Big Footsteps - Sgt. Samuel Moses Hurwitz

By Shelly Reuben

Contributor

INTRODUCTION

When we were little kids, we had fathers, brothers, or uncles who walked ahead of us in the snow. We gingerly placed our feet into their much larger prints, hoping to follow in the footsteps of the people whom we adored.

To our childlike minds, they were giants. Indomitable. Indefatigable. Infallible.

As we grew older, our footprints got bigger and those of our idols often assumed the proportions of ordinary human beings.

Not all, though.

Some, over time, moved into their own immortality.

Sergeant Samuel Moses Hurwitz is one of the immortals.

This is the story of how a short article that I wrote led me on a journey during which I made three friends and I learned much more about my Uncle Moe…the man in whose footsteps I still wish that I could follow.

Every great friendship starts with a split second of magic.

Mine came during a visit to Ottawa, when my sister and her husband told me that the small windows on the side of the Canadian War Museum spell out in Morse code the words, “Lest We Forget.”

When I heard this, I got chills.

That afternoon, I went to the museum.

I visited every exhibit, lingered over every diorama, and marveled at the fierce humor of pilots who painted irreverent images on the fuselages, wings, and tails of their World War II airplanes.

Then I discovered another bit of magic.

Each year on the anniversary of Armistice Day, at the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” a single beam of sunlight streams down through a window high in the Museum’s Memorial Hall, and it illuminates the tomb of Canada’s Unknown Soldier.

More chills.

I drove back to the USA.

My route took me along the Veterans Memorial Highway, where “Lest We Forget” signs reminded me again of how highly Canadians esteem their war heroes.

Greatly moved and slightly overwhelmed, I sat down at my desk and wrote my article about remembrance.

Life went on.

I forgot to remember.

Then, about a year later, I got an email from Gary and Janie Therrien, Canadians I had never met, who had found me through my newspaper column. They described themselves as the son and daughter-in-law of Ernest Donat Therrien, an ex-Grenadier Guard who had served as a gunner in my Uncle Moe’s tank.

They wrote that on October 24, 1944, Ernest and Moe had been captured by German infantry in Wouwesche Plantage and sent to a military hospital in Dordrecht, Holland. Ernest Therrien had received shrapnel injuries to both legs, and Sgt. Moe Hurwitz had been shot in his right lung.

At the hospital, my uncle crossed paths with the third person I was to meet as a result of my correspondence with Gary and Janie Therrien. But before I introduce you to Alfred LeReverend – Fred to his friends – I want to give you some background on Sgt. Hurwitz, and tell you about a Quest of medieval proportions worthy of King Arthur and his noble knights.

I’ll start with the Quest.

Gary Therrien says that his father did not often talk about his combat years in Europe, but on one of the few occasions that he did, it was not to him, but to his brother, Len.

“Dad, who was the gunner in Moe’s tank, told Len that his Sergeant was ‘one hell of a man, who never took any shit off of anyone’.”

A huge tribute from a silent man.

Other than that…nothing.

Which brings us to the Quest

This is how Janie and Gary described it: “Our fathers never spoke of the war, and responded to the questions of their children and grandchildren with the briefest accounts. It was only many years after their passing, when our son began his own personal quest to honour his grandfather, that we realized we owed it to our fathers, ourselves, our children and future generations to pick up the torch that our son had lit, and try to find out as much as we could of their war experience.”

Their initial expectations were modest. “The best we were hoping for was to be able to trace the path that the Canadian Grenadier Guards and Mr. Therrien traveled through wartime Europe—we never imagined that we would uncover the story that we have.”

A story which eventually led them on a tour of Normandy, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and France, during which they not only followed the route that Gary’s father had taken, they also met many Europeans eager to thank the children of the man who had helped to save their country, their freedom and their lives.

Gary and Janie Therrien visited a logical (to them) and bewildering (to me) number of places relevant to Ernie, Fred, and Moe, including the Normandy Beaches, the Caen-Falaise Highway, Hill 195, Brugge, Maldegem, Adegem Ecklo, Philippine, Wouwsche Plantage, Stalag XIB, and more, all sights of the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade and the Canadian Grenadier Guards.

Fortunately, they thoroughly documented their trip and are preparing their own story of this incredible quest.

Which brings me to why I used the word “bewildering.”

I have often poured over newspaper clippings, correspondence, and memorabilia collected by my family about the war. I have read documents and books sent to me by the Therriens and Fred Le Reverend, as well as pamphlets, memoirs and articles about my Uncle Moe.

