Monday, June 23, 2014

A Debt to Stephen Colbert, A Package from Restoration Hardware and Soccer-Mania

I’m indebted to Stephen Colbert, actually we all are, for putting into context the ascension of Josh Earnest to White House press secretary this week. Speaking last Thursday with Earnest’s predecessor, Jay Carney, Colbert noted that Josh Earnest had the perfect name for the job. “His name literally means ‘just kidding, but seriously,’” said Colbert.

I’ve been to Washington dozens of times but stepped inside the White House only once. I enjoyed a visit most do not experience. As a graduate journalism student in pre-Watergate early 1972, I gained entry to the West Wing and the press office as part of my research for a paper on pack journalism.  I interviewed several White House correspondents including Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News and Robert Pierpoint of CBS. I had hoped to meet with Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, but he passed me off to one of his assistants whose name is lost to me and history. Years later Ziegler’s and my paths crossed again—Ziegler was head of the chain drug store association and I attended conferences he presented. 

The White House press room was rather drab back then. The offices of Ziegler’s staff also did not compare favorably to the more elaborate Hollywood versions we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on The West Wing and other portrayals of the seat of power of our government. 

I doubt I’ll ever gain entry to the press room again but it’s nice to recall walking through the gate on Pennsylvania Avenue up the circular driveway to the White House and going where relatively few have gone before and after. As I wrote once before, I even had the “pleasure” of getting a presidential wave from none other than Nixon himself. As I was leaving the White House Nixon was walking back from the next door Executive Office Building. He waved to me, and only me, as I was the only person on the White House grounds at the time. I waved back.

I wasn’t home when UPS dropped by, but we were overwhelmed by Restoration Hardware’s latest marketing effort. Nine, count ‘em, nine beautifully photographed and printed catalogs, a 3,300-page deluge of style and sophistication weighing a combined 11 pounds, 2 ounces. 

In case your home was spared, each catalog was themed: Furniture, Leather, Interiors, Small Spaces, Upholstery, Rugs, Linens, Bath and Lighting. In the past, the books arrived separately. Restoration Hardware claims sending the catalogs out in one batch was more environmentally friendly than separate shipments. 

Sorry to say, they’ll be recycled on Friday.

Soccer-mania, I’m also sorry to say, has not inhabited my being.  

Almost 30 years ago when Dan started playing youth soccer, and then matriculated to an all-star traveling team and then his high school varsity, there were predictions real football would sweep the nation and United States citizenry would come to appreciate the sport the rest of the world did. I didn’t buy it then and still don’t, except that with immigration bringing more foreigners, legal and illegal, to our shores there is bound to be more enthusiasm for soccer. 

American football has all those concussions to scare parents away, but heading a soccer ball or an opponent when both go up for a ball also produces concussions, so there’s no safety factor to sway allegiance to one sport over the other. 

Soccer, I’m afraid, will have no wider draw than hockey, which, I believe, is a much more exciting game and, to my knowledge, not tainted by allegations of game-fixing. 

Enjoy the World Cup while the frenzy lasts, and let’s hope the U.S. team beats or at least ties Germany Thursday. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Learning the Difference Between New Mexico and Arizona

If there is one thought you come away with after driving 1,100 miles across the southwest desert from Phoenix through Tucson, eastward to Alomogordo, NM, then northward to Santa Fe and Taos and back down to Albuquerque, as Gilda and I did last week, it is that pioneer men and women had grit uncommon to most humans. 

What took us just some 20 hours of driving in air-conditioned comfort over a week’s time probably took as much as 73 days in a covered wagon averaging 15 miles per day. If the pioneers arrived after late spring when temperatures hover for months between 85 and 106 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the location, you had to wonder what made any of them want to stay in this natural convection oven. Forget that hooey about it being “dry heat.” A furnace blast of hot, 100 degree air is hot, hot, hot.

Yes, there are points of breathtaking beauty. But even now, with air conditioning universally available in your home, your car, your place of business unless it is outdoors, the heat is oppressive. Weighty. Energy sapping. What could have tempted the early settlers who did not have the benefit of air conditioning? Surely the local Native Americans did not weave a welcome mat for them.

Time out. Let’s take a step back. Most of you, no doubt. have a Western European orientation. And by Western European I mean Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and North Sea and Baltic Sea countries. When I wrote “early settlers” you probably thought of Americans and immigrants of European heritage heading west in wagon trains. 

Yet the reality is the southwest was colonized by the Spanish almost a hundred years before the first successful English settlement in Jamestown,VA. In elementary school my teachers barely taught the history of western America. For us, the history of the American Frontier began with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and Lewis and Clark. But that same frontier was largely a Spanish and then Mexican territory until the United States captured it in the Mexican-American War of 1848.

We didn’t covet all that we took. Sure, California had gold. But Arizona and New Mexico had lots of Catholic, Spanish speaking residents. Our white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Congress had no desire to extend citizenship to that type of resident. The U.S. Congress denied New Mexico’s repeated applications to be admitted to the Union from 1850 until 1912 when New Mexico and Arizona finally matriculated from territory to statehood.

Given the current debate on immigration and the antipathy of many toward Hispanic newcomers, it is enlightening to note New Mexico’s and Arizona’s respective attitudes toward their Spanish-speaking residents as embodied in their state constitutions.

New Mexico includes two specific sections I’ll reproduce here:

“Text of Section 8: 
“Teachers to Learn English and Spanish 
The legislature shall provide for the training of teachers in the normal schools or otherwise so that they may become proficient in both the English and Spanish languages, to qualify them to teach Spanish-speaking pupils and students in the public schools and educational institutions of the state, and shall provide proper means and methods to facilitate the teaching of the English language and other branches of learning to such pupils and students.”

