Member of “Greatest Generation” recounts WWII

Rye resident John Carolin, 97, served in the U.S. Army during World War II. His tour of duty took him to North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.  Photo/Liz Button

Rye resident John Carolin, 97, served in the U.S. Army during World War II. His tour of duty took him to North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.
Photo/Liz Button

By LIZ BUTTON
There are some people whose life stories defy a swift retelling; John Carolin is one of them.

He and his contemporaries are the last remaining members of the “Greatest Generation,” a term coined by journalist Tom Brokaw in his 1998 book. An army veteran who fought in World War II, Carolin is a member of the generation that survived the hardship of the Great Depression only to line up to fight in a bloody war and then return home to rebuild American society from the ground up.

Carolin’s personal history is that of an American, and of a century.

The 97-year-old Rye resident recently recalled his time as a soldier in perfect chronological order and crystalline detail; his journey took him through the war in North Africa, France, Italy and Germany.

Carolin, who will turn 98 on Oct. 1, joined the National Guard in 1935 while a student at Fordham University. In 1938, when Carolin graduated from Fordham, where he was an acquaintance of future football coaching legend Vince Lombardi, the U.S. had enjoyed close to 20 years of peace since the end of the First World War, so Carolin said he never expected to be sent off to fight in an international conflict.

While training in the National Guard during the interwar years for a fight he thought was relatively unlikely to come, Carolin was drilled by World War I veterans who had aged considerably since they last saw combat, while new soldiers had refreshed the ranks in dribs and drabs. In fact, some of the captains assigned to train the Guard units taught from horseback.

During his time at college, Carolin recalled seeing a parade of Nazi supporters pass through the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx, which was home to a considerable German population at the time.

When his unit raided Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, Carolin took a tea cup from the dictator’s china cabinet. Carolin said this cup was part of a large tea service displayed in the mansion. The tea service was a gift to Hitler from Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Photo/Liz Button

When his unit raided Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, Carolin took a tea cup from the dictator’s china cabinet. Carolin said this cup was part of a large tea service displayed in the mansion. The tea service was a gift to Hitler from Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Photo/Liz Button

While rumblings of war were an inescapable part of everyday life, in the classroom it was, for the majority of the time, business as usual, Carolin said. Professors and students did not frequently discuss the volatile situation overseas, he said, so the information from the battlefields of Europe came mainly from movie news reels.

Though the war was still in its early stages in the mid-1930s, some of its most horrific events were already taking place overseas as Jews in Poland were being systematically exterminated. These events portended what would become known as the Holocaust, which culminated in the murder of nearly six million Jews by war’s end.

Once American soldiers got to the front lines, Carolin said, what had been vague intimations of human tragedy and carnage became real before their eyes.

“Some of the things we saw…you can’t even begin to describe it,” he said, his voice cracking just a bit.

In 1940, Carolin was assigned to the 207th Coast Artillery and ordered to Camp Stewart, a training headquarters in Georgia, where he was made first sergeant of an artillery battery.

From there, he was sent to officer candidate school in North Carolina, advancing to the rank of first lieutenant. He went on to Camp Hewlin in Texas, where he joined the 44th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Brigade.

Carolin said that, until he and his comrades—under Brig. Gen. Ralph Tobin—shipped out in November 1942, none of the rank-and-file soldiers knew where they were actually being sent. Their destination was North Africa, where the troops disembarked at the Port of Oran in Algeria on the western shore of the continent.

Carolin and the Americans entered into a scenario in which troops in Africa were fighting a war on two fronts: British Gen. Bernard Montgomery pursued German Gen. Erwin Rommel’s troops along the coast of Libya on the Mediterranean while, on the opposite side of the North African stage, the Vichy French—those French nationals aligned with Hitler and the Axis powers—fought the American troops under the command of Gen. George Patton, who had arrived in the Port of Casablanca in Morocco months earlier.

Patton’s troops had to travel 1,000 miles from Morocco, going east along the Algerian coast, to finally meet up with the British in Tunisia, where Rommel eventually surrendered  in May 1943.

When his unit arrived in Africa, Carolin and the other American soldiers took up air defense positions in Algiers, the headquarters of future U.S. President Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who helped coordinate a combined British and American defense operation.On the Algerian coast of the Mediterranean, Carolin’s unit fired missiles in defense of American B-17 planes, which were taking off from bases along the coast to target German bombers and take the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania, which the Germans depended on for fueling their planes.

From 1942 to 1945, Carolin commanded his own unit in the 44th Brigade, and horror upon horror mounted as the Germans dropped bombs over Tunisia. All these years later, the memory of violence is still fresh in his mind, as is the loss of his comrades in arms.

“We lost a lot of good guys along the way on the beaches near Casablanca,” he said. “You get to know guys really well.”

