As World War II raged in May 1943, Bernard Rader was called to battle. The then 19-year-old Brooklynite, two years into college, welcomed the draft notice that he received by telegram.
Like so many American men at the time, he wanted to fight, but he feared that he would be classified “4F” –– unfit for service –– because of his poor eyesight. So, as Radar took the Army’s required eye exam, he had a buddy stand behind him and whisper the letters in his ear. He passed.
Rader went on to serve in occupied France and earn the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Wounded by mortar fire and captured by the Germans in Brittany in October 1944, Rader, among the few Jews in his company, spent 45 harrowing days in a German prison hospital, where he was fed only scraps of lard and bread and nearly starved to death.
Rader is now 89 and has made his home in Freeport for 50 years. Last Wednesday, he delivered a talk at Kennedy High School in Bellmore about his near-death experience to 40 students in the Gilder Lehrman Foreign Policy and Advanced Placement American History classes. The teenagers, more than seven decades younger than Rader, were riveted.
Karen McGuiness, Kennedy’s social studies chairwoman, has arranged the visit for the past three years. “It’s bringing history to life,” she said.
Struggle to survive
On Oct. 2, 1944, Private Rader was part of a 55-man patrol from the 94th Infantry Division sent to pick up German soldiers who claimed that they wanted to surrender. The patrol was walking a narrow road in the French countryside, surrounded by tall hedges. The Germans seemingly appeared out of nowhere, firing concussion mortars into the patrol, followed by semiautomatic gunfire.
“We didn’t have a chance,” Rader said. “We were outnumbered 12-to-1.”
A mortar fell near Rader, knocking him off his feet. Shrapnel pierced his legs, arms and hands. For two hours, Rader lay on the cold ground, bleeding profusely, preparing to die. Five Americans were killed in the attack, and 19 others beside Rader were wounded.