“Text of Section 10: 
“Educational Rights of Children of Spanish Descent 
“Children of Spanish descent in the state of New Mexico shall never be denied the right and privilege of admission and attendance in the public schools or other public educational institutions of the state, and they shall never be classed in separate schools, but shall forever enjoy perfect equality with other children in all public schools and educational institutions of the state, and the legislature shall provide penalties for the violation of this section. This section shall never be amended except upon a vote of the people of this state, in an election at which at least three-fourths of the electors voting in the whole state and at least two-thirds of those voting in each county in the state shall vote for such amendment.” 

Arizona’s constitution is silent on both areas.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Everything's Up to Date in ... Omaha

Last and only other time I visited Omaha was some 20 years ago. Along with one of my magazine’s salesmen I was there to drum up business from companies such as First Data. I can't say I remember much about that trip. This one made a much deeper impression, and not just because it was just a few days ago.

On our way back from Arizona and New Mexico last week, we stopped in Omaha to hook up with Ellie and Donny at his parents’ home in Bellevue, an adjacent suburb. Rodgers & Hammerstein once wrote “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City.” The same, and possibly more, could be said about Omaha.

Along the Missouri River Omaha has constructed an inviting waterfront with parks, fountains, bike share stations and a pedestrian bridge to Council Bluffs, Iowa. Even a brisk breeze—okay, a stiff wind—wasn’t strong enough to deter our walking across, letting Gilda add Iowa to the list of states she has visited.

A new minor league baseball stadium hosted the College World Series. There’s a mix of modern and refurbished brick buildings downtown that house an international array of cuisines and beers as well as funky, artsy stores. At several intersections enterprising troubadours staked out claims at each corner. The streets were sufficiently wide to keep their voices from discordant harmonizing.

There are several must-see, must-eat attractions if you spend any time in Omaha, and we dutifully played the willing tourist for Ellie, Donny and his family.

We dined in Johnny’s Café, a steak house landmark since 1922. Should you go to Philadelphia, it is required you eat a cheesesteak sandwich from either Geno’s or Pat’s. In Omaha, you must go to Runza’s for its signature chopped meat, cabbage, cheese, mushroom and onion sandwich which locals insist must be dipped in ranch dressing.

Our flight home Monday wasn’t until 1:10 pm, which gave us plenty of time to skip breakfast so we could eat our first meal of the day at the one and only Stella’s in Bellevue which had people waiting for the door to open at 11 am. Quickly the joint filled with patrons for really great burgers and fries. A single 6 oz. burger is about four inches high. But they also come in double decker and triple decker sizes. 

For the truly hungry and adventurous, or just plain exhibitionist, there’s the Stellanator Challenge. To beat the Stellanator you have 45 minutes to eat:
* 6 burger patties 
* 6 fried eggs 
* 6 pieces of cheese 
* 12 pieces of bacon 
* lettuce 
* tomato 
* fried onions 
* pickles 
* jalapenos 
* peanut butter 
* a bun 
* and an order of fries 

Gilda recently read about a slim woman, Molly Schuyler,  a Bellevue-based professional eating champion, who devoured the Stellanator  in 3:40 and then continued her eating rampage by downing four more burgers, three grilled cheese sandwiches and a basket of fries and onion rings. 

We spent Saturday at Omaha’s world class Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Lots of animals in natural environments or as close to natural as man can make an enclosure thousands of miles away and tens of degrees hotter or colder than an animal’s normal habitat. On the Skyfari we soared above rhinos, cheetahs, monkeys and giraffes, amazed to see small children show no fear and their parents no worry while Gilda, Ellie and I clung tightly to the restraining bar keeping us snug in our chairlift.

Omaha’s Offutt Air Force Base is home to the Strategic Command, our nation’s multi-faceted air, land and sea defense network. It’s where they took George W. Bush on 9/11, down to a bunker three stories below the surface. 

We toured of Offutt’s public areas. Prior to his retirement Donny’s father piloted a B-52 bomber armed with nuclear missiles and conventional bombs. Gilda and I are not hawks, by any stretch of the imagination. But we were impressed with the dedication and commitment exhibited by Don Novak and his colleagues. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

I Didn't Knock on Warren Buffett's Door But Sam Walton Knocked on Mine

We drove by Warren Buffett’s house in Omaha Saturday afternoon (that “we” is not the imperial pronoun. It included Gilda, Ellie, husband Donny and Rachel, Donny’s mother). Buffett doesn't live in a gated or secluded community. He resides in the Dundee neighborhood in a nice but not overly substantial structure. Nothing outlandish to make the neighbors self-conscious about his status as the second richest person in America. Just like any other house in the well-to-do Dundee neighborhood. We resisted the urge to knock on his door.

It wouldn't have phased me if we had knocked and he'd have opened the door. It would have reciprocated for the time the richest man in the world, at the time Sam Walton, woke me up one morning by banging on my condo door.

It was the Sunday of the annual meeting weekend in Bentonville, AR, back in 1981. Stock analysts, the press and Wal-Mart guests were housed in condominiums at nearby Lakes of Bella Vista. Dressed in his tennis whites—Sam had been ranked fifth in the state among amateurs—he mistook my front door for that of the chairman of a Mexican retailer, a company Wal-Mart eventually bought.

Sam profusely apologized for waking me up at 7 am and got back into his beat up pickup truck to search for his tennis partner. He, of course, had been up for several hours. His daily custom was to get into the office early and be out by 6:30 to pilot his small propeller plane to the far reaches of his growing empire of stores.

I consider myself fortunate to have known and even befriended many of the merchant princes of the last half of the 20th century, chief among them Sam Moore Walton.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Father's Day Tribute to My Mom

Having just read Timothy Egan’s tribute to his father in The New York Times (, I considered writing one for my dad. But it occurred to me that when I write about my parents it is mostly about my patrimony. So, with the comment my mother used to make, that without her Kopel Forseter would not have been a father, here's a posting about my maternal heritage.

