It is December 16, 1944. Dark skies over Europe signal danger. With Allied air forces grounded due to inclement weather, the Germans spot a weakness in their enemy’s defenses. Their surprise attack on American lines proves singularly devastating. And the action quickly escalates into the single deadliest battle of World War II for the United States.
Around 19,000 American troops were killed in the clash, representing an enormous loss of potential. Among the dead one can only imagine that there were future scientists, engineers, artists and writers – in fact an untold number of great minds whose prospects will never be known. For those who did survive, though, their experiences no doubt went on to shape their lives. And some among them, remarkably, made their mark on Hollywood, using their talents to entertain and amuse.
But the sacrifices of World War II were not in vain. From the ashes of destruction emerged a new world, one largely free from the darkness of fascism. For every great mind lost, a great mind was saved. And they included – perhaps unexpectedly – a budding young entertainer whose zany brand of humor would come to delight audiences around the world. He was born Melvin Kaminsky, but most know him by his stage name, Mel Brooks.
As a young man, Brooks found himself at the heart of the action in Nazi Germany. In fact, he even participated in that devastating battle, which began on December 16. Like many survivors, he would not share much about the darkest details of his experiences in his later life. He did do what his comic nature demanded, however – he sublimated tragedy with humor.
It was perhaps this humor that helped Brooks through the life-or-death job that he was given in the U.S. military. It was one that was beset with danger at every turn; indeed, it was so dangerous that it was sometimes left to prisoners of war (POWs). But Brooks later revealed that it wasn’t necessarily death that he was scared of while on the frontline.
In his biography of Brooks, It’s Good to Be the King, James Robert Parish provided a quote from the comedian, playing down his experiences. “War isn’t hell,” the funnyman had said, referencing the oft-repeated trope that likely originated with General William Sherman. “War is loud,” he continued. “Much too noisy. All those shells and bombs going off all around you. Never mind death. A man could lose his hearing.” Of course, Brooks was being modest.
Born into a Jewish family on June 28, 1926 in Brooklyn, New York, Brooks was the youngest of four brothers. His mother, Kate Kaminsky was from Kiev, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. His father, Max, was from Gdansk, Poland, then known by its German name, Danzig. Sadly, kidney disease killed Max when he was just 34 years old and while Brooks was still an infant.
Growing up fatherless evidently had a big impact on Brooks. “There’s an outrage there,” he said in his show, Mel Brooks Live at the Geffen. “I may be angry at God or at the world for that. And I’m sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger and hostility. Growing up in Williamsburg, I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems – like a punch in the face.”
Indeed, as a child, Brooks endured frequent bullying, not least because of the fact that he was something of a runt. Undersized and prone to illness, the future-entertainer grew up in poverty with the odds stacked against him. However, when he was nine, he went to Anything Goes on Broadway with his uncle Joe. The experience was life-changing. It left him determined to pursue a career in show business.
At the age of 14, Brooks landed a gig as a poolside tummler, entertaining vacationers at a resort. Even as a teenager, his idiosyncratic style of humor was already developing. Speaking to Playboy magazine in 1975, he described how he had carried two rock-filled suitcases onto a diving board. “Business is terrible,” he declared to the guests. “I can’t go on!” He then leapt into the pool, still wearing an overcoat.
At the same time, Brooks earned money from music, having learned the drums from fellow-Williamsburg resident Buddy Rich. Then, at the age of 16, he landed his first gig in comedy. It was during these formative years that Brooks acquired his stage name to distinguish himself from trumpeter Max Kaminksy – who shared his name with the comedian’s father.
Ultimately donning the hats of writer, actor, composer and comedian, Brooks would go on to become a global sensation. Today, he is best known for his movies, which include a number of parodies and farces. Among the most loved are Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs and, of course, The Producers. Before all this success, however, Brooks was enlisted to fight in World War II.
Brooks was a 17-year-old graduate of Eastern District High School when he was called to service in 1944. He had intended to major in psychology at Brooklyn College, but, instead, he found himself conscripted into the military. He was then given an I.Q. exam, known as the Army General Classification Test.
The results of this test indicated that Brooks was of above average intelligence. He was hence dispatched to the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), operated by the Virginia Military Institute. The curriculum there included foreign languages, engineering, horsemanship and medicine. However, things did not work out for Brooks on the elite course.
Brooks received just under three months of ASTP training before its bosses terminated the program. The main reason for the decision was a growing demand for combat troops. As such, in May 1944 Brooks was dispatched to Fort Sill in Oklahoma to be given basic military training. And later that year, he joined his fellow servicemen in Europe.