Regardless of how many times I review this material, however, I am incapable of grasping or remembering battle sites and military campaigns.

My biochemistry seems to be missing the DNA for geography.

In terms of our story, this translates to a deliberate omission. Rather than tell you about dates and places, I will tell you about deeds and courage.

Sgt. Samuel Moses Hurwitz was the highest decorated non-commissioned officer in the whole of the Canadian Armoured Corps.

Moe received the Military Medal for heroism and leadership during the epic Battle for the Falaise Road. He earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal at Philippine, Holland for capturing 25 enemy soldiers, and accompanied by two Guardsmen later the same day capturing 150 more.

This woefully abbreviated account leaves out such details as “armed only with a pistol” and “dismount and attack on foot” and “without infantry support” and “pinned under a tree by the explosion” and “personally attacked” and “seized railway station” and “fierce close quarter combat” and “determined and gallant action,” all of which are readily look-up-able in history books about the war.

Moe was one of twelve children born to Harry and Bella Hurwitz in Lachine, Quebec, Canada. Five of his brothers and one sister also served during World War II: Archie in the Royal Canadian Air Force; George in the Canadian Army; Max in the Royal Canadian Engineers; Harry in the Royal Canadian Navy; Ian in the Royal Canadian Navy; David in the United States Army; and Esther in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.



And that brings us back to my Uncle Moe. My mother always referred to her brother as having been a Royal Canadian Grenadier Guard, which, to my mind, put him on a swashbuckling par with The Three Musketeers. He had been a Golden Gloves boxer, a champion rower, and so good at hockey that he was drafted by the Boston Bruins.

Instead, he joined the Guards in 1939 at the outbreak of the war, “because he felt that getting rid of fascism and the Nazis was more important than playing for the NHL.”

And this is where I deviate from a conventional biography.

Rather than starting chronologically in England where Moe trained to be a Sherman Tank crew commander, and recording his battle-by-battle progress to Wouwesche Plantage, Holland five years later, I am going to introduce you his fellow tank commander, Major Ian P. Phelan, M.C., who wrote “Some Never Die, A Tribute to Sgt. Samuel Moses Hurwitz.”

Time and space limit me to brief excerpts from this beautiful and heart-felt chronicle of a man’s bravery, modesty, indomitable spirit, and iron-fisted resolve.

Major Phelan tells us…

A little over a year ago, on the 24th of October 1944, to be exact, this regiment lost one of its greatest men. A man whose character, leadership and personality were such that he will never be forgotten. A man whose name and deeds will live as long as fighting men get together over a tall glass and re-live the chills and thrills of the Grenadiers’ share in the memorable thrust from Normandy to the heart of Germany.

Wonderful stories are told of him. Many are thrilling, some are sad, all display a strain of courage and steadfastness and human-ness that put to shame the tinsel heroes of the silver screen, and renew in us our wavering belief in the future of the human race.

Sgt. Hurwitz never faltered. When I questioned him about the very low incidence of major or minor offenses in a troop which was by nature unruly, he smacked one big fist into the other and said, “They know geezly well that I’d beat the stuffing out of them if they weren’t good.”

Everybody liked the Sgt. He had the happy knack of drawing good men to be his friends and all were proud to be numbered in that charmed circle. Harry Burfind who drove his tank, could have been a Cpl. fitter with every chance of being a Sgt. eventually but he turned it down flat, “Thanks a lot, Sir, but I think I’ll stick with the Sarge.”

For all his ruggedness and hard exterior he was really very reserved…shy too, and seldom spoke of himself. Just before we came to France...the Sgt. and I had dinner together. He spoke of many things that were in his heart. Of how he was not too sure if he was fully equipped for the struggles ahead of us, of how much the men depended on him and how he hoped he would not fail them…Yet as all the world now knows, never was such a responsibility in more capable hands.

Then came our Big Day and we boarded the L.C.T’s for Fortress Europe. And to mark the day the Sgt. started to grow his immortal moustache. Never has there been such an amazing and remarkable growth. He was a fierce looking individual at the best of times with his heavy black brows and square chin and big hands, but when he started to grow his moustache he was truly formidable and his appearance alone terrorized many a German…

A few days later the biggest armoured push of our time began. The route was from Caen to Falaise.

The Sgt. never tired. Never stopping, pausing, hesitating—a veritable tornado of destruction. In and out of his tank…running with the infantry, on the ground with the other tanks; an inspiration to all and his name a byword where the going is heaviest.

