Even though Alex Kane lived through hell nearly three quarters of a century ago, he’s in no hurry to get to heaven.
At 96, the man who grew up in Kensington and was drafted into the Army as a teenager — eventually finding himself trying to cut through barbed wire on D-Day, June 6, 1944 — has too much going on to think about leaving this world.
Besides, he’s got bigger plans.
“My kid brother died a few months ago at 89,” he said while having breakfast at the Corner Café in Rockledge, charming a young waitress who complimented him on his sweater. “My sister is 93. My father and mother were 102.
“I’m shooting for 105. If I make 105, then I’m going for 120. My mother told me Moses lived to 120. Maybe I’ll be the new Moses.”
Sitting across the table, Maurice Berry wouldn’t bet against him.
Kane calls him “the kid,” and implies Berry owes him some kind of commission for introducing him to a widow a while back. The kid, who once managed to lift his arm at the last minute so that his shoulder took a sniper’s bullet in France during the Battle of the Bulge, is 91.
“We had walked 16 miles that day,” recalled Berry, who grew up in Canton, Ohio, then spent 43 years in Allentown before moving here in 2009 after his wife, Barbara, passed away. “Suddenly, we hear machine gun fire, and I flopped to the ground.
“I could see the sniper in the trees. He was about to shoot, when I moved my arm and the bullet hit the epaulet of my shoulder. So, I wasn’t wounded. It seems like 100 years ago, but I’ve lost some memories.”
In honor of Memorial Day, they’ll stir those memories during services at the Naval Support Activity Philadelphia center in the Northeast on May 26. On Memorial Day itself, May 30, they’ll be together again. It’s a special — yet painful — day.
“We belong to the Battle of the Bulge survivors club,” said Kane, referring to the name given when Hitler attempted to split Allied forces in Western Europe in December 1944, which lasted exactly a month.
“When I first joined, about 20 years ago, there about 500 men in Philadelphia. Now, we have 35. We meet once a month at the Coast Guard station in town.”
Kane has one Purple Heart — with a still vividly colored blue mark on his chest to show for it — and five battle stars. He was wounded at St. Vith and also fought at Saint-Lo, Bastogne, Sainte-Mère Église and Remagen. Berry, who has shrapnel in his leg from a grenade during the Battle of the Bulge, has a Purple Heart and four battle stars.
Berry also recently began honoring his fallen comrades in a special way.
“About a year ago, I started going to Beth Sholom to say Kaddish,” said Berry, who’s looking forward to attending his granddaughter’s wedding in July. “I remembered my closest friend, Lou Kaplowitz, was Jewish.
“On Memorial Day, I think of my friends who never came back. I was away from my company for 35 days after being wounded. I came back and no one from my platoon of 40 was there. They’d either been wounded or killed.”
Kane’s Jewish background goes back to his Kensington days.
“There weren’t many Jews there,” recalled Kane, whose family name — Kono — was changed at Ellis Island when his great-grandfather was coming over from Russia to escape the Cossacks. “The ones who came over were all sheet metal men, because in Russia all the churches had steel plates.
“I remember listening to President Roosevelt on the radio saying, ‘This is a date that will live in infamy.’ But I didn‘t get drafted until 1943. I came home on Thanksgiving Day 1945.”
That’s nearly a year-and-a-half after his platoon — the 181st Infantry Division — landed on Omaha Beach. Kane wears a green wristband to remind him, not that he’d ever forget.
“We were 200 men,” said Kane, who was 24 at the time. “They gave us shears and gloves to cut the barbed wire. The next job after that was to find [land] mines. That’s when you pooped your pants.
“Of those 200, I’m the only one living from Company A in the 181st.”
It’s been a busy 72 years since D-Day, during which Kane has met some interesting people — including J. Edgar Hoover — and left his imprint as a roofer and environmental engineer in both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
The president of two companies, S. Kane & Son Roofing and Al-Sid Sheet Metal, he installed roofs on some important buildings in Washington, D.C., while handling environmental work — mainly heating and air conditioning — at the Frankford Arsenal and other buildings in Philadelphia.
“I built the roof of the Pentagon from 1965 to ’66,” he said. “Then I did the Justice Department and U.S. Treasury buildings. That’s when I met Hoover.
“And my last job was the U.S. Supreme Court. I sold my company a few years back, but I’m still ready to go to work.”
Kane’s ready to work — and tell stories.
Mention a topic and chances are he’ll have a something to say about it and make a personal recollection. He said his father’s cousin was famed artist Marc Chagall, who once accompanied his father on a trek from Warsaw, Poland into Germany. He’ll also tell you he was there while they were building the Broad Street subway line.
Since losing his wife of 60 years, Beatrice, Kane manages to keep busy, attending monthly classes in Yiddish at Congregation Melrose B’Nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park, and playing pinochle with the other “youngsters” at the condos where they live in Abington. About the only visible concession he makes to age is that Kane needs to walk with — what else? — a cane.
But the mind’s as sharp as ever.
“I graduated high school in January 1938. The next day I went right to work. I went to Strayer’s business school and then went right into business. They didn’t get me until the second draft.”
That was nearly 75 years ago, nearly 70 years before he would meet Berry, whose grandfather’s name was Horowitz, but because he had two sons with different women one became Berry. They’ve been friends since, two members of the “greatest generation” and two survivors of the Battle of the Bulge.
So what if they’re in their 90s — life is good. Besides, for two men who once lived through hell, heaven can wait.
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