The second of four sisters and an older brother, Sylvia Gerson came to New York from Lodg, Poland, in 1921 when she was four. Her father, Louis, was a jeweler, successful enough to move his family to an apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx that cost her a boyfriend. With an air of upward social mobility she enjoyed conveying, my mother would relate that the boyfriend stopped calling on her because, he explained to her years later, she had attained an address status beyond his station.

A mutual friend set up my parents. Perhaps the story's apocryphal, but the way she told it, my father fell off a ladder in his store when he first saw her. It wasn't from her good looks. Rather, it was her wild and frizzy hair. They agreed, nevertheless, to go out that Friday night to a performance of Die Fledermaus, a comic opera. When Kopel came to her family apartment he didn't recognize her. She was all dolled up and beautiful. They were married six weeks later, Labor Day weekend 1942.

If six weeks seems like a whirlwind courtship, consider this. For several weeks they were apart because Sylvia went on vacation. During one of their times together my mother garnered one of her favorite stories.

Kopel took her back to an apartment he shared. Speaking Yiddish, his roommate asked if they would like to be alone, to which my father replied, also in Yiddish, “No, this one I am going to marry.” Unbeknownst to my father, Sylvia was fluent in Yiddish.

Their union was also a work partnership. As a full charge bookkeeper Sylvia ran the one-person office while Kopel ran the factory where they produced half-slips and panties sold mostly to chain stores across the country. For a little more than four years Sylvia stayed home to raise their three children. I propelled her back to work with my poor eating and an exasperating habit of flinging peas off of my high chair tray. Funny. Today peas are among my favorite vegetable.

Sylvia taught my brother and me to play ball. She made sure we went to Broadway shows and the opera. She took us to the Catskills. She enrolled us in private Hebrew schools and eight week sleepaway Jewish summer camps. She made our house the center of activity. Friday night poker games with my brother’s friends. Passover seders with as many as 40 participants. Overnight guests that prompted her to call our home Malon Forseter, malon being the Hebrew word for hotel. Her dinette table was never too full. Unexpected guests were met with the standard retort, “I'll just add another cup of water to the soup.”

Though I wrote earlier that my poor eating sent her back to work, truth is Sylvia was a woman ahead of her time. Not just a homemaker and club woman—head of the PTA and active in temple and social groups—she also was an accomplished businesswoman not content or fulfilled in a stay-at-home mother role. Because of their business my parents could not always vacation together. My mother was confident and independent enough to travel to Israel and Europe by herself in the mid 1950s when she was just 40.

These are memories from my youth. As she aged my mother's joie de vivre deteriorated. She chain smoked. She was diabetic. She suffered bouts of congestive heart failure. A little dementia. She had one leg amputated below the knee because of her diabetes. A few years later on the eve of an amputation of her second leg she died of cardiac arrest.

My brother sister and I don't dwell on the last decade or so of her life when she no longer was the vibrant source of our family life. It is enough to know that together with our father she molded us into the people we are today. And we are happy with the results.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Remembering a D-Day Hero

Herb Bilus passed away 10 months before the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, a defining moment for all who, like Herb, served their country, indeed all of humanity, in freeing Europe from the tyranny of Nazi Germany and its Axis allies.

I've previously written about Herb's service on D-Day as an ensign on an LCI (landing craft infantry). I've included it at the bottom of this post under the headline D-Day Heroes.

Herb returned to Normandy for the 50th anniversary. He shared his thoughts with his family and with their permission here it is:

Herb Bilus June 6, 1994

​"this operation will be carried to completion without regard to losses."

​This sentence from "OPERATION OVERLORD" stands out in my mind as we read over the final phase of the battle plans.

​We had to ferret out our mission in this huge endeavor. My ship, LCI 96 (Landing Craft Infantry) with a crew of 4 officers and 21 men was just one vessel out of thousands. We had already embarked a company (200 men) of the 4th Division fully battle equipped, in Plymouth England.

​Now, we had to find out to what beach and at what time they were to land and commence their fight across Normandy and ultimately to Berlin. Fate, luck of the draw, or whatever you want to call it, takes over. The men had been aboard 2 days (D-Day was originally set for June 4th).  After a rough 12 hour crossing, during which half of the soldiers were seasick, we landed them on Omaha beach at H + 4. Three of our ships were lost on the beach. One hit a mine but was salvaged. We then performed such duties as unloading the big attack transports, which couldn't get closer than 2 miles offshore and other movements as ordered by naval command off both beaches (Utah and Omaha).

​Three nights later, enroute back to Britain in a small convoy we were dive bombed by a lone Luftwaffe plane from out of nowhere. Luckily, he missed.

​We subsequently made 22 cross channel trips with reinforcements until we were relieved in August to prepare our vessels to cross the Atlantic (during which we encountered a devastating hurricane), refit the ships, train new crews and set off for the Pacific and the proposed invasion of Japan. Hiroshima changed those plans and the world forever.

​The trip back to Normandy and D-Day plus 50 years was most poignant. To realize one had been part of the greatest invasion force the world will have ever seen is awesome.

​As I walked slowly through the Normandy American Cemetery, I reflected on the words President Clinton had spoken just two hours ago. His message to the effect that the children and grandchildren and all of humanity are the direct beneficiaries of those buried here and across the cemeteries of Europe who fought and gave their lives in the name of freedom. His message struck the most hardened of the 3,000 veterans (even the most anti-Clinton die-hards) and emotions spilled out unashamedly.

​Anyone who has ever put on a uniform in the war-time service of his country, could, by the stroke of the pen, could have killed and buried here.

​We're just the lucky ones.


