Thursday, August 5, 2010

Stanton Heights veteran tells story of World War II war to children at history camp

Thursday, August 5, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Inside the front door of Clarence Gomberg's two-story Stanton Heights home, just past the living room and just underneath a framed shrine of war medals, a white binder stood on a shelf, invisible to a cluttered room of war memorabilia, beer steins and handcrafted clocks.

Its contents were sealed with an inch-thick rubberband and labeled: "My WWII Memories."

The 88-year-old veteran opened that binder recently and unrolled an ancient French road map.

"I can still smell it," he said. "I can still hear it and I can still see it."

Earlier this week, Mr. Gomberg helped a group of children "see it" as a volunteer at this year's World War II History Camp at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland.

Inside the Joseph A. Dugan Jr. Hall of Valor, the elementary school-aged kids gathered around Mr. Gomberg, his map, his binder, and the rare collection of first-hand war photographs and artifacts.

He was a combat medic in the Army's 28th Division of the 343rd Medical Battalion, one that rode in any of 10 rail cars that carried up to 450 patients as he traveled across a handful of European countries.

"We always ran with no lights on," he told the group. "And never knew if the tracks were in front of us."

Likewise, Mr. Gomberg always carried around his Kodak Brownie camera, "To document those times through picture," he said, but never knew when it would come in handy.

On May 7, 1945, it did.

Mr. Gomberg stood on the second floor of the Little Red Schoolhouse in Reims, France. The Schoolhouse was a vocational training school for boys, one that he said turned out to be as large as Carnegie Mellon University.

A day earlier, with the train en route to Frankfurt, Germany, a sudden stop to pick up eight German soldiers, alive, on stretchers, resulted in one order: Get to Reims, and get there quickly.

"That's all we knew," he said.

A day later, he followed those same German soldiers to the second floor of the schoolhouse, turned around, and with camera in hand, saw U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Britain's Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery sitting side-by-side.

"I took the picture and they chased me out of there," he said of the most striking picture in his album, one that shows the pair staring intently at one another.

Mr. Gomberg's photos include images of French soldiers marching through the Arch of Triumph in Paris, medics treating wounded soldiers in a wooded area and candid shots of the life of an American soldier overseas.

Keepsakes are scattered among the pictures, including a copy of his paybook from an Army promotion and a Western Union telegram to his mother from New York that reads: "Arrived safely. Expect to see you soon. Don't attempt to contact or write me here."

Last year, Mr. Gomberg attended the antiques appraisal show, "Pittsburgh's Hidden Treasures," and learned his photographs could fetch up to $25,000.

Mr. Gomberg spends his time these days visiting elementary schools and Veterans Affairs hospitals to educate youth and relive the past with his acquaintances.

From the back of the hall, Tim Neff, director of education at Sailors & Soldiers, watched as Mr. Gomberg spoke to the children during the weeklong camp.

"We're very thankful for them," Mr. Neff said.

But aside from trying to get his pictures distributed for educational purposes, Mr. Gomberg said he has no plans to take his hands off the past.

"I don't think the money really means anything to me," he said. "What's more important is the memories."

And in Mr. Gomberg's case, passing those memories along to another generation.

CORRECTION: This version corrects the date Mr. Gomberg took a photo of Gen. Eisenhower.

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