Syracuse in 2012; to me in 2013; to Ruth in Virginia; and finally back to Annette in Israel.

But the story doesn’t end there. Annette’s grandson, Noam Martin, recently contacted me with an invitation to a Facebook tribute page he set up for General Ungerleider. Following that, Annette and I became Facebook friends. I stay in touch via email with Ruth Ungerleider and hope to meet her someday, perhaps next summer in Carbondale when her husband’s bust is unveiled.

I feel honored to be associated in a small way with this wonderful family.

If you want to know more about General Ungerleider, there are many articles and remembrances about him on the internet. One of the more comprehensive ones is this obituary from the Washington Post. (You might have to endure an ad for a few moments before the article opens.)

General (Ret.) Al Ungerleider (left), President Bill Clinton, and Medal of Honor recipient Walter Ehlers lay a wreath at the American Cemetery in Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1994.

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