Surrounded by two of his three daughters and their husbands, three of his six grandchildren, two great grandchildren, a grandson-in-law and a couple of friends of the family, Herb Bilus had steak for dinner Sunday evening. Sixty-six years ago to the day, June 6, 1944, Herb enjoyed another steak off the shores of Normandy after his Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) #96 delivered its first load of soldiers to Utah Beach as part of the greatest invasion in history.

Hard to believe Ensign Bilus and his cohorts would stop for a hearty meal while the fighting raged, but his commander had promised steak for all officers if they came through their first mission successfully, and so the officers, perhaps even the total crew of 22 Coast Guard sailors, celebrated their good fortune before going back to secure another load of 120 4th Army infantrymen bound for the beaches of France. Herb’s LCI was part of Flotilla 4, a group of 24 LCI ships. They made their initial drop during the sixth wave, roughly six hours after D-Day landings began. By the end of the day, four of their ships were lost off Omaha Beach.

It was off Omaha Beach Herb witnessed true courage, and fear, under fire. It was the task of each LCI to deliver its precious cargo of fighting men as close to the beach as possible, close enough so they could wade ashore without being sucked under by the weight of their packs. Anyone who has seen the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan may remember scenes of GI’s dropped off too soon. As they hit the too-deep water, they sunk to the bottom, drowned before firing a shot. Saving Private Ryan was closer to D-Day reality than any other movie, says Herb.

On one of their runs at Omaha Beach, under heavy incoming fire, a high ranking Navy officer ordered Herb’s ship commander, a Coast Guard lieutenant, to lower his ramps to drop off troops. The lieutenant disobeyed the direct order, arguing the water was too deep. While the Navy man dropped off his load to a watery death, Herb’s skipper steered his ship closer to the beach, giving his soldiers a chance to get to shore “safely,” if such a term can be used to describe any landing that day.

The lieutenant, Marshall was his first name (Herb recalls his last name but I’m going to leave it out for what will be evident shortly), was unusual for a couple of reasons. Jewish by birth, Marshall refused to use his last name. It was too ethnic. Even when a telegram came for him under his full name, he would not acknowledge it.

Herb also suspects Marshall was gay. He was a real dandy, going off by himself during shore leave, wearing felt gloves and carrying a swagger stick. An artist, Marshall painted a mural about Flotilla 4 in the English estate house provided to them in Dartmouth by the author Agatha Christie.

The lived in close quarters aboard LCI #96. Herb has trouble reconciling current opposition to lifting the ban on allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the armed forces.

In a few weeks, Herb will be 89. He’s considered a youngster at his independent living residence in downtown White Plains. They don’t start counting your years until you’ve completed nine decades. Herb’s full of life and stories. Those interested in reading more about Herb’s exploits can do so by linking to an oral history he provided Rutgers University:

 For those who don’t know, Herb’s daughters are Jane Gould, Pat Lager and Fran Bilus Feldman.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Recalling D-Day and Operation Bagration

Not every date can be linked to historic events, the impact of which we continue to experience fallout from. But consider these happenings from just the last 70 years, incidents that occurred from June 2 through June 6:

·     From June 2 through the early evening hours of June 4, 1989, pro-democracy Chinese rallied in Beijing’s Tianenman Square before being brutally suppressed on June 4. 

·     On June 5, 1967, Israel’s victory over its Arab neighbors in The Six Day War began.

·     On June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of France, D-Day, initiated the Allied liberation of Europe from the Nazis.

It is hard to underestimate the significance of D-Day. But let’s put the date into a slightly larger military context than our Western-oriented mindset traditionally allows. Without success on the Russian front, the Allies might not have won the war. Given recent events in Crimea and Ukraine, it’s difficult to evince any empathy for Russia or its predecessor, the Soviet Union. 

But the fact remains that the Soviet Union was our ally during World War II, and though we might have been taught that the United States sent armaments through the Barents Sea port of Murmansk to aid the war effort, the Soviet Union relied on its own manufacturing for a vast majority of its arsenal and materiel.

Let’s also keep in mind that of the 22 million to 30 million military deaths sustained during the global conflict, anywhere from 8.7 million to 13.85 million Soviets soldiers perished, far and away more than any other country. By comparison, the United States lost 407,000 servicemen; the combined United Kingdom losses were 383,800. Germany, together with Austria, had 4.3 million to 5.5 million combat deaths ( 

Anyone with even a modicum of familiarity with famous WWII battles could list several, including Dunkirk, the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Anzio, El Alamein, Stalingrad, and Leningrad, the latter two long-term sieges of Soviet cities.

But how many could recognize Operation Bagration?  

My thanks to Gilda for finding the following linked article. It’s long, but well worth the time spent lifting the veil of darkness so many of us have on a facet of the war rarely taught or talked about in America. It doesn’t make recent Russian behavior any more acceptable or understandable. But it does round out our perspective on how the war was won (

(editor's note: I don't trust the link, so I've copied the article for you):

Geographically, it dwarfed the campaign for Normandy. In four weeks, it inflicted greater losses on the German army than the Wehrmacht had suffered in five months at Stalingrad. With more than 2.3 million men, six times the artillery and twice the number of tanks that launched the Battle of the Bulge, it was the largest Allied operation of World War II. It demolished three Axis armies and tore open the Eastern Front. Operation Bagration, the Red Army’s spring 1944 blitzkrieg, was designed to support Allied operations in France, liberate Russian territory and break the back of the Wehrmacht once and for all.

In the south, Germany and its allies — mostly Hungarians and Romanians — held the line near the Ukraine’s western borders, south of the impassable Pripyat Marshes, with two army groups. To the north, in the Baltic republics, three Red Army groups faced Germany’s Army Group North.

