103-year-old talks about World War II service, experiences in courtroom
Avon Free Public Library appearance corresponds with release of From Paratrooper to Public Defender.
By Paul Palmer
AVON – The life of Morton Katz is a little bit of Forrest Gump, and a little bit of Walter Mitty. From his years in World War II to meeting Joe Louis and Irving Berlin, to dining next to Babe Ruth, to acting as a public defender in the Hartford area until the age of 100, he has lived a colorful life. The 103-year-old Avon resident has now added the title of author to his resume – as he has co-written the story of his life: From Paratrooper to Public Defender.
Working with oral historian Aaron Elson, Katz – a Bronze Star winner for his actions in World War II – recalls in rich detail the events of his life.
“It is essential to save these stories,” said Elson. “I realized stories like this are being lost for all time.”
Both Katz and Elson were on hand for the recent release of the book at the Avon Free Public Library. Speaking before a full house, Katz stood for over an hour recounting the stories of his life and taking questions about his service. When asked by one woman if he would do it all over again, Katz’s answer was simple - “Yeah, with those guys, you better believe it.’
Born in Hartford in 1919, Katz began his military service while attending what was then called the Connecticut State College (now the University of Connecticut). He took part in ROTC and later the Citizens’ Military Training camps before being commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Reserves. He moved on to Iowa State College for graduate work. It was there, on December 7, 1941 he learned as so many others did of the attack on Pearl Harbor. “I went to my rooming house to pack and within four days I had orders to report to Fort Benning.”
While at Ft. Benning, Katz says he was part of a group that attended a lecture about the Airborne service and decided that was not for him. “At the end of the evening,” he recalled, “we signed an attendance sheet. Of course, all who did had ‘volunteered’ for the jump course.”
Eventually Katz became part of the 503rd Parachute Infantry and was in the invasion of North Africa. “Operation Torch” as it was called was the first US Army Airborne operation of WWII.
“The Germans put up a hell of a fight,” Katz told listeners at the library, recalling the opposing General was none other that Germany’s Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel. After serving in both Algeria and Morocco, his unit was assigned to the 5th Army and prepared for the invasion of Sicily.
It was in Sicily that Katz had a most unique experience while on a patrol in 1943. “A civilian runs out of a house and yells don’t shoot! I know President Roosevelt. I know lawyer Abe Katz! That was my fathers name.” When Katz wrote home, his father recalled the man was a bootlegger who had been deported to Italy.
After Sicily and continuing in the campaign in Italy, his battalion was relieved to prepare for the Anzio operation. When Katz recalled Anzio, he paused as he remembered the 7,000 American fighting men who died in the operation. He also spoke about what he said was a bad decision that most likely prolonged the war.
“The order came down to dig in and consolidate the beachhead. Gen. Rommel said that the Allies could have been in Rome on the first day if they did not halt.”
Then Katz added an aside that “If Patton had been there we would have been there (Rome) by noon!”
His unit was then sent to a staging area in Italy to practice for the invasion of Southern France. It was there that he met heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who was travelling with a USO unit.
“He would box with some of the troops,” Katz recalled in his book. “Knowing none of them were anywhere near professional, he would carry them through a workout and make them look good.”
During the same time Katz met the composer Irving Berlin at a bar in Rome.
There were also darker times in his service that Katz recalled in his presentation. Around the Anzio invasion, part of his work involved helping prepare the dead to be shipped back home. “We had to go through the possessions of the casualties to make sure there was nothing embarrassing to them in there,” he said. “There was one solider, I swear he wasn’t 15 years old. In his bag was a framed photo of a pretty young girl who was about 13. It was a high school romance. I fell apart; it was just awful. There was a lot of that in World War II.”
During this time, Katz’s actions earned him the Bronze Star. According to the citation, from 31 January to 12 March 1944 during combat operations on the Anzio Beachhead “Katz was responsible for the successful removal of fatal casualties of the Battalion near Carano (Italy).” It describes the area as being under artillery and mortar fire and on “29 February 1944, Lt. Katz proceeded, with no cover, to an area that had been under heavy enemy shelling all day and was then lighted by enemy flares. He proceeded over an open field to recover three men in a dugout.”
Like many others, Katz was a witness to the horror of the concentration camps that the Nazis had built. After battling through France and Belgium, Katz was with the American forces as they crossed into Germany. It was in the town of Ludwigslust as part of the 86th Infantry that Katz helped liberate the Wobbelin Camp. “It wasn’t what I saw it was what I didn’t see. In the main warehouse there were mountains of these wooden shoes, clogs, tens of thousands of them that had been worn by inmates and workers who starved to death,” Katz recounted.
The Allied General in charge was so outraged that he had the local townspeople carry the bodies of the deceased from the camp and bury them in a grave in the center of town, Katz said.
Following the German surrender on May 3, 1945, Katz spent time in Berlin before returning home. He remained in the Army Reserve and went to UCONN Law School under the GI Bill. Beginning in 1951, he practiced law until age 100 in both private practice and as a Public Defender. Katz also provided free assistance to his fellow veterans and was part of the Statewide Legal Services. He retired from the Reserves as a Colonel in 1972 after 34 years of service.
Putting his life on paper came about after Katz’s nephew David Glass thought that someone should record his “Uncle Buddy’s” stories. Elson, who has long worked to record the history of CT veterans, replied to a Facebook post by Glass looking for a writer.
“I spent three hours with him the first day,” recalled Elson. "He wasn’t finished. I came back and we did two more interviews.”
In fact, Elson said there is so much more material he might publish a second book of life stories from Morton Katz. “I’m just so happy he (Katz) was able to publish a book,” said Glass.
“From Paratrooper to Public Defender” by Morton Katz with Aaron Elson is available for purchase at Amazon.com