A Captain of the S.A.R’s. tells of the “‘Mad Dash’…when “this man jumps out of his tank and runs…towards a hedge. He is the fiercest-looking guy I ever saw, with a terrible big black moustache and waving a pistol like a madman. He dives into the hedge and out comes a Jerry white as a sheet.”

Sten in hand and with a mighty shout he dashes up and down the hedge, rooting prisoners out of their slit trenches. Suddenly a burning S.P. (tank) blows up with a terrific explosion. It is a tense moment. Will the rest of the Jerries seize their opportunity and turn the tables? But…dazed by the shock, hair and moustache singed by the sheet of flame, one arm numb from the impact of a tree branch which knocked him to the ground, the indomitable Sgt. picked up his Sten and continues his round-up.

Men and machines are starting to show the strain, but the amazing Sgt. crawls 150 yards along ditches and hedges…then with a great shout he jumps up,

kicks in the door and sprays the interior with the Sten. The gun crew surrenders with three killed.

The advance continues. Lt. Birss is badly burned in a ditch behind his vehicle…the Sgt. crawls 50 yards and drags him back to safety. He climbs upon the officer’s burning tank and drags a wounded man to safety. Then he reports to his Sqn. Leader, giving him valuable information that enables the enemy positions to be neutralized and the advance to continue.

That night the knocked-out crews were all evacuated with minor burns and shock, but the Sgt. refuses to go back. He sleeps for about 20 hours. Then fully refreshed he asks for a tank and is happy as a king when Major Hale relieves another crew commander of his vehicle and turns it over to him.

The CO calls Sgt. Hurwitz to his H.U.P. and gives the news—the first Military Medal, the first decoration of any kind to another rank in this Div. goes to Sgt. Samuel Moses Hurwitz.

The Sgt. smiles and says, “Well, Sir, I’m mighty glad because the boys will know that their work has been appreciated. They’re pretty smart you know, Sir, and they’ll know this medal is for them and not for me.”

The CO throws up his hands as the Sgt. Leaves and says, “What can you do with a man like that—he’s so much greater than the rest of us that we can never understand him completely.”

The Sgt. must go on and on. His appetite for combat is unsated. A great burning flame of energy and enthusiasm for this task of destroying Germany still burns inside him. He must fight. It was as much a part of him as eating and sleeping is essential to the rest of us. He could never rest.

On Oct. 20th 1944, the weather couldn’t have been worse, rain had been continuous for 72 hours, the ground is mud…every water hole or pool is also bottomless mud that can’t be seen until you are stuck in it.

The night is pitch black. The narrow road is obstructed by burnt wrecks of the previous day’s attempt. The fighting is furious…mines and booby-traps are everywhere…more German artillery than we have ever previously encountered peppers us every foot of the way. Wouwesche must be taken at all costs. We must push on.

As they near the objective bazookas open up and the third and fourth tanks in the line are brewed up. The Sgt. comes up on the air: “I can’t go back. The road is blocked. I’ll bull her through and wait until you can send help.”

A few minutes later comes the unforgettable message: “I am on the objective—I’ll hold her until you can come up.”

Those are the last recorded words of Sgt. Hurwitz. Fighting words from a fearless heart.

The next morning the regiment is numbed by the news that the Sgt.’s tank is empty and the crew is gone.

Sgt. Hurwitz is gone!

Never! There was no blood on the tank was there?

Well, you dimwit, how could he be dead?

Rumors, rumors, never anything more. A week later, dozens of men begin a search of the countryside for signs of the Sgt. and his crew. But never a sign is found.

The sergeant is gone.

This brings us to the beginning of the end of Moe Hurwitz’s story, and to the beginning of the story of Alfred LeReverend.

Janie and Gary described Fred to me as a patriotic young man who had lied about his age and joined the Canadian Army when he was sixteen-year-old.

Within a year of enlisting, Fred was in the same battle and fighting for the same objective as Ernie Therrien and my Uncle Moe.

Here is how Fred describes it:

The Grenadier Guards Regiment—Moe's tank regiment—and mine, the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, were both part of The 4th Armoured Division, which was fighting its way up to Bergen Op Zoom. The objective was securing the area surrounding Antwerp for safe use of the vital supply port of Antwerp.

Your Uncle Moe, his tank gunner Ernie, and myself, an infantry dog-face, were each wounded and taken prisoner in the same battle in rural Holland the afternoon of 24 Oct 44.