It was in the center, in Belorussia (so-called White Russia), where the main Soviet blow would fall. There Adolf Hitler fielded 38 infantry divisions, two Luftwaffe field divisions, seven security divisions, two Panzergrenadier divisions and one panzer division, all grouped into four armies and led by Field Marshal Ernst Busch, a commander whose promotion was mainly due to his unquestioning loyalty to the Führer.

While Belorussia was the center of gravity for Germany’s eastern forces, it had by no means come fully under Wehrmacht control. Partisan activity was more pronounced there than in other sectors, where Nazi reprisals since 1941 had been brutal even by Eastern Front standards. Punitive operations by the Germans in January, February and April 1944 had left entire villages leveled, their inhabitants lined up and executed. All told, an estimated 1 million people, including the region’s entire Jewish population, had been exterminated. In response to this terror, by mid-1944 partisan numbers had swelled to something between 143,000 and 374,000, depending on who was counting.

What was worse for the occupiers, those partisan forces were becoming increasingly well organized and in better touch with Soviet authorities — who could direct their activities to maximum advantage.

The Red Army’s earlier progress in the Baltic region and Ukraine left a “Belorussian Bulge” in the center, from which Field Marshal Busch requested permission to withdraw in order to shorten his line and relieve the danger of a pincer movement against the salient. Hitler, concerned with wavering support among his Finnish, Hungarian and Romanian allies, was determined to cling to his defenses at the eastern end of the bulge, and the army high command, Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH, denied Busch’s request.

Hitler’s no-retreat policy in the east left Busch in a vulnerable position. His sector was a tempting target for the Red Army, since the eastern end of the bulge included the 50-mile-wide land bridge between the Dniepr and Dvina rivers that guarded Russia from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Control of that gap would allow armies to pass overland to Moscow — or Berlin.

Another problem for Busch was that his army, while strong in raw numbers, included a large proportion of Luftwaffe field units, security troops, Hungarian and Slovak divisions, and Volksdeutsche — ethnic Germans from the occupied territories whose desire to lay down their lives for the Führer was rightly suspect. By 1944 the German army, still dependent on horse-drawn wagons for supply and movement, was an old-fashioned, slow force compared to its Communist opponents, who had been liberally supplied with the ubiquitous 2.5-ton Studebaker truck manufactured in capitalism’s heartland. Worse yet was the lack of air cover; Germany’s Sixth Air Fleet was vastly outnumbered along Army Group Center’s front.

The offensive would be a characteristically Soviet enterprise, a massive push along a 450-mile-long axis of advance. Four army group fronts would launch artillery barrages and attack simultaneously. To the north, the First Baltic Front under General Ivan Bagramyan, ultimately fielding 359,500 men, would push into Latvia to screen the right flank of the main assault and support forces farther south. Below him, the Third Belorussian Front under General Ivan Chernyakhovsky, with 579,300 men, would capture heavily defended Vitebsk and the area north of Orsha, then push southwest toward Minsk, the Belorussian capital, and Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, crushing or encircling Busch’s Third Panzer Army at Vitebsk and his Fourth Army, centered around Orsha. South of Orsha, General Georgy Zakharov’s Second Belorussian Front, with 319,500 men, would help complete the encirclement of Minsk and push west toward Grodno on the Niemen River as part of a mopping-up operation in the wake of the other fronts.

Farthest south, the First Belorussian Front — 1,071,100 men commanded by General Konstantin Rokossovsky — would assault Busch’s Ninth Army, skirting the Pripyat Marshes and pushing due west toward Bobruisk on the Berezina River, then in the general direction of Minsk. The First and Third Belorussian fronts, which held the bulk of the armor and firepower, would attack along converging lines with the aim of encircling the German armies east of Minsk, not simply pushing them back into Poland. To aid the attackers, partisan units coordinated by Stavka, the Red Army high command, would launch demolition attacks against Belorussian railways to prevent reinforcements from reaching the threatened zone.

Because the undertaking was so extensive and complex, the four army group fronts would fall under the overall command of two trusted Stavka representatives. Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky, the organizer of victory at Stalingrad, would direct the two northern fronts, while the southern fronts would be supervised by Marshal Georgi Zhukov, who directed the defenses of Leningrad, Moscow and, with Vasilevsky, Stalingrad.

For an offensive of this scope, the Red Army assembled 118 rifle divisions, eight tank and mechanized corps, 13 artillery divisions and six cavalry divisions, a total of approximately 2.3 million frontline and support troops. The attack would be led by the rifle and tank divisions, which collectively fielded 2,715 tanks and 1,355 assault guns. To feed the offensive, the Red Army stockpiled 1.2 million tons of ammunition, rations and supplies behind the front lines.

The assaulting troops would be supported on the ground by 10,563 heavy artillery pieces and 2,306 Katyusha multiple rocket launchers, nicknamed “Stalin’s Organ” because of their pipe-organ appearance. Air cover would be provided by 2,318 fighters of various types, 1,744 Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik ground-attack planes, 655 medium bombers and 431 night bombers; another 1,007 medium bombers would be drawn from the Soviet strategic bomber reserve. The code name selected for the operation referred to General Piotr Bagration, the fiery Russian prince who died fighting Napoleon at Borodino in 1812.

If successful, Operation Bagration promised huge rewards for Stalin. Minsk and other major Belorussian cities would fall back into Soviet hands, and a successful push would isolate Army Group North, which could then be dispatched more or less at Stalin’s leisure. To capitalize on the anticipated success, as Bagration achieved its objectives and the Nazis fed troops from northern Ukraine into Belorussia to stop the onslaught, a secondary Red Army attack would thrust toward Lwow in northern Ukraine, driving Axis troops out of Soviet territory; Romania, Hungary, Warsaw and East Prussia would become the new front lines of the war.

