These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You

Khalid Elhassan - December 4, 2017

When World War II broke out, many teenagers in warring countries were forced to make some difficult and dangerous decisions. Most of the teenagers lived in countries whose soil endured foreign armies tramping in and were subjected to enemy occupation; thus thrusting the young lives into the horrors of war. Others, whose homelands were further removed from the fighting and the hardships of foreign occupation, voluntarily sought to fight in the war. They were “teenagers being teenagers”, convinced that nothing could harm them and that they would live forever. As such, it is not surprising that many of them, insensate to danger and heedless of risks to life and limb, saw the war as an exciting and grand adventure in which they desperately wanted to participate.

Regardless of how they became involved in the fighting, many teenage fighters lost their lives during the war, while others survived and went on to live their lives as best they knew how. Some coped well with the trauma of war and were able to swiftly put it behind. They went on to lead satisfying and rewarding lives and careers, with some rising to the heights of fame and fortune. Others, exposed to the horrors of war at a tender age and during their formative years, suffered psychological wounds that never healed. Those mental traumas followed them around, haunting them for the remainder of their lives.

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Comedian Mel Brooks as a teenager in the US Army during WWII, and in his twilight years. Pintrest

Following are twelve remarkable teenagers who fought in the Second World War.

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Stan Scott. History Extra

Stan Scott

Stan Scott was a 13-year-old Briton when WWII began, and he desperately wanted to join the action. Fired up by the Battle of Britain, he could no longer contain his enthusiasm, and in 1941, at age 15, he lied about his age and claimed to be 18 in order to enlist. His mother found out, however, and to his chagrin, the teenaged recruit was yanked out of training and sent back home.

A year later, successfully enlisted at age 16, and after training, was assigned to guard airfields in southern England. That did not satisfy his desire for action, however, so he volunteered to join the Commandos. He took to the elite fighters like a fish to water, and attracted the attention of his superiors during training. When a recalcitrant recruit doubted the efficacy of the Commandos’ hand-to-hand techniques in defending against a knife-wielding attacker, Stan proved their effectiveness by breaking his arm during a demonstration when he came at Stan with a (sheathed) knife.

After completing the tough training regimen, he was assigned to No. 3 Commando, and finally saw action on D-Day, 1944. Stan got his first taste of combat that day in the fighting to relieve the airborne troops who had captured Pegasus Bridge, and consolidate Allied control of the area. After weeks of combat, he was severely wounded near Honfleur. After recovering from his wounds, he returned to frontline duty, and went on to fight in at least five river crossing assaults across the Maas, Rhine, Weser, Aller, and Elbe rivers, and took part in the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp.

He developed an expertise with the Fairbairn-Sykes Commando knife, and became an authority on its fighting techniques. He distilled its technical use thusly, after the war: “”If I’m going into somebody and I’m going to use this, I don’t have to push it forwards. Just grab him and pull him onto the knife. You got it? But mostly, if you’re going to do a job on a sentry, you don’t do what they say – lift his chin up and cut his throat like that. Yes, lift his chin up, but put the knife in by the jugular vein, which is both sides of the throat, push it through, punch it forward. You rip out the lot. Bit of a messy job, but that’s it.”

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Zinaida Portnovna. Valka

Zinaida Martynovna Portnovna

Zinaida Martynovna Portnovna was a teenaged Belorussian partisan who fought the Nazis during WWII. She became the youngest female recipient of a Hero of the Soviet Union award, the USSR’s highest distinction for heroic service to the country and society. Unfortunately, it was to be a posthumous award, as Zinaida was captured by the Germans and executed in 1944.

WWII came as a rude shock to Zinaida, as it did for most Soviet citizens. Born and raised in Leningrad, the 15-year-old was hundreds of miles from home, at a summer camp near her grandparents’ home close to the Soviet-German border in Belorussia in June of 1941. When the Nazis invaded, German tanks swept past Zinaida’s summer camp, and the teenager found herself cut off behind enemy lines.

Living under brutal occupation, Zinaida became radicalized when a German soldier struck her grandmother while confiscating the family’s cattle. She joined the underground Komsomol – the youth division of the communist party – and its resistance group, dubbed “The Young Avengers”. Zinaida started by distributing anti-German propaganda leaflets, collecting and hiding weapons for the partisans, reporting on enemy troop movements, and engaging in opportunistic acts of sabotage of enemy vehicles.

