Editor’s note: Frank Cohn, this story’s subject, was a guest speaker at the Fort Belvoir Jewish Community Veteran’s Shabbat in 2019. He shared his story there and the Eagle decided to share it with a wider audience to honor the service of our World War II veterans.
Sitting in his apartment at The Fairfax at Belvoir Woods, Frank Cohn, 94, shared some of the tales of his life: from young German refugee, to Soldier, liberator and Army officer.
Born in 1925 to a comfortable, middle-class German family, Cohn’s father owned a sporting goods store. He said his family’s life took an ominous turn with an appointment that changed the world.
“The minute Hitler came to power, they picketed the store with signs reading ‘Don’t buy from Jews’ and my father was smart enough to figure out this wasn’t going to work. So, he sold the store as fast as he could,” he said.
His father left to connect with relatives in the U.S. While he was gone, his father was ordered to report to Gestapo headquarters when he returned. That frightened Cohn’s mother, and she went to the American consulate and obtained a U.S. visitor’s visa.
Cohn said the timing of their arrival changed everything.
“We landed on Oct. 30, 1938, and Nov. 9 was Kristallnacht, when Jewish homes, hospitals and schools were ransacked. Because of that, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that anyone in country would not be sent back, and that’s what saved us,” he said.
Time to serve
Just a month after his 18th birthday, Cohn was drafted.
“When we graduated from Basic, I went to the 87th Infantry Division. I tried to tell them I spoke German, but they didn’t want to listen at that point,” he said.
Cohn was assigned to an Infantry replacement pool after the invasion, which eventually took him to Belgium. It was then the Army realized Cohn was a native German speaker, and sent him to a two-week intelligence course with other refugees.
“The people I ended up working with were refugees who spoke German, and trained them for six months to become intelligence agents, so they never wore any rank, just ‘U.S.’ on their lapels,” Cohn said.
Cohn, then 19, was part of an intelligence team with two officers, an NCOIC, a driver and one other refugee, Flo, the second German interpreter.
On patrol in Belgium, Cohn noticed his captain kept looking around, then looking at the map.
“We could see he didn’t know where we were. This is not healthy,” he said. “We spotted an Infantry unit spread out on the hillside, and their lieutenant had dragged a table outside, so we wanted to ask him where we are.”
Cohn and his captain trudged up the hill. The captain introduced himself as military intelligence, gruffly telling the lieutenant to give him a briefing of the situation. At that point, the lieutenant asked to see their intelligence IDs, and it was explained they don’t carry them, in case they’re captured. Then, Cohn said, the lieutenant is getting cautious, and asks the captain ‘what’s the fifth general order’?
“Every GI knew what it was – if he’d asked me I could have recited it - but he asked the captain. The captain said he didn’t know. ‘Okay,’ said the lieutenant, ‘who won the world series?’ The captain looked at me, and I looked at him; neither one of us knew. Failing that, the lieutenant asked him to recite the Star Spangled Banner, and the captain began reciting it.
In the meantime, others from the unit had gathered around, and Flo, Cohn’s fellow interpreter, who had been waiting in the Jeep, realized something was wrong, and he comes running up the hill, and with his very thick German accent, yells, “Vat goes on here?”
M1s pointing at us
“At that moment, everyone is pointing M1s at us, and they drag our driver out of the Jeep. We are now prisoners of war of the Americans. It took them seven hours - standing in the cold - to figure out we really were Army intelligence.
“When they left, the captain told us he didn’t want anyone to say a word about it when we got back to headquarters. As we arrived, Soldiers come running out, yelling at us, ‘Hey, vat goes on here?’ We couldn’t live that down,” Cohn said with a chuckle.
The Elbe River
Cohn said he proceeded to Magdeburg, because the Russians were massing on the other side of the Elbe River. (That was the delineation that Eisenhower proscribed to keep U.S. and Soviet forces apart.) The captain takes Cohn across the river with him as interpreter, even though he doesn’t speak any Russian.
“On the other side, you would have thought that the captain and I had conquered Western Germany by their reaction. The Russians hugged us, and kissed us, and gave me vodka, and I reciprocated by giving them cigarettes.
“It took me years to figure out why we got such a warm reception; it wasn’t just because we were Americans,” he said. “When we were moving toward Magdeburg, we knew the war was over, because the Germans were surrendering to get something to eat. We knew nobody was going to shoot at us. The Russians had to fight all the way to the Elbe River. When they finally got to the Elbe, and they saw an American uniform, they realized there were no Germans in front of them, and they had survived the war. They were celebrating their survival,” he said.
A change in duty
Cohn was discharged from active duty as a staff sergeant in 1946, and, after some time in the Reserve with Military Intelligence, graduated from college and received a Regular Army Commission as a 2nd lieutenant, Military Police. He retired as a colonel in 1978.
Nearly 60 years after his combat tour, Cohn was invited to a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where there is a marker commemorating the meeting of the Armies at Torgau.