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Published: Sunday, 5/7/2000

WWII veteran continues to fight for others

WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. - They won't make as much of this anniversary, not nearly as much as the one a week ago, when Vietnam was splashed across the front pages of nearly every newspaper in the nation. That was the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and the end of the most wretched and divisive war in our history.

But today marks an even bigger deal. Fifty-five years ago today, a dejected Nazi general signed the unconditional surrender of all German forces, ending the most horrible war in European history. They don't make much of this day, partly perhaps because it was so long ago and in part because the surrender didn't officially take effect until May 8.

But nearly 6 million men are still alive who fought in the "big one," and they remember. And many are heroes, even when, maybe especially if, they don't talk about it. Nor are they all reactionary, Archie Bunker types. Take Leonard Grossman, a real estate developer and renovator who is sort of a patron saint of the Michigan ACLU and countless other progressive (dare we say liberal?) causes.

Everyone knows Len, who I caught up with last week when he was trying to figure out the real estate mechanics needed to give Covenant House, the group that helps teenage runaways, a new permanent home in Detroit. "Any time there is a good cause, he somehow finds the time," said Howard Simon, longtime head of the state ACLU.

But few who know him have any idea that he almost never lived to see VE-Day or that when it came he was flat on his back in a Veterans' Administration hospital in Battle Creek, Mich. awaiting one of the five or six operations he needed to repair his body and make his leg, then as now still full of shrapnel, work again.

"You know, if you asked me about 10 years ago, I couldn't have talked about it," he said. Mr. Grossman had left the University of Michigan, where he was a pre-law major, to enlist in the army on "the ides of March, 1943."

For nearly a year he was trained to analyze aerial photographs, then, in a move familiar to anyone who knows the military, his entire intelligence unit was disbanded and sent to the front lines, in France. Sometime that fall, a German shell landed right in a foxhole where he was sheltering with several other men.

He has no idea what happened to them. "I don't remember anything for a day and a half, except that I was on a cart, lying on a bed of straw, and being pulled by a horse," Mr. Grossman said. He was sent to a succession of field hospitals, then finally, to a hospital in Ohio, then the immense hospital in Battle Creek, where he stayed for nearly a year.

Toward the end of his time an even more severely injured soldier arrived, a Kansas boy named Robert Dole, who was not expected to live, but who recovered enough to later become U.S. Senate majority leader.

The two men, who would go on to be more or less on opposite sides of the political spectrum, never met. While in the hospital, Mr. Grossman helped organize a chapter of the American Veterans Committee, intended to be a liberal alternative to other veterans' groups. "Sadly, it died out. I think perhaps during the McCarthy period," he said.

Not that he kept up with it. He wanted to put it all behind him. The day he was finally released from the hospital, he hitchhiked - on crutches - to Ann Arbor, just in time for the start of the fall term. He finished law school, but decided he preferred real estate. He met and married a young widow with four children, and then he and Audrey, together 43 years now, had two more. For years, he did his best to not think about the war.

He opposed the war in Vietnam, raised money for civil rights struggles, and remained an active liberal. "I guess I was a peacenik before they had the word, and I guess justice was what always appealed to me," he said.

"But if there is such a thing as a just war, that was it. And I wouldn't rule out someday having to fight one again." He may have been, he admits, a bit closer to what it all meant than most people. As a little boy, he had written letters to his cousins in France. Like Mr. Grossman, they were Jewish. Two of the boys joined the underground. The others weren't so lucky. This columnist, born six years after World War II was over, thinks he is lucky to have lived in a world with Len Grossman in it.

Footnote: Earlier this year I wrote about Michigan Vietnam veterans' efforts to raise the last $600,000 needed to build a memorial in Lansing. Last week, the United Auto Workers union and one of its locals sent checks for $115,000. There is now a move on to have the Michigan Legislature appropriate funds to finish the job.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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