In the days preceding Bagration, Stavka executed a massive deception plan designed to convince its German counterpart, OKH, that the main attack would come farther south. Forces in the Ukraine were ordered to prepare deceptive concentrations similar to the phantom army that had assembled under Lt. Gen. George S. Patton opposite the Pas de Calais prior to the landings at Normandy. The Red Army Air Force clamped down on Luftwaffe reconnaissance missions along the front, allowing only occasional flights that would spot the phony troop concentrations, while headquarter units made greater use of more secure telephone lines in lieu of radio communications.

For its part, OKH concluded that the presence of oil-rich Romania and the more maneuverable terrain of the Ukrainian steppes made that sector the most likely target, particularly since the Red Army had just concluded an offensive in that region during the late winter.

Hitler and OKH were convinced that the next attack would be launched in the northern Ukraine, and reinforcements to the east — including the potent 56th Panzer Corps — were diverted to Field Marshal Walter Model’s Army Group North Ukraine, leaving Busch’s Army Group Center with only about 11 percent of the tanks and assault guns allocated to the Eastern Front. While some members of Busch’s intelligence staff predicted a major Belorussian offensive in mid- to late June, Busch himself was evidently persuaded to accept the OKH assessment as more accurate and, following Hitler’s policy to the letter, he refused to let his army commanders pull back to shorten their fronts and pack their defensive lines more tightly.

Operation Bagration was preceded by coordinated partisan attacks on German supply lines, code-named “Rail War” and “Concert.” Between June 19 and 23, Belorussian guerrillas sabotaged rail networks and bridges — detonating some 10,500 demolition charges during the night of June 19-20 alone — impeding the movement of ammunition, food and reinforcements to the front.

Originally timed for June 14, 1944, the operation’s start was delayed by Soviet rail congestion until June 22, 1944 — three years to the day from the Nazi invasion of Soviet territory. The offensive opened at 5 a.m. with a massive artillery bombardment. Each of the thousands of guns along the line was allotted roughly 6 tons of ammunition to fire during a two-hour barrage. The shelling was conducted in a rolling manner so as to destroy the Wehrmacht’s forward trenches and pillboxes, then catch retreating soldiers in the open before they could reach the safety of their intermediate lines. The less precise Katyusha batteries showered artillery targets with 82mm and 132mm rockets to ensure that nothing remained alive in the forward zone. Shocked German survivors described this barrage as the most intense and destructive they had ever witnessed.

The preliminary work on several fronts began the same day with a reconnaissance in force, with company- to brigade-size raids designed to gather intelligence and fix German troops in place so they could later be destroyed. Several divisions also launched attacks against Busch’s Third Panzer Army to bore openings in the line, while the flanks of a four-division German salient at Vitebsk were squeezed to create jumping-off points for the encirclement of that city. That night, Soviet medium bombers flew 1,000 sorties to soften up the German line.

The next day, June 23, the full weight of the assault lurched forward. Abandoning their costly human-wave techniques of 1941, Red Army soldiers concentrated their fire upon tactically valuable ground, seized it, and then called up tanks to the new positions to deliver a larger breakthrough. By the afternoon of the second day, the Third Panzer Army’s line was perforated and Vitebsk was in danger of encirclement by two Soviet armies.

As the Soviet Forty-third Army closed in around Vitebsk from the north and the Thirty-ninth Army attacked from the south, Busch meekly requested permission from OKH to withdraw to a secondary line of defense, called the “Tiger Line.” But Hitler, still waiting for the main blow to fall elsewhere, had designated Vitebsk a “fortified place,” to be held to the last man. By nightfall, two German divisions were encircled and two others were fighting for their lives.

Subsequent attacks by the Soviet Thirty-ninth Army crushed Busch’s LIII Corps, and within three days, five German divisions — about 28,000 men — were wiped out. A continued drive west shattered the Third Panzer Army’s IX Corps by the end of the month, effectively destroying the Third Panzer Army.

Fifty miles south of Vitebsk, Busch’s Fourth Army, fielding 12 divisions, was fighting to hold the line around the Dniepr River and Orsha, a critical juncture along the Moscow–Minsk highway. Lead elements of the Eleventh Guards Army ran headlong into the 78th Sturm (Assault) Division, which had been kept at high strength and was heavily supplied with artillery to hold the crucial highway.

Anticipating well-prepared fixed defenses, each of the assaulting rifle divisions was preceded by a company of T-34 tanks fitted with mine-rollers, a heavy tank regiment, a heavy artillery regiment and an engineer assault battalion. Following this came a wave of flamethrower tank companies and light artillery regiments to liquidate pockets of resistance.

This massive push bogged down in a cluster of tank traps, mines and German infantry positions liberally supplied with Panzerfaust antitank rockets. But before long, General Chernyakhovsky managed to move his tanks north of Orsha, and promptly fed a mixed task force through the woods to exploit the gap. By the end of the day, the road to Minsk was within reach of the Third Belorussian Front.

By June 25, Chernyakhovsky had fed the Second Guards Tank Army through the breach, demolishing one of Fourth Army’s two corps. Despite Hitler’s firm refusal to allow a withdrawal from Orsha — and Busch’s endorsement of this policy — the commander of Fourth Army quietly pulled his units back toward more defensible lines. The next evening Orsha fell to the Red Army, and the road to Minsk now lay open.

Farther south, 13 divisions of Busch’s Ninth Army successfully resisted initial attacks by Rokossovsky’s First Belorussian Front (consisting of the Third, Forty-eighth and Sixty-fifth armies), which had to contend with bad weather as it worked its way around the north edge of the Pripyat Marshes. During the morning of June 24, the first day of the main assault in this sector, the Soviet Third Army — equipped with 500 tanks and assault guns and 200 heavy antitank guns — was repulsed, but at heavy cost to the Axis.

