Burlington’s Harold Cohen Talks of Love and War
Cohen, who turns 91 this week, shares his story with Patch Part One of our three part series
Editor's note: The following story is the first of a three-part series on Harold Cohen and his experiences. Check back tomorrow and Thursday for the next installments.
It’s a love story. It’s a war story. It’s the story of Harold Cohen’s life. Cohen who resides at Tower Hill apartments in Burlington celebrated his 91st birthday on October 10th.
Born and raised in Revere, Cohen was no stranger to hardship. The depression hit the Cohen family hard. Cohen went to work to help support his parents and two siblings even before he graduated from high school.
“My father and sister were unemployed. My brother was away at Dartmouth. I supported the family working at my cousin’s produce store in Malden,” said Cohen. “I earned $7 a week.”
Cohen was on the list to be drafted but he had his own plan. He wanted to join the Ski Troops. The ski troopers were trained to scout out the mountainous areas of Europe, specifically the Italian Alps.
“You had to be proficient at skiing,” explained Cohen. “I wasn’t.”
Cohen only skied recreationally but he was determined. A friend who knew a ski instructor in New Hampshire drove him up to the Granite State for the day. He returned with a letter confirming his proficiency at skiing. Soon after, Cohen joined what is now the 10th Mountain Division.
“There’s a lot to it,” said Cohen. “I was a rifleman. We had to carry all our gear in a rucksack on our backs.”
Artillery was transported on mules.
Cohen was called to Fort Devens on October 9, 1942, the day before his 22nd birthday. From there he boarded a train to Colorado for conditioning and training in the mountains.
“They built a camp for the ski troops up in the mountains near Camp Carson,” said Cohen. “We trained there at 10,000 feet above sea level for about a year.”
Cohen never got to the Alps. Soon after his training was completed, Cohen’s regiment was shipped north toward Alaska. The Japanese were reportedly occupying two islands off the coast. The ski troops landed on the island of Kiska in amphibious boats.
“The landing was dangerous. If the water was over your head, you’d just drown,” said Cohen. “Your equipment was so heavy.”
When the troops first struggled onto the beaches of Kiska, the fog was overwhelming
“You couldn’t see your own hand in front of your face,” said Cohen.
Cohen recalled that as the troops made their way through the dense fog, shots were fired and chaos ensued.
“I didn’t fire,” said Cohen. “I dug my hole and I stayed down and listened.”
There were no Japanese troops on the island. They had abandoned the site before the American troops landed. Seventeen soldiers died that day from friendly fire.
Cohen described the island in vivid detail. Nearly seventy years later, he still remembers the strange “spongy” texture of the tundra and the stark terrain. The island was devoid of trees and the only animals they saw were a few foxes. There were no roads, only dirt paths. When the rains came, everything turned to mud, and it rained a lot.
“I heard one guy drowned in the mud, but I never knew if that was true,” recalled Cohen.
The regiment stayed on the island for five months. It was so cold and windy that the men had to dig trenches ten feet deep in which to set up their tents. The departing Japanese troops had booby trapped the island. Something as simple as picking up a rock or branch could be fatal.
After five months, the regiment was sent back to the States. Cohen was shipped out on a converted fishing boat. The Alaskan waters were stormy and the soldiers were confined below decks for their own safety. Cohen remembers looking out the portholes and seeing half of another ship nearby, and a small rowboat in the water with a dozen or so desperate survivors.
“The swells were 30-40 feet high,” said Cohen. “We watched the rescue operation from our porthole.”
According to Cohen, the crew from the fishing boat fired a rope to the men in the rowboat. They caught the rope but dropped their oars in the process. Moments later, the rope snapped and the rowboat with all the men on board was swept away.
Cohen and his fellow soldiers aboard the fishing boat were forced to turn back toward Kiska to avoid the same fate. When they were able to return to the United States, they enjoyed a brief reprieve and then were transferred to California and shipped out to the Pacific.
In the Pacific, Cohen would see the most intense action of his deployment. He would earn a bronze star for bravery and a purple heart for wounds sustained in battle.
In part two of this series, Harold Cohen shares his experiences in the Philippines. Check back tomorrow for more of the story.