After learning the use of weapons and explosives, she participated in raids and sabotage operations against power plants, pumps, and a brick factory in the vicinity of Vitebsk, during which an estimated 100 German soldiers were killed. In 1943, she got a job in a kitchen that served the German garrison of Obol, and poisoned the food. When suspicion fell upon her, she demonstrated her “innocence” by eating the food to prove that it was not poisoned. When she did not exhibit immediate ill effects, she was released. She became violently ill soon thereafter, but survived.

Fleeing Obol, she joined another partisan unit and served as its scout. In late 1943, contact was lost with the Obol partisans, and Zinaida was infiltrated back into the city to investigate. She was captured almost immediately, but managed to grab a pistol her German interrogator had carelessly left lying atop his desk and shot him to death, as well as two guards who came rushing in upon hearing the gunshots. She escaped the building, but was eventually tracked down and captured, after which she was tortured and executed on January 15th, 1944, aged 17.

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Teenaged Soviet partisan Zinaida Portnova during an interrogation following her capture. Agenda Communista

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Jack Lucas. Wikimedia

Jack Lucas

During WWII, Jacklyn Harrell “Jack” Lucas (1928 – 2008) lied his way into the military to enlist in the US Marine Corps at age 14. He went on to become the youngest Marine ever to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor – the country’s highest award for valor – for heroic conduct at age 17, whereby he saved the lives of fellow Marines during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Born in Plymouth, North Carolina, Lucas was a 13-year-old cadet captain in a military academy, and captain of the school’s football team, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America joined WWII. Eager to join the action, at age 14 Lucas forged his mother’s signature on a form that granted permission for her “17-year-old” son to enlist, and used that to join the Marine Corps Reserves.

He completed training, but after his true age was discovered, Lucas was restricted to driving a truck in Hawaii while the Marines decided what to do with him. Facing the threat of being sent back home, he stowed aboard a troop transport headed for combat. Once the ship was underway, he turned himself in to avoid a charge of desertion, and volunteered for combat – without disclosing his true age. The ship was part of the task force headed for Iwo Jima, and Lucas was duly assigned to a rifle company and placed on its roster.

In February of 1945, young Lucas was in a trench in Iwo Jima with three other Marines, when a firefight erupted against 11 Japanese in a nearby trench. When two enemy grenades landed in Lucas’ trench, the 17 years saved his comrades by shielding them with his own body. As he described it: “I hollered to my pals to get out and did a Superman dive at the grenades“. He landed atop one, and grabbed the other to place beneath his body as well. One grenade was a dud and failed to explode, but the other went off beneath the teenager and wounded him severely. “I wasn’t a Superman after I got hit“, he added, recalling how he screamed after the explosion.

Lucas was lucky to survive, but was left with over 250 pieces of shrapnel in his body, and required 26 operations during subsequent months to repair the damage. In October of 1945, President Harry S. Truman personally placed the Congressional Medal of Honor around the teenager’s neck during a ceremony on the White House lawn, before he was discharged from the Corps.

He went on to get a business degree, and in 1961, enlisted in the US Army. He joined the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper, and survived a training jump in which both parachutes failed to open. He was commissioned, reached the rank of captain, and was assigned to train paratroopers in Fort Bragg. He volunteered to serve in Vietnam, but after his request was denied, he resigned his commission in 1965.

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Marcel Marceau. We Heart It

Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau (1923 – 2007) was the world’s most famous mime, and his white-faced character, the melancholy vagabond Bip, became globally famous. Before fame, however, Marcel spent his teenage years during WWII hiding from the Nazis and fighting for the French Resistance. Marceau’s underground activities included the rescuing of numerous Jewish children from the Nazis by smuggling them to safety. He had aspired to become a mime ever since he first saw a Charlie Chaplain movie as a child. That talent came in handy to distract and quiet the tiny tots as he smuggled them past German guards and across the border to safety in Switzerland.

Born Marcel Mangel, the future star was 16 when WWII began. The following year, when the Nazis invaded and defeated France, Marceau’s father, a kosher butcher, had to hide the family’s Jewish origins and fled with his family to central France. Marcel’s father was captured, however, and sent to his death in Auschwitz. The teenager moved to Paris, and with forged identity papers in which he adopted the surname “Marceau” after a French Revolutionary War general, joined the Resistance.

After the Allies landed in France, he gave his first major performance before an audience of 3000 troops in recently-liberated Paris, after which he joined the Free French army for the remainder of the war. His talent for languages and near fluency in English and German led to his appointment as a liaison officer embedded with George Patton’s Third US Army.

