Soon after graduating from high school in 1944, 17-year-old Melvin Kaminsky enlisted in the U.S. Army. Raised in poverty by his widowed mother in tough Brooklyn neighborhoods, the future Mel Brooks was now to experience the stern realities of war—unlikely preparation for a life in comedy.
Ranking high in intelligence testing, Private Kaminsky was placed in the elite Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) and sent to Virginia Military Institute to be taught skills such as military engineering, as well as horsemanship and saber-wielding. When the combat arms complained that ASTP deprived them of the brightest enlisted men, the Army terminated the program after young Kaminsky had received twelve weeks of training. He then went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for regular basic training. Shipped to Europe in late 1944, his first duties were as a forward artillery observer. Next he was assigned to the 1104th Engineer Combat Group in time to participate in the Battle of the Bulge (although he would later state that he was not at the center of the most heated action).
The 1104th had been activated in March 1943 and landed in Normandy on 11 June 1944. It advanced with the Allied forces through France, Belgium, and the Netherlands and entered Germany. The unit constructed the first bridge over the Roer River and built similar structures over the Rhine and Weser rivers and the Lippe and Aur-Oker canals. It also destroyed pillboxes and cleared roads. By the end of the war in Europe the 1104th was conducting a reconnaissance of the Harz Mountains.
The group, like other Engineer combat units, was frequently in advance of the front lines. It was often under artillery, mortar, and sniper fire. Five times it fought as infantry and suffered several casualties. Melvin Kaminsky’s main responsibility was the harrowing business of deactivating enemy land mines. He also endured—and not always passively—the anti-Semitism of some of his fellow soldiers. The teenager/soldier did not see the Nazi death camps but he recalled large numbers of refugees: “They were starving. It was horrible.”
“War isn’t hell," he observed. “War is loud. Much too noisy. All those shells and bombs going off all around you. Never mind death. A man could lose his hearing.” Asked by his son if during the war he thought about “what it would take to rebuild postwar Europe ,” he replied “You thought about how you were going to stay warm that night, how you were going to get from one hedgerow to another without some German sniper taking you out. You didn’t worry about tomorrow.”
Discharged as a corporal, he soon found work as a comedy writer in the infant medium of television and adopted the name Mel Brooks. His career expanded into acting, directing, and producing. His achievements include classic films such as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers - in which he skewered his old foes Hitler and the Nazis.
"I was a Combat Engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering.” Mel Brooks
Sources: James Robert Parish, It's Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks (2007); U.S. News and World Report website (August 12, 2001); Max Brooks, Saving Mel Brooks.
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