As the weather began to improve, the Third Army mauled two infantry divisions and began to break through German lines, driving a wedge between Busch’s Ninth and Fourth armies. The Ninth Army’s commander, General Hans Jordan, moved up his reserve, the understrength 20th Panzer Division. But as Rokossovsky committed his Sixty-fifth Army and the I Guards Tank Corps to the battle, 20th Panzer began taking losses with no appreciable effect on the advance. Jordan therefore ordered the division to move toward Bobruisk. By the end of June 24, Soviet tanks were six miles behind the Ninth Army’s lines, the vanguard of a spearhead three miles wide at its tip and 18 miles wide at its base.

It was not until June 26, three days after the main assault began, that the first Axis reinforcement, the 5th Panzer Division, arrived from the Ukraine to plug the gap between the Third Panzer and Fourth armies. Boasting 70 Panther and 29 Tiger tanks, 5th Panzer was sent to hold the line east of the Berezina River until Busch’s retreating Fourth Army could establish a proper defensive line. Soon thereafter, the Fourth Army endured a scene reminiscent of Napoleon’s 1812 campaign: A mass of troops retreating from the east had abandoned their heavy equipment on the east side of the Berezina and were fleeing west in disorder, crossing small crowded bridges under fire.

Rokossovsky’s men drove west toward Bobruisk, a critical crossing point on the Berezina, threatening to cut off those German units fighting on the east side of the river. As Rokossovsky’s Third Army crept toward Bobruisk, Busch, following Hitler’s “no retreat” injunction, refused to allow his infantry to cross. When the Soviet IX Tank Corps and I Guards Tank Corps captured Bobruisk and the major crossings over the Berezina, several German infantry divisions found themselves trapped on the east side. Rokossovsky exploited the collapse of German resistance in this sector with a cavalry and a mechanized corps, killing or capturing thousands of German

As Soviets were pouring across the Belorussian border, Hitler and OKH were slow to grasp the danger Army Group Center faced. On June 26, Busch and Ninth Army’s General Jordan flew to Hitler’s headquarters to convince the Führer to relent on the no-retreat policy that was destroying armies a division at a time. Furious with the near-collapse of the Ninth Army, Hitler relieved both Jordan and Busch, replacing the latter with Field Marshal Walther Model, commander of Army Group North Ukraine and the Führer’s top troubleshooter.

At the end of June, Model arrived at Minsk to find the Red Army across the Berezina, only eight miles from his new headquarters, and Army Group Center without reserves left to counterattack Soviet bridgeheads. The city of Borisov, the Berezina crossing point for the Moscow–Minsk highway, fell the day after Model’s arrival, and some 40,000 Germans were trapped east of Bobruisk. Soviet artillery and the Red Air Force turned a 15-mile German pocket east of the Berezina into a slaughter pen, and about 10,000 troops were killed and another 6,000 captured. Many of those who escaped the slaughter east of the river became trapped a second time at Bobruisk as two tank corps closed in around the city and captured it on June 29, effectively destroying the Ninth Army. In a week’s fighting, Rokossovsky’s forces had killed about 50,000 German soldiers, captured another 20,000 (including 3,600 wounded prisoners at Bobruisk who would be murdered by their Soviet captors) and destroyed some 3,000 artillery pieces and armored vehicles.

Picking up at the Berezina line, Rokossovsky continued his drive northwest toward Minsk, hoping to trap Model’s retreating Fourth Army along with any remnants of the Ninth Army that had escaped the cauldron at Bobruisk. Meanwhile, farther north, Model’s 5th Panzer Division, on the Moscow highway, braced itself for the onslaught of two converging Belorussian fronts, Rokossovsky’s First and Chernyakhovsky’s Third. Because Hitler refused to permit an orderly withdrawal, the only reinforcements available at Minsk were stragglers who had filtered in from the front, and they were for the most part unarmed, disorganized and demoralized.

On July 1 and 2, the 5th Panzer Division fought a series of intense battles against the Fifth Guards Tank Army northwest of Minsk, buying time for wounded and administrative personnel to be evacuated west along railway lines. By the end of a week’s fighting, 5th Panzer, a supporting Tiger battalion and some smaller reinforcements had knocked out 295 Soviet armored vehicles. By July 8, however, all the Tigers were lost, the division was reduced from 125 tanks to eight, and its position was outflanked to the south. The remaining panzers withdrew westward to regroup, abandoning comrades retiring toward Minsk from the Berezina. When the Fourth Army was permitted to retire west of the Berezina, there was almost nothing left to save. By the end of the operation, it had lost some 130,000 of its 165,000 men.

On the evening of July 2, even Hitler conceded that Minsk was a lost cause, and OKH permitted the evacuation of remaining Axis forces — some 1,800 organized troops from differing units, another 15,000 unarmed stragglers from the east, 8,000 wounded and 12,000 rear-echelon staffers. The next morning, Chernyakhovsky’s tanks entered Minsk, closing off another large eastern pocket and trapping some 15,000 isolated German soldiers lurching west in division- and brigade-size groups. As food and ammunition ran low for these marooned units, they broke into smaller formations, which quickly became vulnerable to unforgiving partisan bands and special Red Army infantry detachments. About 900 of the 15,000 trapped soldiers managed to reach German lines, and by July 8 the pocket collapsed. Model’s Fourth Army ceased to exist.

To the north, other units of the Third Panzer Army became isolated as a result of the rapid advance on Minsk and were quickly crushed. Meanwhile, Stavka expanded the objectives of its exhausted soldiers, ordering them to push westward toward Grodno, Brest and other cities along the Polish and Lithuanian borders despite dwindling supplies of gasoline and ammunition.

As Model’s intermediate lines were collapsing, he tried to form a line of resistance from Vilnius to the Ukraine, partly based on a series of trenches left over from World War I. In the center, he took the remnants of the Ninth Army, reinforced them as best he could, and redesignated the thin group as a component of the Second Army. With a 45-mile gap yawning between the tattered shards of the Third Panzer Army and Army Group North, Model was exceedingly vulnerable, but sooner or later the Soviet tanks had to outrun their fuel and ammunition supplies, and Model could give East Prussia and Poland a respite while he rebuilt his forces.