After the war, Marcel Marceau went on to lead a long and eventful career. His accomplishments included winning an Emmy Award, and getting declared a national treasure in Japan notwithstanding that he was not Japanese. He also became a member of the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, and forged a decades-long friendship with Michael Jackson, who borrowed some of Marceau’s moves in his dance routines.

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Truus Oversteegen, right, during WWII. Andere Tijden

Truus Oversteegen

Truus Oversteegen was born into a left-wing working-class family, and grew up in an industrial district north of Amsterdam known as the “Red Zone” for its residents’ political bent. Her family actively assisted an organization known as Red Aid, which helped Jewish and political refugees escape Nazi Germany to the safety of the Netherlands and beyond before the war. In her youth, Truus grew accustomed to fugitives hiding in the Oversteegen household from Dutch police, who were likely to hand them to the Gestapo at the border. She was thus antifascist long before the Germans conquered the Netherlands in 1940, when Truus was 15 years old.

At age 16, she joined the Dutch Resistance, and started off by distributing leaflets and illegal newspapers, and offering assistance to fugitives from the occupiers. In 1941, following a massive Dutch workers’ strike to protest the deportation of Jews, the Nazis cracked down hard. That further radicalized Truus, and spurred her to join an armed partisan fighter cell that engaged in direct action against the Germans.

After receiving military training and learning how to operate a firearm, Truus’ early assignments included flirting with and seducing German soldiers, and leading them into the woods where they would be killed by her comrades. Before long, the teenager was shooting Germans herself, and rigging up bridges and railroad tracks with explosives for destruction.

Life as an armed partisan would prove a difficult row to hoe, full of dangers and marked by tragedy as often as success. Early on, she was present at a failed rescue mission of Jewish children that ended with the fugitives caught in searchlights in an open field, where most were mown down with machine guns. Before the war was over, many of her Resistance comrades were arrested and executed. Suspicion was rife that Truus’ and other left-wing cells had been deliberately betrayed by right-wing members of the Resistance, who were backward in the actual fight, but came forward at the hour of liberation to claim the lion’s share of the credit.

Notwithstanding the setbacks and daily dangers, she courageously soldiered on and kept up the fight, evading capture despite a sizeable reward that was placed on her head. After the war, Truus Oversteegen put down her arms and beat swords into plowshares, raised a family and went on to make a name for herself as a respected artist and sculptress, and as a public speaker at war memorial services.

Read More: Resistance Fighters from World War I & II.

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Len Chester’s autobiography. Amazon

Len Chester

In May of 1939, fourteen-year-old Len Chester joined the British Royal Marines as a bugle boy. After training, he was assigned to Scapa Flow in Scotland, the Royal Navy’s main base. There, the teenager and other young bugle boys battled boredom while ducking pedophiles, surviving on meager pay, and enduring strict discipline. He would later describe those experiences in his WWII autobiography, Bugle Boy.

Most of his time was not spent ashore at Scapa Flow, however, but aboard battleships. Len’s first ship was the HMS Iron Duke, an obsolescent veteran that had once served as the flagship of the Grand Fleet during WWI, then as the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet after that conflict’s end. By the time WWII began, the Iron Duke was past its prime, so it was moored in Scapa Flow as a harbor defense ship. There, she was severely damaged by German bombers in October of 1939, and had to run aground to avoid sinking. In that condition, she served as an anti-aircraft platform until the war’s end, when she was refloated, broken up, and sold for scrap.

Len barely survived another bombing raid aboard the Iron Duke in March of 1940. As he described it: “I was very lucky during that raid as I was sent with a message to the bomb area and had to move along the starboard waist when I heard the whine of a plane diving,” he recalled. “I didn’t wait but ran as fast as I could, easily breaking the four-minute mile, undoing eight cleats on an armored door and getting inside to safety. If that German pilot dropped that bomb a fraction of a second earlier on the quarter-deck where I was then I could have been the youngest boy to die in the Second World War“.

After the Iron Duke, Len was reassigned to other warships, where he served on extremely hazardous Arctic convoy duties on the so-called “Murmansk Run“. Those convoys braved German bombers, submarines, and warships, to maintain an Allied supply route to the embattled Soviet Union from Britain and the US via the Russian ports of Archangel and Murmansk.

Upon reaching age 18, Len transferred from the bugle boys and became a full-fledged Royal Marine, with whom served until the war’s end and beyond. He finally took off the uniform and rejoined the civilian world in 1955, after 16 years in the ranks. He went on to raise a family, and pursued a career as an insurance agent and with British Petroleum, before retiring at age 82.

