Not everyone who came home from World War II got a parade. And not everyone who returned from Vietnam got spit on.
Those are the extreme examples, the cliches of how Americans were greeted after the country’s major wars: When they got home from World War II, the good war, the veterans were seen as conquering heroes. And after Vietnam, the war that went bad, the warriors were too often villified.
But the truth wasn’t that clear cut.
Allen “Boo” Pergament was too young to fight in World War II, but the Atlantic City kid followed the war every day in the newspapers he sold. Atlantic City was a wartime military town — home to both a major training base and a hospital — and Pergament, now 80 and a local historian, said his hometown has always loved its parades.
But “I don’t think they had any parades” in Atlantic City when the war ended, Pergament said. “I don’t happen to remember any parades ... or special celebrations.”
Doug Cervi has heard lots of military veterans’ stories over the years — and made sure his Oakcrest High School students heard them, too. Cervi has upheld a longtime tradition of turning vets from a variety of wars into living history, bringing them in to speak to, and take questions from, his kids.
But homecoming memories are “not really talked about by these guys,” or asked about by students who are almost as old as the vets were when they went to war, he said. “Most of the time, that doesn’t come up. ... That’s probably a thing I need to spend more time on.”
In recognition of Veterans Day, The Press of Atlantic City interviewed veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the country’s latest wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, about their returns and readjustments to life out of war. The following stories aren’t universal, but they are four local vets’ memories of coming home.
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
A hero scarred
Bernie Friedenberg was a World War II hero. The boy from Atlantic City brought two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts home with him from the war in Europe, where he was an Army medic.
But he came back with more than that, said Friedenberg, now 91 and living by the bay in Margate.
“Nobody can go through a lot of combat without being scarred by it,” he said. “You can never get away from the things you saw, the things you did.”
Friedenberg started seeing the truth of that shortly after he got home. He remembers getting into New York on a troop ship and being greeted by other ships’ foghorns.
That brought tears to his eyes. Still, for the most part, “There was nothing at all outstanding” about his homecoming. And his adjustment to life here was worse yet.
“I was drinking a lot. ... I started going to bars, and I’d run into guys like myself,” he said. He had his own memories, and he’d hear about hometown friends who didn’t make it back. “So there I was at home, where I wanted to be more than any place in the world,” and he couldn’t find any peace.
That lasted almost a year, until he talked his father into a trip to Florida, where Friedenberg didn’t drink at all for two weeks. He knew he needed to get on with his life, so he went home and got into the bar business himself in Atlantic City. Then he bought a hotel, then a Boardwalk bingo business, then sold that to go into real estate. He did well for his family.
He married a local girl, Phyllis Rogers, the little sister of an Atlantic City friend, Lt. David Rogers, who was killed in the war. They had three children, and now three grandchildren.
But for all his success, Friedenberg couldn’t get away from his memories, especially when major World War II anniversaries would bring them back. He suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, for decades, until he went to a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital and a psychologist convinced him to talk and write about the memories he’d spent 50 or 60 years trying to repress or ignore.
“He said, ‘It will be like flushing a toilet,’” said Friedenberg, whose book of his memories, “Of Being Numerous: World War II as I Saw It,” was published in 2008 by the Holocaust Research Center at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
Service not forgotten
The Korean War is known as America’s “forgotten war.” But Gil Boyer, 79, of Mays Landing, knows his family didn’t forget him when he was fighting in Korea.
Because when he got back on Easter 1953, on leave from the Air Force, everybody at his welcome-home party was still waiting for him — no matter how late he was.
He got off a flight in San Francisco on Good Friday but couldn’t fly to New York until Sunday. Then he got on a bus to Philadelphia, and when he finally reached his hometown, he tried to get a taxi home to the city’s far Northeast neighborhood. But the cabbie would take him only part of that way, so Boyer ended up hitchhiking home from Korea.
“Unlike today, with motorcycles and everything greeting (veterans) at the airport, there was nothing,” said Boyer, 79.
It was almost midnight when he made it home and surprised his mother, who was alone in the kitchen.
“We had our moment,” he said, “then I walked down to the basement, our party” — and about 25 family and friends who stuck it out waiting for him. He could have called for a ride, but he wanted to get home on his own terms.
Back in the old neighborhood, “I saw my friends again. ... I left home at 18, came back at 20 and I was a combat veteran. A friend said, ‘Yo, Gil, where you been the last few months?’ I said I was in Korea. Somebody said, ‘Korea? Where’s that?’”
As a guy who fought there, that hurt. Still, Boyer could relate — he admits he’d barely heard of Korea before he enlisted and got sent there.
But Korea stayed with him. He was out with friends in a bar shortly after he got home when somebody lit a cherry bomb. Boyer hit the floor, and drinks went flying.
“I had a hard time explaining that to everyone. The girls were complaining about cocktails all over their dresses,” he said. “I got excited, but that’s not a normal thing to do.”
