Gone, but not forgotten

A Pacific West Academy fifth-grader videotapes Fred Stromberg as

GILROY — You’d never know that Fred Stromberg is a private man
by meeting him. Standing at 5 foot, 7 inches tall with a smile and
inviting eyes hidden only by a thick pair of glasses, Stromberg is
quick to joke around and has a demeanor that begs people to come
and listen to him.
GILROY — You’d never know that Fred Stromberg is a private man by meeting him. Standing at 5 foot, 7 inches tall with a smile and inviting eyes hidden only by a thick pair of glasses, Stromberg is quick to joke around and has a demeanor that begs people to come and listen to him.

You’d never know by looking at the man’s small frame that he is a war hero. You’d never know that his nieces Judy Beadnell and Sharon Troy had never even seen the Purple Heart he was awarded for being wounded during the D-Day invasion not once, but four times.

But last week, Stromberg, for whatever reason, decided that it was time for him to tell his story, which before now only could be found in a decades-old book hidden at his home. The book, “A Private’s Life Made Public,” was written by Stromberg after the war and includes his own sketches and more than 50 pictures he took during combat with a camera he pried off of a dead German soldier during the war.

While most people who hear Fred Stromberg’s story consider him a hero, he simply calls it luck.

“I’ll tell you why I was lucky. I was born on Friday the 13th, but I was born with a veil on my face,” said Stromberg, who had a thin layer of skin over his face at birth that was traditionally considered a sign of something special, rather than an abnormality of childbirth. “They said this young boy is going to be lucky his whole life.”

And he has been.

Stromberg, 85, survived the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, a plane crash and being wounded four times in battle during his two-years serving the Army in World War II, and he told his story publicly for the first time to Dee Ann Harn and Jill Applegate’s fifth-grade classes at Pacific West Academy last Wednesday afternoon.

“I have a Purple Heart with three clusters,” he explained to the class of 10- and 11-year-olds. “That means I was wounded four times.”

Stromberg recounted his memories and experiences serving for the 4th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1945, including the time he was given his draft notice, boarded a ship bound for Europe, arrived on the beaches, and his traumatic experiences of war.

He said it was a past he was proud of, but like many soldiers, something he would never want to live through again.

“I never wanted to be in the Army,” Stromberg said. “The worst thing is what you see and where you live.”

Stromberg was called to serve when he was 27 years old, but he didn’t look much like a soldier. Standing at 5 foot, 3 inches tall (Stomberg calls himself a “late bloomer,” as he grew an astounding 4 inches during the war), weighing less than 130 pounds and having face that looked so young that he had never had to shave, Stromberg looked like a boy than a man when he left his wife and 3-year-old daughter to go to war in 1943.

“They all thought I wasn’t 18,” he said.

The private first-class with 4th Infantry Division of Army really ddin’t have any intention of serving for the military; he was a family man and didn’t think there was much chance he would be drafted.

“They said if you worked for the railroad or if you had a wife and kid you would have to go … but I had both, and I still had to go, so you can’t believe them,” he said. “I had two wishes – one that I wouldn’t’ get crippled, and, if I did get killed, I wanted to be buried in the States.”

Stromberg, a Concord native who was asked to speak at Pacific West Academy because of Beadnell, who recently retired from teaching at the school, said that he never had really been afraid of anything until his division made its way by boat to the shores of Normandy.

“I never had any fear until that moment,” he said. “There were 40 of us. One boat in front of us hit a mine – we wanted to stop and help them, but we weren’t allowed to. I guess they must’ve drowned. Finally, we came upon the beach.”

Interestingly enough, baseball great Yogi Berra was the landing craft pilot for Stromberg’s division. Stromberg said Berra’s miscalculation of the depth of the water left the division wading through neck-high water as Germans shot at them.

“(Berra) landed us 20 feet short,” he said. “I always said that when I see him I would tell him about it.”

Because Stromberg was a radio operator for his unit, he had to carry the heavy radio on his back and couldn’t carry a weapon. Not only that, but the radio pack itself served as a target for German forces who knew it was the Americans’ only way to communicate. This made Stromberg more or less a walking target whenever he was in action.

“A bullet hit an 0-ring that held one of my grenades, but it bounced away from me,” Stromberg said of a close call as he first arrived on the beach of Normandy. “If it went the other way, it would’ve killed me.”

Soon after that, Stromberg was wounded when a bullet went through his chest, collapsing his lung before exiting through his shoulder.

He was shot again in the shoulder later on. Stromberg said his leader was talking to him, and when he turned to respond a bullet went through his shoulder and into the chest of his leader, killing him.

Stromberg was wounded for the third time when he wasn’t heavy enough to set of land mine, but the soldier behind him stepped on it and died. The backs of his legs were torn up from shrapnel from the mine.

The fourth, and scariest, injury was when he was shot in the head just below the helmet line during a battle and was left for dead. When soldiers from his unit returned, Stromberg had regained consciousness and asked where the soldiers had been.

“They said ‘Well, we thought you were dead,’ ” Stromberg said.

But it would take a lot more than that to do in Stromberg, who also was the sole survivor of a plane crash that occurred when he was being taken to the hospital for one of his injuries. While all of the other injured men were locked into special gurneys in the plane, there wasn’t enough room for Stromberg, so he was simply left on the floor in the back of the plane.

When the plane crashed – the reason for the crash was never known – Stromberg was ejected out of the back of the plane on impact. He regained consciousness several hours later.

“I was on morphine from my injuries, and all I could see was the tail of the plane burning, and I thought ‘No one knows I’m here,’ ” Stromberg said.

But, miraculously, Stromberg was found again and taken to a hospital where he again was fixed up. However, years after Stromberg had served his country, during heart surgery in 1992, surgeons opened up Stromberg’s chest and found a bullet lying against his heart.

Stromberg easily could go on and on with stories about his two years involved in the war, a war that took him through seven different countries and taught him several life lessons. But what Stromberg has a hard time talking about is his daughter, who was just 3 years old when she died of pneumonia the day the 4th Infantry Division left to enter the war. He wasn’t informed about her death for 8 months.

When telling the class about his girl, Stromberg’s eyes welled up with tears and he barely had the strength in his voice to say, “We all have tragedy, but it makes you stronger.”

After Stromberg spoke to the class, students asked questions about his experience ranging from “Did you ever shoot someone or kill someone?” (The answer to this question was yes, he was being shot at by a German soldier and threw a grenade at his position) to “What did your family think when you went to the war? (They did not want him to go. Stromberg lost his daughter the day he went off to war and his wife died just a few years after he returned.)”

The children are learning about World War II in class right now, and Harn said her students have had many questions about the current war in Iraq.

“In Germany, they were persecuting the Jews for years,” Harn said. “In Iraq, the same kinds of things are going on. We don’t dwell on the war in Iraq, but we do pray and write letters. There has to be a time when you stand up against evil.”

Several boys and girls lined up to meet Stromberg and have him sign an autograph after the speech. Ava Iravani, a 10-year-old from Applegate’s class, told Stromberg, “I’ve never met a real live hero before.”

Iravani said that she had learned a lot from hearing him tell his story.

“Some people that look normal may not be that normal,” she said. “They may have been a hero when they were young. He’s someone that I can always look up to.

“People like that are giving their lives for their country.”