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Calvin Graham. World War Wings

Calvin Graham

Following his father’s death and mother’s remarriage, Calvin Leon Graham (1930 – 1992) found himself one of seven children living with an abusive stepfather in Houston. At age 11, he moved out with an older brother, and supported himself by delivering newspapers and telegrams on the weekends and outside school hours. The following year, in 1942, he told his mother he was going to visit relatives, but went to a recruiting office instead, and lying about his age, enlisted in the US Navy at age 12. He became the youngest American serviceman during WWII, as well as the youngest one decorated for heroism during that conflict.

After completing boot camp in San Diego, Calvin was sent to Pearl Harbor. There, he was assigned to the recently commissioned battleship USS South Dakota, whose crew he joined as a loader for a 40mm antiaircraft gun in September of 1942. The following month, he served the guns during the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, for which the South Dakota and her crew received a Navy commendation.

During the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on the night of November 14-15, 1942, the South Dakota sustained significant damage after it came under fire from at least three Japanese ships, and was struck 26 times. Calvin was hit by shrapnel, but ignored it to take part in rescue operations and help pull other more seriously injured crewmen to safety. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his conduct that day, and a Purple Heart for his wounds in action.

The battleship sailed to New York City for repairs, and while it was docked, Calvin went AWOL to attend his grandmother’s funeral in Texas. That was when his mother discovered where her 12-year-old son had been all that time. She told the Navy, but incredibly, rather than immediately discharge him, they sent the 12-year-old to the brig as punishment for going AWOL. It was only after his sister threatened to go public that the Navy let the child go, giving him a dishonorable discharge and confiscating his awards.

It was not until 1977, after writing to Congress and with the approval of President Jimmy Carter, that Calvin’s awards were restored, with the exception of the Purple Heart, for some reason. His dishonorable discharge from the Navy was also changed to honorable. In 1988, his story was told in a TV movie, Too Young a Hero, in which the role of Calvin was played by Rick Schroeder.

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Lenny Bruce. The Laugh Button

Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce (1925 -1966), was an edgy standup comedian whose comic routines combined satire, politics, religion, sex, and vulgarity. He became a poster boy for freedom of speech after prosecutors went after him with obscenity charges, of which he was convicted in 1964. But before his comic career, Lenny Bruce had joined the US Navy as a teenager and fought in WWII.

Born Leonard Alfred Schneider in New York to Jewish parents, Lenny had a difficult childhood following his parents’ divorce. After the divorce, Lenny was raised in the homes of various relatives and saw little of his father, but was strongly influenced by his mother, a stage performer. Early in 1942, soon after the US entered WWII, a 16-year-old Lenny lied about his age to join the Navy.

The teenager was assigned to the light cruiser USS Brooklyn, aboard which he saw combat in both the Mediterranean and Atlantic. The Brooklyn’s assignments included convoy escort and fire support for amphibious operations such as the Torch landings in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily, and the Anzio landing. It also served during Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France in August of 1944.

As the war wound down, Lenny got bored with the Navy, and having lied to get in, he lied to get out. A slapstick skit in which he donned drag upset Lenny’s officers and gave him an idea for a way out: he went to the Brooklyn’s sickbay to report that he was feeling gay. In a handwritten letter, Lenny wrote that he had been normal when he joined the Navy, but his shipmates gave him “abnormal attention”, including feeling his body and kissing him. After months of such attentions, he started to find other sailors attractive.

The medical officer reported to the captain that Lenny was valiantly suppressing homosexual tendencies, but the desires and temptations were steadily increasing. He was then sent to a psychiatrist because he had “a tremendous amount of homosexual drive“. Psychiatric evaluators noted that Lenny was the kind of gay who could adjust to heterosexual relations if given the opportunity. However, they concluded, if he remained aboard a ship filled with men, Lenny would “eventually give way to the performance of homosexual acts“.

The Brooklyn’s captain concurred, and wrote that Lenny might give in to his homosexual urges at any moment with an eruption of gayness that was “potentially dangerous socially” to his ship. He recommended that Lenny be discharged from the Navy, or assigned to a shore installment with access to girls to get his desires back on the right track. The captain urged immediate action, before Lenny engaged in “scandalous action [causing] discredit to the ship in particular and to the naval service in general“.