Alfred LeReverend and Moe Hurwitz were brought to a military hospital in Dordrecht, Holland. In his memoir, A Measure of Protest 1943–1945, Fred describes Moe as – “A Real Canadian Hero.”

That first night I sat up with a delirious, badly wounded tank commander from our own 4th Division of the Canadian Grenadier Guards…He’d taken a bullet through his lung and throughout the night he kept reliving, over and over again, his last tank battle.

In his delirium he was shouting commands over his tank radio to the tank driver and gunner and directing fire; and then he would berate himself for being unable to carry on the fighting. I tried to convince him that his Squadron Commander had ordered him to pull out and rest. Obviously a very dedicated and brave soldier, for draped over the back of the chair beside the bed was his tunic with sergeants stripes, and above the left breast pocket the coveted and very rare Military Medal for bravery.

Glancing through his pay book for his particulars, I discovered that he was from Montreal and his religion was listed as Jewish. Orange froth had begun to collect around the right corner of his lips, and…I went to get help from the night orderly. Quietly, the Orderly indicated to me that my friend would soon die, and then gratuitously stated that it was the first time he’d ever seen or ever heard of ‘Judische’ in battle.

Only the day before I’d seen my friend, Fennel, another Jewish lad, blown apart right beside me and I was not about to defer to this Nazi-indoctrinated anti-Semite. Rather heatedly, I stated that this gallant soldier was a decorated hero, and furthermore, Canadian, British and American line battalions comprised many Jewish!

As the German orderly had predicted, our hero from Montreal finally quit his last battle and died quietly in the early hours of the morning. Alone with him in the darkened room, I just could not bring myself to say a prayer of any kind but did shed tears, for him and all the friends I had lost so recently. I climbed onto my bed and though tired, sleep would not overtake me until long after daylight.

In his tribute to Sgt. Hurwitz, Major Phelan recalled that after his crew without (Moe) had been officially reported as POW’s in Germany, “Terrible doubts crept into our minds. Men started to recall a statement he had often made and always meant—that he would never be taken prisoner. We looked at one another and although never a word was spoken, a prayer, a heartfelt, honest, sincere prayer went up to heaven for the greatest man we ever knew—may his restless soul rest at last in peace.”

Moe died without ever having gone through a German Prisoner of War Cage; his name was never listed as a German POW; and his name does not appear on any official Canadian Army List of POWs.

He defied the Nazis to the very end.

And he kept his promise to himself.

In its regimental history, the Canadian Grenadier Guards’ says about Sgt. “Moe” Hurwitz:

Lost to the regiment was its most purposeful and persistent soldier whose deeds of gallant leadership were to be an inspiration to those who succeeded him in the battles that were to follow.

Prophetic words, as every year the regiment remembers and honors Moe by awarding The Hurwitz Cup to the army cadet who best exemplifies bravery, leadership and achievement during summer training at the Connaught Range near Ottawa.

Terence Whitty, Executive Director of The Army Cadet League of Canada, tells cadets that Sgt. Hurwitz was “barely older than you when he joined the Canadian Grenadier Guards in 1939 at the outbreak of War.”

Mr. Whitty goes on, “Moe Hurwitz did not suddenly become a hero on the battlefield. He became a hero as he was growing up in the Park Extension area of Montreal, Quebec, as part of a large Jewish family. He had an idealism about him. A firm belief in right and wrong and always doing your best…He knew that to accomplish noble deeds, he had to have noble thoughts. He lived by that creed – Sergeant Samuel Moses Hurwitz, DCM, MM, a remarkable citizen of Canada.”

On August 5th, 2012, Alfred LeReverend wrote to Gary and Janie Therrien that, “The brief time I was given to spend with this singularly brave hero took place sixty-eight years ago…yet the physical awareness and emotional tie remains as strong today as ever. I feel close to this man who never knew me.”

Two weeks later, he wrote to me. “I am not a religious person, Shelly, but I just have to whole heartedly thank some deity or other for the unbelievable miracle that brought us together in friendship.”

Moe. Fred. Janie. Gary.

And now, we bring Gary’s father, Ernest Therrien, into the story.

After Fred LeReverend was released from the military hospital in Holland, he was transferred to a prison hospital in Lingen, Germany.