The Soviet juggernaut was not yet spent, however. By July 8, portions of Model’s line cracked, and Vilnius was soon surrounded. Despite Hitler’s initial orders to hold the Lithuanian capital “at all costs,” on the night of July 12-13 some 3,000 of the 15,000 trapped men broke free, leaving the rest to face the certainty of death or captivity when the city fell on July 13. Pinsk and Grodno fell by July 16, and Third Panzer Army’s line collapsed by the end of the month, pushing Model’s northern flank onto Prussian soil. As Bagration drew to a close, the Red Army held bridgeheads over the Niemen River, the traditional border of Russia and Poland, and had reached the Gulf of Riga at the Baltic, isolating Army Group North. By mid-August Model could do nothing more; he was decorated and transferred to the Western Front for a brief term as supreme commander in that crumbling theater.

All told, Operation Bagration cost Hitler 350,000 men (including 31 generals), plus hundreds of tanks and more than 1,300 guns. Of the men lost, 160,000 were taken prisoner, half of whom were murdered on the way to prison camps or died in Soviet gulags. In a throwback to ancient times, 57,000 German prisoners taken from pockets east of the Berezina were shipped to Moscow and paraded before Muscovites on July 17, partly to refute Nazi claims of a “planned withdrawal” from Belorussia, and partly to rebut suggestions by Western newspapers that the operation had been made easy because large numbers of German troops had been tied down in western France.

During their 400-mile drive from Vitebsk to Warsaw’s outskirts, the Soviets lost some 765,000 troops, of which 178,000 were either killed or missing, plus 2,857 tanks and assault guns, and 2,447 artillery pieces. Despite those losses the Red Army launched a follow-up campaign in northern Ukraine, the Lwow-Sandomierz offensive, employing more than 1 million men, 1,600 tanks and assault guns, 14,000 artillery pieces and mortars, and 2,800 combat aircraft. The offensive, launched on July 13, smashed Army Group North Ukraine, which had released units to help stop the collapse of Army Group Center.

By early August, the German Fourth Army and almost all of the Ninth and Third Panzer armies were gone. Thirty German divisions disappeared, and nearly 30 more were crippled. The Red Army was within striking distance of the Vistula and had reached the outskirts of Warsaw. By mid-August, Red Army soldiers were entrenched on Prussian soil, only 350 miles from Berlin, and Romania, with its vital oil fields, was poised to desert the Axis cause. Until January, however, the exhausted Soviet giant would remain relatively quiet, refitting and re-equipping for the final push from the Vistula to Berlin.

Many German and Soviet accounts agree that Operation Bagration was Hitler’s worst military setback of the war. But the offensive lacked a single, dramatic focal point, such as at Stalingrad, and the commanders and place names sound strange to Western ears. For those reasons, the operation was never acknowledged in the West to the same degree as any number of smaller campaigns — such as Overlord, the Ardennes Offensive, the Torch landings in Africa or Operation Husky in Sicily. Given the massive waves of soldiers and tanks that Stalin mustered for the offensive and marked improvements in Soviet war-fighting capabilities — Stavka’s successful deception campaign, the effective use of partisans, improved infantry-armor tactics and superior weaponry such as the Shturmovik ground-attack plane and the T-34 medium tank — it is an unfortunate omission. Nevertheless, Bagration, combined with the Lwow-Sandomierz offensive in the Ukraine, dramatically turned the tide of war against the Third Reich.

The irreplaceable German losses in Belorussia, in conjunction with the Normandy landings and the July 20 attempt on Hitler’s life, spread demoralization throughout the upper ranks of the Wehrmacht’s command structure, and made certain that the Red Army would ever after move west. Operation Bagration also ensured that the former Soviet republics, from the Baltic Sea to the Crimea, would return to the Communist fold. In so doing, it set the stage for Soviet domination of much of Eastern Europe for the next 40 years.

This article was written by Jonathan W. Jordan and originally appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of World War II magazine.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Retail Giant Ed Finkelstein Almost Had Me Arrested

Ed Finkelstein, the former chairman and chief executive officer of R.H. Macy & Co., died over the weekend. He was 89.

Ed Finkelstein, the former chairman and chief executive officer of R.H. Macy & Co., almost had me arrested.

It was during a contentious annual shareholders’ meeting, back in 1986. Finkelstein wanted to take the company private, partially as a means of retaining senior executives with the promise of a big payoff when the company would go public again. 

I was not a shareholder. Nor did I have an opinion on the move, though many shareholders took the opportunity to vent their frustrations with the idea and with management in general. 

What I did have was a camera and I was using it to snap shots of Finkelstein, who usually avoided any contact with the press, or at least with my magazine. So there I was shooting away from the front of the ballroom of the Hotel Pennsylvania, I believe, a block from Macy’s Herald Square flagship store, when Finkelstein’s minions more than casually informed me that if I didn't put the camera away I would be forcibly removed from the private meeting and arrested. 

That's when I learned that shareholders’ meetings are not public gatherings. Picture taking is permissible at the whim of the CEO and Big Ed was in no mood that day to be photographed.

That incident notwithstanding, I admired Finkelstein. He transformed a tired department store company into an energized retail mecca. For him, it was not enough to run the self-proclaimed “world’s largest department store.” By introducing The Cellar to sell trendy housewares and food, by promoting private label apparel and by making the 34th Street store a scene of retail theater, Finkelstein made it a must-visit emporium. Tourists and retail observers had two destinations when they came to Manhattan—Bloomingdale’s on the East Side and Macy’s in Midtown.