The Navy quickly gave the teenager a dishonorable discharge, but he successfully appealed to have it altered to a discharge under honorable conditions for unsuitability to serve in the Navy. Lenny’s ruse to get out of the Navy became the inspiration for TV’s Corporal Klinger, the cross-dressing MASH character desperate to get kicked out of the Army for being gay.

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Adolfo Kaminsky. Times of Israel

Adolfo Kaminsky

Adolfo Kaminsky was a French teenager who joined the Resistance after France’s defeat in 1940 and subsequent occupation by the Nazis. He was a precocious and self-taught gifted chemist, which he combined with a talent for forgery to make himself perhaps Europe’s best underground forger. He specialized in identity papers, and forged documents that helped save the lives of thousands of Jews.

Adolfo was born in 1925 to Russian Jewish parents who had emigrated to Argentina, before the family relocated to France in 1932. To help support his family, he dropped out of school at age 13 and got a job working for dry cleaner. His work entailed the use of various compounds, which led to a familiarity with, and subsequent passion for, chemistry. He started reading up on chemistry, and took a part-time job working for a chemist on the weekend. That knowledge and love of chemistry would come in handy during his subsequent career as a forger.

He was 15 years old when France fell to the Germans in 1940, and it did not take long before Adolfo and his Jewish family felt the Nazi yoke. First, his home was seized early in the occupation to quarter German troops, and his family was evicted. The following year, the Nazis shot Adlofo’s mother dead. In 1943, his family was rounded up and interned in a holding camp, preparatory to deportation to Auschwitz, and were only spared after intervention from the Argentinean consul.

In the meantime, Adolfo had joined the French Resistance at age 16. Sent by his father to pick up forged identity papers from a Resistance cell, he discovered that they faced difficulties removing a particular dye. The precocious chemist gave them a solution off the top of his head that immediately solved their problem. Impressed, the Resistance recruited him and put him to work in an underground laboratory in Paris. There, he spent the rest of the war forging identity papers for those on the run from the Nazis and in need of fake ID, particularly Jews. By war’s end, he had produced fake documents that helped save over 14,000 Jewish men, women, and children, from the horrors of the Holocaust.

After the war, Adolfo Kaminsky worked as a professional photographer. However, he also continued his clandestine work as a master forger, lending his talents to disadvantaged peoples and liberation causes around the world. He created documents for thousands of freedom fighters, such as the Algerian FLN, refugees, exiles, and pacifists. As the Jerusalem Post summed his career: “He grew to be a humanist forger, a utopian outlaw, the Robin Hood of false papers, preparing passports and identity cards for the world’s oppressed.

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Albert Riddle. The Daily Mirror

Albert Riddle

In 1938, Albert Riddle tried to join the British Royal Navy at age 14, but the recruiters rejected him because of his youth and diminutive size. He tried again the following year, and at age 15, the 5 foot 5-inch teenager was accepted. Sent for training in Plymouth, he was eventually assigned to the brand new battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, which entered service in March of 1941.

The new pride and joy of the Royal Navy saw combat before she was even launched, having survived a German bomber attack in August of 1940. She sustained damage while still in drydock, being outfitted for service. Albert’s first taste of combat came in May of 1941, when the Prince of Wales traded salvoes with the German battleship Bismarck, and the teenager was fortunate to survive a 15-inch shell that killed other sailors nearby.

Later that year, Albert’s ship was sent to the Far East. There, Albert had the misfortune to be aboard the Prince of Wales when it, along with the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, became the first capital ship to be sunk in the open sea solely by enemy airplanes. That came about on December 10th, 1941, two days after they sailed northward from Singapore, accompanied by four destroyers, in a foolhardy sortie without aerial protection to challenge Japanese landings in the Malay Peninsula. The Japanese were alerted when the task force was sighted by a submarine, and the first wave of Japanese air attacks came at 11 AM.

By noon, the Prince of Wales was sinking, after taking a Japanese torpedo that damaged propulsion and caused uncontrollable flooding. Albert barely survived the explosions, which blasted his uniform off. As men abandoned ship, a naked Albert rushed below decks to check on two friends, teenaged twins. One was too badly injured to be moved, and the other refused to leave his brother’s side despite Albert’s pleas that he save himself.

