(This article and others in MOAA’s “Window Into War” series originally appeared in the May edition of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)
When the Gestapo visited Frank Cohn’s childhood home in Breslau, Germany, in 1938 searching for his father, he and his mother knew it was time to leave.
At the time, 13-year-old Cohn hadn’t imagined he would return to his native Germany six years later. But when he did, he was wearing an American Army uniform, searching for Nazis and liberating oppressed people.
For Cohn, WWII was the culmination of years of childhood memories of violence, hate, and atrocities he recalls seeing on his street. “I’m a survivor and a liberator,” said Cohn, a 94-year-old retired Army colonel. “I was not going to be a victim for the rest of my life. With a caveat — we were never going to be like them.”
Escape From Germany
Cohn’s military service spanned 35 years, but it stalled before it started. He left from New York City for Fort Benning, Ga., but was held at Fort Dix, N.J., for three months while FBI agents investigated his status as an enemy alien.
That’s because he wasn’t an American citizen.
When he was 13, his mother brought him to the U.S. from Germany. The situation in his hometown had become so tense that Cohn’s father came to the U.S. ahead of his wife and son in search of relatives who could sponsor the family.
Cohn’s mother wrote to her husband in 1938 not to return to Germany, and she began planning an escape with her son. The pair packed one suitcase and boarded a ship in Amsterdam to sail to New York.
Less than a month after arriving, Cohn said, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order allowing any refugees to stay in the U.S.
Citizen and Soldier
When he graduated from high school, Cohn knew he was going to be drafted for WWII, so he enrolled in Reserve Officer Training Corps to learn about the Army. After the confusion at Fort Dix, Cohn was sent to Columbus, Ga., to obtain his American citizenship.
Cohn’s first assignment was the 87th Infantry Division. In 1944, Cohn arrived in France and traveled through England and Belgium before anyone realized he could speak German. He was sent to a training course to become an intelligence agent and placed on Interrogation of Prisoner of War Team 66, which sought out German soldiers attempting to infiltrate the Army by wearing American uniforms.
Cohn was 19 years old.
On one mission, the team became lost on back roads. They found an American outpost but instead of asking for directions, Cohn said the team’s captain asked for a status report, which triggered the other team’s commander to ask several challenge questions that no one knew the answers to.
Cohn’s driver saw the interrogation from the Jeep. He ran up to the group and, through his thick German accent, asked what was going on. Suddenly rifles were pointed at Cohn and his team, which was led away until the other team could verify they were, in fact, Americans. The ordeal lasted seven hours.
“We never lived that one down,” Cohn said.
‘A Job for Our Country’
Cohn was promoted to staff sergeant and discharged in 1946. He missed the camaraderie and work he did in the Army, so two years later, he earned a commission and entered the Reserves. Cohn said he hopes young officers will consider his advice: “You have to understand you’re doing a job for your country; that is foremost,” Cohn said. “If you have a job you don’t like, stick it out. You can manage it to your liking.”
He served as a member of the military police until he retired in 1978. During his service, Cohn deployed to Korea and Vietnam, and went back to Germany twice.
“There’s very little I would do differently,” he said.