“One dark and cold, snowing night in early November,” Fred wrote, “Ernest accompanied me by train from Lingen, Germany to the Stalag XIB at Fallingbastel’s administrative office to be fingerprinted, numbered and photographed. Ernie and I became engaged in conversation with a comrade one of us recognized who then slipped into line between Ernie and me in order to converse, thus the single number separating our otherwise consecutive POW numbers issued that night.”

The rest of Fred’s military career unravels like the screenplay of a movie, including being starved in a POW camp, brutally packed into a frozen boxcar; enduring “unspeakable claustrophobic nightmares” as a slave laborer in a German salt mine, “No one could possibly have been mentally prepared for this isolated, subterranean hell hole;” and narrowly avoiding a POW “Death March” by escaping without maps, compass, money, food, or clothes from Stalag XIB.

During Fred’s daring escape, he wandered through enemy territory for two days, cold, hungry, ragged, deranged-looking and skeletal, before stumbling upon an “Oh so beautiful Mk Sherman Tank,” and being greeted with the words, “Who the bloody ‘ell are you?” by a started Brit.

In August 1945, two and a half years after he had enlisted (and secretly still only eighteen years old), Fred returned to Canada and received an honorable discharge as one of Canada's youngest war veterans.

And that brings us back to the magic circle of friends that resulted from Janie and Gary Therrien’s Quest…and the rest of the story.

ERNEST DONAT THERRIEN: Fred LeReverend believes that Ernie was among the POWs taken from Stalag XIB to labor camp KDO 357, and that like Fred (although not with Fred), he was forced to work in the salt mines.

Although Fred escaped before going on a “Death March”, Ernie had not been able to do so. On day-five of the march, and taking advantage of pandemonium created by overhead spitfire airplanes, he and other POWs scattered into the woods, ran in and out of a ditch, and then just kept on running until, three days later, he was rescued by the British Paratroopers.

Gary tells us that Ernie, “a young 22 years old, was able to withstand the horror and extreme challenges of war. That he returned to his family a changed man is without question. Gone was the innocence and naiveté of youth, replaced with a quiet dignity that spoke of experiences and emotions carefully wrapped and put away in the deep recess of heart and mind, resurfacing unbidden at times of introspection or quiet reflection.”

Ernest Therrien was discharged from duty in July of 1945. He married his childhood sweetheart Jeanne D’Arc, and went on to have a long and successful career with the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Ernie and Jeanne D’Arc had two sons and four grandchildren. He died, much loved, on October 16, 1988.

JANIE AND GARY THERRIEN: Janie and Gary left on their Quest a little over a year ago, departing for Europe on Tuesday, September 4th.

From Brugge, Belgium, they wrote, “It feels a little surreal to be here, at this point in time, thinking back to all that was done by those young men, so far from home, in such horrendous conditions and circumstances. There have been many tears shed (and) many quiet moments of reflection.”

ALFRED LEREVEREND.

Well, Fred is my hero.

Following his enlistment in the army as a kid of sixteen, he was immediately confronted by impossible life and death decisions (stay in the POW camp? Risk a “Death March”? Escape? Run? Hide?). Yet after being wounded in combat, he had the compassionate heart and unfathomable wisdom to comfort a dying warrior; he had the courage to confront a Nazi-indoctrinated anti-Semite; and almost seventy years later, he has the humor, kindliness, and good will to befriend Sgt. Hurwitz’s oh-so-grateful niece.

Fred earned his happy ending.

First he went to college. Then he became a serving member of the Royal Canadian Engineers (when he met and married "stunningly beautiful" Isabel), followed by ten years as a civilian member of the RCMP. Sixty-five years later, he and Isabel have four equally beautiful daughters, five grandchildren and are spending their retirement years in Victoria, B.C.

As to Moe…

When Janie and Gary told us that they were going to visit Moe’s grave at the Canadian Military Cemetery in Bergen-op-Zoom, Fred wrote, “Truly, he was the most heroic comrade I ever came across. Dear folks…would you please, please, place a flower over his grave – from me!”

Of course, they did.

A white rose from Fred. A pink rose from Janie, Gary and the Therriens. A red from Moe’s family.

And that pretty much says it all.

Except that after Drew Boyd, Research and Collections officer for Historical Canada’s Memory Project, heard about Janie, Gary, and their Quest, he asked me if I would write about it.

I did.

Oh, and one last thing. A parting comment about our story from Janie Therrien, with which I wholeheartedly agree.

“Shelly,” Janie wrote excitedly, “it is better than any fiction could possibly be.”

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