CUNY Macaulay Honors College at Baruch College/Professor Bernstein
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Who He Was: A Choice

Over the course of World War II, the United States’ Selective Service drafted and inducted over eleven million men into the various armed forces; my grandpa, Stephen J. Drag is not included in that figure and yet in 1944 he found himself in the deadliest battle of the war…by his own choosing. This short narrative, while structured around events of the war in reality has little to do with it; instead, this about a decision that was made, some unlikely circumstances, and a choice’s ultimate consequence. It is by mere coincidence that the end result takes us into war, though its importance cannot be overstated. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Dwight Eisenhower once stated, one’s history is “never really written by chance but by choice;” with all luck, this will be an honest recount of a choice made a young man over sixty years ago.

Today, his decision can seem particularly befuddling, in recent memory, war is something that many run away from, not towards; it’s worth pointing out thought that the world has changed in more ways than one since then though, for better and for worse. Beside the point, the youngest son of Polish immigrants, Steve Drag grew up in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn and was in the last graduating class of Alexander Hamilton High School in 1942. Just some three weeks before he was to turn eighteen, America was attacked at Pearl Harbor and in time for his birthday, the United States had commit to the largest war that the world had ever seen. Within his group of friends, Drag was one of the youngest, his two older brothers had both been drafted into the Air Force and most of his friends had been inducted as well. One can only imagine the anxiety that the draft lottery process created; yet my grandpa knew that his name would never be called no matter how many lotteries were held. He had not ‘lucked out’ with the lottery system and he didn’t know some loophole, rather upon examination by the draft board, he was classified as a ‘4-F,’ or thanks to his eyesight, ‘not acceptable for military service.’

Most people today would be relieved at hearing such news; things were different then though and to my grandpa, the classification was a disappointment. While on one hand it assured him of a (comparatively speaking) more comfortable job and left him in a Brooklyn with more young women than young men (an enviable situation); on the other, the classification still felt like a rejection, and not many can handle them too well. So, following high school, he left to work for a war goods contractor and he joined the National Guard. Now, the National Guard itself only offered training in preparation for a call out to war, but at least it was something, thought my grandpa. Yet, even that wasn’t enough and with war efforts heating up, in September of 1943, he submitted his name to the Army voluntarily.

Considering the enormity of the war, volunteers are people that you generally don’t turn down without good reason, and so my grandpa was accepted, his eyesight and all. Due to his classification however, he was told that he would never see any action, and only serve at posts within the United States, never mind Europe; okay he thought, at least I’m doing something. His first stop was a Camp Upton in Farmingdale, New York, not too far from his Brooklyn home. While there he was offered a chance to stay and overlook the kitchen operations. Kitchen duty though was not enough to entice my grandpa to stay and so he next headed out to Camp Grant in Illinois. After spending a good amount of time there, he was offered the choice to become either a dental or surgical technician; he chose the latter and was no sooner shipped off to Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia for training. For someone not leaving the country, things sure seemed to be moving fast, and with good reason, shortly after America’s landing at Normandy, my grandpa found himself with countless others on a ship destined for England, he was off to war, 4-F and all.

Upon arrival and subsequent shuffle to France, he was told informed at some point that he was a ‘replacement troop.’ Yet, he was replacing no ordinary soldier, instead he had the distinction of being a combat medic, and the luxury of having to carry one less thing, a gun. And so, at some point in July of 1944, he was assigned to the ‘Anti Tank Company’ of the 120th Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division, with which he would spend the remainder of the war. The 30th had earned the nickname of ‘FDR’s SS,’ as it had twice decimated Hitler’s ‘elite’ SS troops, my grandpa unarmed for most of the campaign made his impact known in other ways; with a red cross affixed to his helmet and sleeve, instead of ammunition and firearms, he carried a bag full of “bandages…morphine, and some sulfanilamide powder.”

By December, his division had been rerouted from Germany back to Belgium as the Battle of the Bulge began. More than half a million American soldiers participated in the battle and while its significance within the war itself was immense, for the purpose of this narrative, no further detail is necessary. Instead more important to the story of my grandpa is that during the time of the battle, he and his company were stationed in Malmedy, a relatively small town in Belgium. They stayed there through Christmas, and while there the Air Force mistakenly proceeded to bomb the town on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th, when all the while it had been in American control. The Christmas of 1944 is one that has stuck with my grandpa ever since, at the time he was still only nineteen. Further research into released military documents reveals that on a bright and clear Christmas Eve day, at 2:30pm, Air Force B-52’s directly hit several companies specifically the Anti Tank Co. to which my grandpa was assigned. (In an army transcript from 12/24, one soldier signaled: “They have bombed us two or three times today. Isn’t there something you can do to stop them?,” the response to which stated: “Colonel — is doing everything he can.” Four minutes later, more bombs were dropped.) It’s amazing to consider that in a war that was as devastating as it was, soldiers and civilians alike were both killed and injured by mistake. For his immediate relief actions, my grandpa was awarded two bronze stars; his regiment was later on bestowed ‘Croix de Guerre’ medals from the French, though my grandpa seemingly never physically received his.

The Battle of the Bulge did not mark the end of his military action, as my grandpa was involved in several other campaigns throughout Europe until the war (at least on the European front) was won; yet for the sake of this short paper, I feel it is an apropos place to bring the story to an end. By the age of twenty, he had returned home having seen the horrors and atrocities that war could produce, however he also undoubtedly saw the positive effects that can still be seen today. Looking back today, it is quite clear that his initial choice to serve is one that he would have made again.

Author’s Note: I realize it is particularly difficult to do justice to my grandpa’s story in such a short amount of time; hundreds of thousands of pages have been written on the very same topic, having no intention to understate my grandpa’s experience, simply consider this as fleetingly brief excerpt of what actually occurred. Hopefully, it is one that you can appreciate -peter s dantonio



1 Matthew Melore { 12.10.10 at 5:58 pm }

My grandpa lives in Farmingdale. Your grandpa was crazy brave for volunteering like that.

2 chiub92 { 12.11.10 at 11:49 pm }

Despite your grandfather’s bad eyesight, I admire that he was willing to devote time to helping out. He must have gone through a lot since leaving for England so many years ago.

3 baksh416 { 12.13.10 at 1:19 pm }

Have to say your grandfather was a patriotic and persistent guy. If only we had more people like him now in our government.

4 choyeonkim { 12.14.10 at 5:12 am }

I think you really connected (almost weaved) your grandfather’s personal story with the general history of the States. The way how you wrote was very interesting. Thanks for sharing the story and the actual excerpts from you interview.

5 Roslyn Bernstein { 12.16.10 at 5:54 pm }

Peter, You really let us inside your grandfather’s thinking –why he wanted to serve in WWII, despite his eyesight! I was very moved by his words. My uncle was drafted out of his junior year at CCNY (Pre-med) and sent overseas in August 44th. Like your grandfather, he was a medic. Unlike your grandfather, however, he was killed in the Battle of the Bulge on February 9, 1945. While trying to rescue a wounded soldier, he stepped on a mine.
Thank you for sharing your grandfather’s story.

6 sannel { 12.22.10 at 3:33 pm }

This is so interesting! My grandpa also fought in WWII and this reminds me of some of his stories.