From North Africa, Carolin’s unit crossed the Mediterranean and went on to France. The Americans took up stations in  developed communities within the territory abandoned by German forces in southern France, but little did they know they still had to contend with booby traps left by the Germans in their flight.

In one village where Carolin and his fellow soldiers were stationed, the Germans sawed off telephone poles at the bottoms and replaced them so, when American patrolmen climbed them to repair the wires and restore electricity, the poles were precarious enough to topple over. This tactic resulted in broken backs for at least two men in Carolin’s regiment.

Following that, his unit trekked through the Alps between the French and Italian border  all the way across the Swiss and French Alps to Grenoble. They crossed the Rhine River at Worms and proceeded into Germany.

As they pursued Hitler to Munich, Carolin and his unit eventually made its way to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, one of the dictator’s hidden retreats located high on a mountain that had been taken by the American 101st Airborne Division.

While the troops explored the chalet-style house, Carolin nicked a small souvenir of the experience for himself: one of Hitler’s teacups from a service that was a gift from Japanese Emperor Hirohito.

After that, Carolin’s unit made its way through Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps where, for five months, it administered “military government” within four German municipal districts, or kreises.

Later on, Carolin’s unit helped liberate Dachau, a concentration camp located right outside of Munich, historically one of the worst camps. It was then Carolin first truly bore witness to the horrors visited on the Jews by the Nazi regime.

While there, his soldier buddies opened the door to one of the freight cars used to transport the Jews, and a hill of bodies tumbled out. For Carolin, this was the moment that turned “all the terrible things that had been done to the Jewish people” to grim reality.

As the war wound down, the unit moved on to Camp Lucky Strike in France and, in early 1945, his unit was finally transported back to West Point in the United States.

Thinking back on his experiences, Carolin remembered an instance toward the end of the war when he was among the American soldiers at Tunis loading some 50,000 German POWs onto ships to take them back to America. To Carolin, the prisoners appeared to be strong, healthy, rugged men—soldiers like him—and, like him, they had had enough of war. Even though their capture might result in their own deaths, Carolin said, to him, the German soldiers seemed “happy to be out of it.”

Carolin was awarded the Legion of Merit at a ceremony in France in 1943 for his role in the North African campaign, along with several medals commemorating his military service. He was thereafter promoted to captain.

Carolin maintains his medals in an ordinary looking case and briefly explained their significance before moving on. He demurred when showing them, stressing that he did not want to appear to be taking credit for any of the brave deeds of his fellow soldiers.

“So many guys did so much more than me,” he said.

It was really the infantry soldiers fighting on the ground who did the dirty work, he said. “I have the greatest respect for the men who woke up in the morning never knowing if they would still be alive that night.”

After he returned to the states, Carolin went on to live a happy, productive life.

He had a family and managed the B. Altman department store in White Plains for 38 years. On the verge of his 98th birthday, Carolin said he remembers his war years well, but a big part of his life was also Rye.

Carolin and his wife Dorothy, 92, have six children—one of whom was lost to a heart attack—and six grandchildren. They bought a house on Meadow Place in 1947 and stayed there for 10 years, eventually moving to a bigger house on Locust Avenue where they raised their children, who all attended school in the Rye City School District. Though Carolin and his wife left Rye for Greenwich, where they lived for 25 years, they ultimately returned to Rye’s Blind Brook Lodge on Milton Road, where they live today.

As time went on, Carolin  remained an active member of the Rye community. He became chairman of the city’s Planning Commission in the 1980s, during the drafting of its 1985 master plan, which is still in use today. He also served as chairman of the board at St. Agnes Hospital, was a trustee at Pace University and had a place on the board of directors of the Westchester County Association.

As a member of the Rye Men’s Club, which meets at the Recreation Center once every week, Carolin has the chance to meet other veterans to socialize and swap war stories.

It is a way for him, he said, to connect with that time and connect with other soldiers like him, who can understand what he went through. One of his friends, Joe McDonald, was a B-17 bomber pilot who was shot down over Italy.

Carolin is also a member of Rye’s American Legion Post 128.

“There aren’t many of us left,” he said, and those veterans who are alive have spread out all across the U.S., but he still tries to keep in touch with his old Army buddies as best he can.

This month, Carolin participated in the Rye Historical Society’s three-part World War II film series that accompanied the society’s “Rye in World War II” exhibit.  His presentation on his experiences in North Africa was followed by a screening of the film “Run Silent, Run Deep,” starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, about power struggles among the captain and crew of a U.S. naval submarine in
the Pacific.

At almost 98, Carolin is someone whose life can teach more than documents, artifacts and fictional depictions ever could, and he hopes to be around long enough to tell his story again
and again.

“I’m trying to get to 100,”
he said.

CONTACT: liz@hometwn.com