Eli Gordon was just a U.S. Signal Corps sergeant at the Potsdam Conference in Germany in July 1945, but he sees himself as a participant in a key historical event.
"There are so many stories leading to how I got there . . . but the biggest thing I did there was get a telephone painted for [president Harry] Truman," said Gordon, 88, of Atlantic Beach Estates.
Gordon said an officer told him Truman had to have a white telephone, "and I was told to get one. But there wasn't one to be found, so I had one painted and personally delivered it to my boss," he said. "I don't know if Truman ever actually used it."
Memorial Day always makes such war memories more vivid, Gordon said, although this year his holiday routine has changed.
Because of his wife's recent death, he won't visit the grave of his best boyhood friend, Morris Katz, who died in the Battle of the Bulge in February 1945. Instead, Gordon plans to spend time Monday with other members of the Long Beach VFW Post 1384, and will participate in its morning parade from Ohio and West Beech streets to the post at West Park Avenue and Grand Boulevard.
Gordon grew up in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section and has lived in the Atlantic Beach area since 1957.
He was rejected by the draft because of "a bad left eye, but I went back after memorizing the eye chart and was accepted in December 1943," he said.
"Did you know you could shoot better with just one eye? You can, and I was an expert marksman," he said.
After basic training, he did not go overseas with his unit because an officer needed a typist, Gordon said. He missed the D-Day landing at Normandy on June 6, 1944, but three months later he shipped out to nearby Le Havre, France, where he stayed aboard ship for a week until the Allies took the city and port.
Gordon recalled a night when he and some of his unit went into a barn to sleep after installing and repairing field telephone lines. "The next morning, when the door was opened and the sunlight flowed in, a bunch of German soldiers stood up in the hayloft, hands in the air, surrendering," Gordon said, laughing.
From there, he went to Paris, to help run the radio telephone lines there, and then to Berlin to do the same thing.
Gordon was fluent in Yiddish, originally a Germanic dialect, so he could converse a bit with the Germans. "Thinking I spoke German, I was sent to Potsdam," he said. "They quickly learned I was no interpreter."
Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Russian leader Josef Stalin held the conference two months after Germany surrendered to discuss postwar arrangements in Europe and the ongoing war in Japan.
Gordon said he is "no hero. I only once fired my rifle at an enemy or in anger, and that was in the air, when a group of German civilians spat on GIs."
Gordon, who still works almost every day at his millwork business in Queens, has returned to Potsdam several times, including for the meeting's 50th anniversary.
There, using the passbook he was issued to get into the conference in 1945, "I have open access to documents granted few people in what is now a museum," Gordon said.