Landing in Normandy following the D-Day invasion, Lester Bornstein, then just 18 and fresh out of basic training, still felt invulnerable. “I don’t know why; I just didn’t think I was going to die,” he told NJJN in what he calls the war room of his West Orange home, where he and his wife have lived for 59 years. All the memorabilia from the five campaigns he fought in during World War II — including the Battle of the Bulge — and from his service in Korea is displayed here. Medals and maps, certificates and photographs, and even some swords and a German rifle are among the artifacts that were sent home by his three older brothers and himself.
By the time Bornstein’s unit got to France — he was with the Army’s Company B 168th Engineer Combat Battalion — a week into the June 1944 Allied invasion, the massive casualties had been cleared from the beach. He was sent inland a few miles to clear minefields, and then his unit was charged with surrounding and liberating the French port city of Cherbourg.
It didn’t take long before the reality of war set in. By the time Bornstein was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, the following December and January, he said, he no longer felt invincible. Today, he said, he thinks often about his time fighting in the war. “Every night, I think about how close I came to death … and how lucky [that] I lived,” he said. “I can’t believe that I lived through it.”
Now, 75 years later, Lester Bornstein has received the highest honor the government of France can bestow. On June 14, Flag Day, Anne-Claire Legendre, the consul general of France, pinned on him the French Legion of Honor medal. The ceremony took place at JCC MetroWest in West Orange, where the Bornsteins are members. Two other World War II veterans received the honor that day: Walter Jasterzebski of Teaneck, who served in the U.S. Navy on the USS Ellyson, and David L. Broadnax of Paramus, who served in the U.S. Army on the 646 Transportation Platoon.
Bornstein shared with those in attendance that 50 years after landing in Normandy, he discovered on a return trip with his wife that he was saved from certain death by the sudden illness of a fellow soldier.
His unit had been moved to a holding area north of West Point in New York and was assigned to barracks while awaiting their imminent departure to Europe. He put his things on one bunk. A soldier he didn’t recognize took another. The rest of the unit gathered around to find out more about the mystery soldier. They learned he was Frank Colusi, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) student who, on the first day of basic training, had been sent back to MIT to train there and was now heading to Europe with the rest of the unit.
But Colusi suddenly took ill, spiked a high fever, and within 24 hours, died from spinal meningitis. With fear of contagion, the unit was quarantined, and another had to take its place on the ship setting out for Normandy.
What Bornstein discovered 50 years later was a monument dedicated to that replacement unit. It had been completely wiped out in the fighting; no one survived. “Frank Colusi saved my life,” Bornstein said.
On the day before the ceremony, Bornstein was eager to share strong coffee and stories with a visitor while his wife, Marilyn, and caregiver, Maka Aptsiauri, listened.
He served in World War II and in the Korean conflict and is proud of both. His memories of the early fighting in France are mostly cloudy, and he focused instead on the Battle of the Bulge — Germany’s last major offensive campaign on the Western Front — and the battle at the Rhine River at the end of the war.
In the Battle of the Bulge, fought chiefly through the Ardennes region, Bornstein and his unit were assigned the task of maintaining the roads in an area outside St. Vith in Belgium. On the morning of Dec. 16, the Germans launched an offensive and in short order Bornstein found himself in a foxhole with a sergeant, a bazooka, and some ammunition.
As a line of German tanks approached, it fell to Bornstein to load the ammunition and to Sgt. Jimmy Hill to fire. When Hill finally did fire, he hit the lead tank, which exploded. The Germans could not figure out where the shot had come from and eventually retreated.
Decades later, a German soldier who had been in the third tank in that line reached out to Hill, claiming that they were among the few men on either side still alive who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge. After exchanging correspondence, they arranged to meet at the site of their original “encounter.” Bornstein also agreed to go, but wasn’t sure how he would receive the German soldier, Hans Geng, who, he discovered, had been a member of the Nazi Youth.
But while digging through Geng’s history, Bornstein realized that while the German had internalized Nazi propaganda as a youngster, he had never engaged in any brutal acts against Jews. Bornstein ultimately managed to shake his hand, but declined an invitation to accompany Geng to his hometown to continue the encounter, though Hill did go. The whole experience was captured in a 2004 NBC News special anchored by Chuck Scarborough.
The campaign at the Rhine River was the last battle Bornstein fought in. Taking place in March 1945, it was, Bornstein said, the “scariest” of all. It involved crossing the Rhine River, the last defensive line for the Germans, under the command of Gen. George S. Patton. The Rhine had already been traversed, but that crossing had taken place farther north, where there were bridges and calmer water. In this area, near the Lorelei, the river is narrow and the current moves swiftly. In the predawn hours, Bornstein’s unit went down to the river.
He recalled getting close to the assault boats lined up near the shore, “and the Germans opened up with everything they could, including anti-aircraft fire, killing people. And we jumped on a boat and took one across under fire,” he said. “We lost men who were drowned and killed.”
They managed to cross the river and drop off the infantrymen who were to attack the Germans on the far side. “When I came back, they said, ‘You gotta go again,’” back across the “very swift, exhausting” river. As he struggled to cross, with the Germans shooting at them, said Bornstein, “I was thinking: that’s my last.”
But he again made it across, dropped off the infantry, and came back. “I landed on a friendly shore and fell exhausted, wet, wet to the skin, on the road.”
But he wasn’t done yet. A new company commander had taken over. Bornstein can recall being kicked. “He said we need to go again. I said, ‘I went across twice!’” But few men were left, and Bornstein made the crossing a third time.
“The boat next to me caught machine gun fire and went down, and I came back alive,” he said — his actions earning him a Bronze Star.
When he returned to the safety of the shore, “the Germans were still firing mortar shells. And I remember walking down a ravine and a mortar came down and hit the guy behind me. A rock flipping hit me in the back. And I hid underneath a sheltered rock over a cliff,” where he remained safe — although he did pull a piece of rock out of his back while holed up there.
A month later, the war was over.
In the years following the war and after he served in Korea, Bornstein was known locally for his decades of service to the Jewish community, including in his role as director of “The Beth,” then the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, now part of RWJBarnabas Health.
He and Marilyn, who have been married 71 years, raised three children; one of them is Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and current Knesset member.
Bornstein remarked that the ceremony at the JCC was extra special because it was held on Marilyn’s 91st birthday.
He said he has always maintained warm feelings toward the people of France and particularly appreciates being honored by them. He recalled with a smile that when Paris was liberated, it was a “beautiful, sunny day,” and he and some other American soldiers were in open trucks, in a parade. “People are cheering and throwing flowers. Girls are climbing up on trucks on the truck kissing you.” When they got to the end of the route, he asked the driver to turn around. “We wound up going through Paris four times!” — all in the name of celebrating liberation.
“I like the French. Vive la France,” he added.