But one of those girls apparently knew Boyer was OK. His date that night was his wife today — Gil and Trudy Boyer have been married for 57 years. They celebrated Trudy’s 80th birthday last month with a big family party.
Bob Steffney has heard the horror stories of other guys getting home from Vietnam and being called names, or worse. He just never saw that himself. Steffney, now of West Wildwood, got a block party instead.
He was in Vietnam from November 1969 to August 1970, a combat engineer for the Marines whose main job was sweeping for mines.
“It got a little hectic,” he said. “You just didn’t leave your guard down.”
He came home in a troop withdrawal and was offered a chance to leave the Marines six months early. He took it — so nobody knew he was heading home to Philadelphia.
“I just went to the house I lived at,” he said. “So the reception I got was from my girlfriend at the time — now my wife (Anastasia), and my brothers and sisters.”
But on short notice, they put together a party for the whole block of their Harrowgate neighborhood.
“It was nice — a surprise, to welcome me home,” said Steffney, now 60 and retired from Amtrak. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
He was known in the neighborhood. His mother died young and left five kids behind, and Steffney actually lived in a car a while, until a friend’s family took him in at 17. When he got home from Vietnam at 21, 100 or so neighborhood friends showed up at his party.
And that helped him feel at home, for a while.
“After we got back, you tried to adjust to your civilian life. I did pretty good with that for a while, but I had a little breakdown,” he said.
His first job after the war was in a chemical plant, but it had to close after an explosion.
“I was out of work about a year and a half, and I started drinking heavy,” he said. “But I got my (stuff) together, got a job with the railroad, and (Anastasia) and I got married a few months later. ... After a couple kids, I started having some pressure. ... I almost committed suicide, but my wife and my best friend stopped me.”
He came back again, and gave back to his neighborhood by coaching baseball and soccer.
“That kept me out of different things,” he said.
Two years ago, he moved full time to the shore, where his family has owned a home since 1992, and where he joined local veterans’ groups that built the Wildwoods Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, a replica of the national monument, dedicated in Wildwood in 2010.
“I got my little house down here,” Steffney said. And he gets a little comfort from the thought that vets of his war made things better for vets coming back after them.
“We opened (the country’s) eyes. They’re not going to forget these kids coming home today,” he said. “They tried to push us aside. But too many people went on that wall, and too many came back disabled to forget them.”
Courtney Woodall doesn’t have a coming-home story from her 10-year military career.
She has three of them.
That’s how many times she was deployed as an Army combat medic — Iraq in 2002-03, Afghanistan in 2005-06, and back to Afghanistan for 15 months starting in 2007.
She saw heavy combat: “I had two times I didn’t think we were getting out of the situation we were in. We were ambushed ... by the Taliban,” said Woodall, now 33, living in Somers Point and studying nursing at Atlantic Cape Community College. “You have to make your peace because you’re not getting out alive. I said, ‘Take care of my daughter, take care of my sister and I’m sorry for my sins.’ ... But we got out, and we got home.”
Her American homecomings were “to my duty station, so I didn’t have anybody there,” she said. But when she could get home to South Jersey, “My mom and dad always had a huge party for me. It was just a very warm experience coming home to them.”
One particularly memorable party was a surprise for Woodall and her younger brother, John Paul Ellenbart, then a corporal in the Marines, at a VFW hall in Egg Harbor Township. Both were home from their second tours overseas — Ellenbart went to Iraq twice before he left the service.
Those parties were great for seeing friendly faces, but they were hard, too.
“You’re just so used to being by yourself; that kind of event can be a little overwhelming,” Woodall said. “The first thing somebody asks is, ‘How was it?’” So you have to decide: Do you tell them how it really is over there or tell them what you would tell your mom so she’d think you were all right?”
She mostly went with the G-rated version, unless she was dealing with another vet.
“I’d talk to my brother more than to my mom or dad. ... But you don’t really want to relive what was going on over there,” Woodall said.
She suffers from some PTSD. Not long ago, she was out shopping for clothes with her daughter, Alexis, now 15, and Woodall’s little sister, Taylor, who’s 17 and more sister than aunt to Alexis. In their local mall, the vet heard voices that brought back Afghanistan, and she had to get out — right that second, even if the girls weren’t happy about dropping their shopping that quickly.
For this warrior/mother, the hardest part, and the best part, of coming home was seeing her daughter, and seeing how Alexis had changed in a year or more. Woodall had hoped to make the Army her career, until she got home from her third combat tour in 2008 and was welcomed with a pep talk.
“They said, ‘We’re going to take a month’s break, and then that’s it: We’ve got to hit the road again and start getting ready (for Afghanistan) in ’09,’” Woodall recalls.
That really was it for her and the Army, although the career goal she’s studying for at Atlantic Cape is to become a civilian trauma nurse at an Army hospital in San Antonio.
“If the doctor or nurse has been there, I think they can relate better (to what a wounded soldier) is going through,” Woodall said.
And that, she believes, could help new generations of Americans find peace when they get home from their wars.