Forced to leave them to their fate, Albert jumped into a sea black with oil. After treading water for two hours, he was fortunate to get picked up by a destroyer, and was returned to Singapore, suffering shellshock. He recuperated in Singapore until it fell to the Japanese in early 1942, and from there, was posted to Sri Lanka, and then to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

He returned home at the war’s end, and was sailing in the Bay of Biscay when Japan surrendered – on his 21st birthday. He stayed in the Royal Navy until 1952, married and had a daughter, lost his wife to cancer, remarried, and had a son with his second wife. As of 2014, Albert Riddle was a spry 90-year-old, living in Cornwall near his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Mel Brooks during WWII. The History Channel

Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks is a funnyman best known for directing farcical comedies such as Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He is not somebody most people would associate with life-and-death type of hazardous duty. Yet, that is precisely the kind of stuff Brooks did after enlisting in the US Army as a teenager during WWII.

Born Melvin James Kaminsky in Brooklyn, he was raised in poverty by a single mother after his father died when Mel was a baby. Growing up small and sickly in a tough neighborhood, Brooks developed a sense of humor and a precocious comedic talent early on. That came in handy to diffuse confrontations and avoid getting picked on and beaten up.

At age 17, Mel enlisted in the US Army, and scoring high in aptitude and IQ testing, he was sent to the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). There, he was taught important skills such as engineering, and less important ones, such as horseback riding and fencing. He never completed ASTP, because the combat arms complained of its absurdity and that it deprived them of the brightest recruits. When the program was terminated, the teenaged Mel was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for artillery training.

He was sent to Europe in 1944, and assigned as a forward artillery observer. He was then transferred to a combat engineer unit, where his tasks included defusing land mines. In addition to clearing landmines – a hairy job made hairier yet when he had to do it while exposed to enemy fire – he also fought in the Battle of the Bulge during the winter of 1944 – 1945.

As he described it: “War isn’t hell. War is loud. Much too noisy. All those shells and bombs going off all around you. Never mind death. A man could lose his hearing“. He distilled his experience to its essence when asked what he thought during the war about saving Europe and the world: “You thought about how you were going to stay warm that night. How you were going to get from one hedgerow to another without a German sniper taking you out. You didn’t worry about tomorrow“. Aware of the jarring contrast between his funnyman persona and his serious wartime experience, he once mused to reporters: “I was a combat engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering“.

These 12 Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II Will Astound You
Charlotte Sorkine. Washington Jewish Week

Charlotte Sorkine

Charlotte Sorkine Noshpitz was born in Paris in 1925 to a Romanian mother and a Belorussian father, and one of her grandfathers was an anthropology professor. Charlotte was raised in a highly intellectual household, whose routines included a weekly salon that often hosted French luminaries of the arts, letters, sciences, and academia.

Her life took a drastic turn for the worse after the Nazis defeated France in 1940. The collaborationist Vichy regime enacted a raft of discriminatory laws that revoked the French citizenship of naturalized Jews, and authorized the internship of foreign Jews or the restricted of their residence. When out in public, Charlotte and her family were forced to wear yellow stars of David sewn to their clothes to identify themselves as Jews.

By 1942, Charlotte’s father was in hiding, and that year, her mother was arrested in a roundup and deported to Auschwitz. Her father and brother fled to Nice in southern France, and were followed soon thereafter by Charlotte, who joined the local Resistance at age 17. After her father stumbled upon her stash of weapons, she arranged false identity papers to get him out of the country and out of her hair. She led him to believe that she would go with him to Switzerland, but at the border, she bid him adieu as she handed him to a guide who escorted him into Switzerland. His daughter turned around and returned to the fight.

Charlotte’s Resistance work included stashing and transporting weapons and money, often beneath the Germans’ noses, and creating and supplying fake documents. She also guided fugitives to the French border and safety beyond in Switzerland or Spain. In addition to escorting freedom fighters and political opponents of the Nazis and their French puppet regime, her charges included many Jewish children.

Additionally, she took part in direct action such as planting explosives – including a bomb that went off in a Paris movie theater where SS members were gathered. She also fought in the 1944 Paris Uprising that preceded that city’s liberation. For her wartime services, Charlotte was awarded the Médaille de la Résistance, the Croix du Combattant Volontaire de la Resistance, the Médaille des Services Volontaires Dans la France Libre and the War Commemoration Medal.

After the war, Charlotte resumed her education, and studied psychology at the Sorbonne and art history at the Louvre, as well as languages. She sailed to the United States to further her mental health studies and to examine a model health treatment center in Kansas for replication in Paris. During a rough crossing of the Atlantic, she met and befriended Ernest Hemingway. After her return to France, she married in a ceremony attended by her Resistance compatriots and settled into family life and a rewarding professional career.

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