Ninety-seven year old Seymour Lavine of Atlanta has had an amazing life, serving his country and his community in ways few can match.
Until his recent retirement, he stayed busy running Emory University’s learning program for retired professionals, and one is struck by his scholarly, kind, gentle, and modest demeanor. But 66 years ago, he was busy fighting Japanese troops, freeing starving American prisoners, and liberating the Philippines from the cruel occupation of Emperor Hirohito’s imperial army.
Before his country went to war, Seymour was a good and productive citizen, living
an ordinary life and trying to make a living. Suddenly, confronted with one of the gravest threats we have ever faced, he rose to the occasion, performed incredible acts of valor – and violence – and then, in the best tradition of America’s original Minutemen, resumed his normal life as if it had never been interrupted.
Seymour’s story is an amazing tale of courage and accomplishment in some of the toughest battles of World War II.
BROTHER SANDY KILLED IN HOLLAND
Following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Seymour, 29, and his brother Sandy, 27, both married and with jobs, enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Sandy at the time worked for The Southern Israelite newspaper in Atlanta, selling ads and doing editorial work. He was sent to Europe, with the 104th Infantry Division, and participated in the ill-fated Allied thrust into Holland in late 1944, intended to end the war early by attacking Germany through the Netherlands.
There, on a reconnaissance patrol, his unit encountered approaching German tanks. Sandy ordered his men to withdraw while he gallantly stayed behind to hold off the panzers. He fired a bazooka, hitting one tank, but another fired back at him, tearing his arm off. “He didn’t last the day,” says Seymour.
Half a century after the war’s end, in 1996, a ceremony and parade were held in honor of Sandy at Fort McPherson, where he was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
JUNGLE FIGHTING IN THE PACIFIC
Seymour, meanwhile, ended up on the other side of the world, fighting the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. It was quite a switch, going from selling clothes to being a paratrooper and infantryman, but Seymour seems to excel at everything he does.
There, he was engaged in the bitter and protracted combat against the brutal Japanese Imperial Army, which was notorious for the atrocities it had earlier committed against soldiers and civilians alike. During the 1937 “Rape of Nanking,” for example, between 200,000 and 300,000 Chinese civilians were raped, tortured, and murdered, many beheaded for the fun of it or used for bayonet practice, and some even buried alive. The Japanese later learned that killing civilians was a lot easier and more fun than fighting Seymour and his men.
At the beginning, he underwent the notoriously severe paratrooper training with the 11th Airborne Division, one of just three Jews he knew of in the 2,000 man unit. He was first sent to Guadalcanal, a key island on shipping routes near Australia, where some of the fiercest, most brutal fighting of the war took place.
He was later wounded after a parachute drop with elements of the 11th Airborne late in 1943 in the Solomon Islands at Bougainville, in the South Pacific, where the Japanese had established important air and naval bases. After a two week recuperation, he was transferred to the 37th Infantry Division where as a staff sergeant he specialized in leading reconnaissance patrols, and sometimes engaged in ambushes.
On Bougainville, the 37th was up against the Japanese 17th Area Army’s infamous 6th Division, which had been responsible for many atrocities in Nanking. But on Bougainville, the 6th Division met its match, and paid for its crimes against the Chinese. Nearly 10,000 of its soldiers were killed and untold numbers wounded in attacks along the seven mile front thinly held by the 37th, a ratio of 33 Japanese dead for every American killed.
As author Stanley Frankel describes the campaign, “Never before had more frightful or bloody fighting taken place in the Pacific. For more than a month the Japanese smashed themselves, time after time, against our front…They ran up against a division of veterans that proved … aggressive and powerful in the defense. We had… above all, men that knew the business of jungle fighting from A to Z.”
Seymour was later shipped to Hollandia, on the northern coast of New Guinea, a major Japanese air base whose capture was crucial to the later American invasion of the Philippines. There, as a staff sergeant in charge of intelligence, he twice led 12 man patrols, encountering friendly jungle tribesman, as well as cannibals. The natives often provided valuable intelligence to the Americans, who had to contend with poisonous snakes, malaria, disease-carrying mosquitoes, contaminated food and water, and the jungle itself. The heat and humidity were so overwhelming that uniforms rotted off.
LIBERATING THE PHILIPPINES
By late 1944, Seymour was heading towards Luzon to liberate the Philippines, from which American forces led by General Douglas MacArthur had fled or been captured almost three years earlier. A kamikaze pilot flew so low over his ship that Seymour could see the pilot’s face, before he plowed into a nearby carrier.
Landing in the Philippines, Seymour fought his way through two towns and the former U.S. base Clark Field, crossed a ravine over a river on one foot wide boards, since the bridge had been destroyed; and liberated a brewery, having his first cold beer – out of his helmet – in years.
His unit was the first into Manila, freeing some 1,400 hungry and brutalized civilian and military prisoners, mainly American, being held under horrid conditions by the Japanese in Bilbid prison. The house to house, building to building fighting in Manila was incredibly brutal, and some 100,000 Filipino civilians, often used as hostages by the Japanese, were killed.
Some of the Japanese were holed up in a centuries old Spanish fortress, whose thick walls could only be dented by the American 155 mm howitzers. At night, the Japanese would launch Banzai attacks that Seymour’s men fought off with machine guns, rifles, and even bayonets.
Finally, the fortress was stormed by the Americans, using flamethrowers and hand-to-hand combat. The Japanese soldiers would fight to the bitter end, rarely surrendering, and as in the previous fighting, neither side took many prisoners, something Seymour still doesn’t like to talk about.
Later, he led a patrol squad of Americans with a platoon of Filipino scouts, and once, when they encountered a much larger company of Japanese troops, the Filipinos fled, forcing Seymour’s men to retreat. Using his BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), he held off the Japanese by himself until his men were safely withdrawn.
In Baguio, the summer capitol in the mountains, U.S. troops watched while U.S. bombers attacked Japanese troops down below them. “It was like a circus,” Seymour remembers.
When one bomber flew over with a bomb hanging precariously from the bomb bay, Seymour and his buddies ducked for cover in fox holes, but the falling bomb crushed the chest of the corporal next to him, badly wounding the man. Soon afterwards, a sergeant next to Seymour was killed by a sniper. Finally, General Yamashita surrendered his troops in the Philippines, and the fighting ended.
Seymour had been getting ready to be shipped out for his next combat assignment – perhaps an invasion of the Japanese home islands — when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan unconditionally surrendered. Seymour realized that he would be going home instead of back to war, and he credits the atomic bomb with probably saving his life and those of many of his men.
BACK HOME AT LAST
Back at last in the States, Seymour recognizing the lack of haute couture in the South, opened show rooms in major cities there, selling high fashion clothes to some of the finest retailers all over the South.
Seymour now has three children and two grandkids, and lives in Atlanta’s Sherwood Forest neighborhood with his lovely wife Constance and their striking art collection. It includes beautiful copies of paintings by Hogarth, Vermeer, and other famous artists, painted by Seymour himself!
For two decades, he has devoted most of his time to the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at Emory, staffed by retired professors and professionals in the fields of history, philosophy, finance, politics, religion, music, travel, and other areas of study. He says it’s a great way for seniors to continue their education, learn from some of Atlanta’s most brilliant people, and keep their minds sharp.
Few of Seymour’s students realize that they owe their country and for some, their lives, to people like Sandy and Seymour who helped to win and end that terrible war.
Seymour and Sandy were two of the best of America’s “Greatest Generation,” who sacrificed much to help defeat fascism, and to whom we all owe a debt we can never repay.