Of course, 1944 was a pivotal year for World War II. In January, the Soviet Union had triumphed in the siege of Leningrad. On June 6, also known as D-Day, Allied ground forces had stormed the beaches of Normandy and commenced the liberation of Western Europe. In August, the Nazis were driven out of Paris; and then in September, Brussels and Antwerp were freed, followed by Boulogne and Calais. The war was now entering its closing phases as the Third Reich was gradually pushed back to Berlin.
Brooks initially served as an artillery spotter, also known as a forward observer (F.O.). His job was to direct heavy firepower towards its intended target. He was subsequently dispatched to the 1104th Engineer Combat Battalion of the 78th Infantry Division. There, he served with the rank of corporal.
“I was a combat engineer; isn’t that ridiculous?” his biographer, Parish, quoted Brooks as saying. “The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering. I was a little kid from Brooklyn getting his hair combed every morning by my mother, and suddenly I am doing 40-mile hikes and being expected to eat grass and trees.”
The 1104th had in fact arrived in Normandy on June 11, 1944. The battalion joined a broad Allied offensive that swept through France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Collectively, the Allies had begun to push the Germans back, before striking at the heart of the Nazi regime. Brooks’ unit, meanwhile, was responsible for strategic engineering works such as road clearing and bridge building. Looking back, though, Brooks was able to see the funny side of it.
Speaking to Newsweek in 1975, Brooks had some less than flattering words about his experiences. Indeed, as he saw it, there was nothing remotely glamorous about his service. “I was out in the combat engineers,” he said. “We would throw up bridges in advance of the infantry, but, mainly, we would just throw up.”
And there was every reason to lose your lunch. Because the 1104th regularly found itself working ahead of front lines, it became a target for enemy snipers and mortar cannons. On five occasions the battalion was engaged as an infantry unit, and it lost several men in the process. But Brooks’ job with the unit was in fact particularly risky. He was responsible for clearing land mines.
Land mine clearance is a dangerous and often thankless task, which comes with the risk of life-changing injuries and of death. Indeed, rather than use their own men, some Allied units in Norway, Denmark and France forced German POWs to carry out the task. The Nazis, too, are known to have used prisoners for clearing land mines. But in their case, they used captured civilians to actually detonate the explosives – resulting in thousands of deaths.
Despite his grim assignment, though, Brooks apparently kept his spirits up, deploying humor and mischievous antics wherever he could. Responding to German forces using loudspeakers to broadcast propaganda messages, Brooks reportedly assembled his own public announcement system. Then, in a riposte to their antisemitism, he blasted out music by Jewish singer Al Jolson.
Mostly, however, World War II was about survival. According to Military.com, Brooks once told his son, “[Instead of thinking about the future,] 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.” There were also other things to worry about. And Brooks’ so-called “brothers in arms” weren’t always the kindest of people, either.
Though Brooks did not see any Nazi concentration camps, he did observe crowds of refugees fleeing the violence. As reported by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he recalled, “They were starving. It was horrible.” And shockingly, Brooks was actually subjected to antisemitic abuse by some of his own fellow servicemen. Conflict can certainly bring out the worst in humanity – and the future comedian would see the horrors of war writ large.
Indeed, Brooks would go on to participate in the Battle of the Bulge: the historic German action that began on December 16, 1944. The operation would be the Nazis’ final offensive on the Western Front. It took place in the Ardennes, an area of thick forests that encompasses parts of Belgium, Luxembourg and France.
The aim of the counteroffensive was to thwart the Allies in accessing Antwerp and its port facilities. Furthermore, the action was intended to break up and disrupt Allied forces, enabling the Germans to surround and then eliminate several of the encroaching armies. Hitler believed that he would then be well-positioned to demand a favorable peace treaty. And it was a plan that certainly got off to a good start for the Germans.
The Germans were in fact able to launch a completely unexpected attack due to several Allied oversights. Firstly, thanks to some early successes after the D-Day landings, Allied leaders were rather lacking in caution. Secondly, they were so busy with plans for further attacks that they neglected their defensive positions. Finally, they might not have known it, but their aerial reconnaissance of the region was inadequate.
At 5:30 a.m. on December 16, 1944, the Germans began bombarding Allied lines. With Allied air forces grounded due to snowstorms, the assault was able to do significant damage. The bombardment lasted 90 minutes and saw the deployment of some 1,600 pieces of heavy weaponry. The Battle of the Bulge was now underway. And thousands of American soldiers would be dead before it was finished.
However, the Germans would also lose vast numbers of men as well as valuable armored units, which were effectively irreplaceable for them. Their progress on the ground, meanwhile, was stifled by firm resistance. Importantly, they were unable to access certain roads that were critical to their campaign. And with the Germans delayed and put at a disadvantage, the Allies were able to bolster their lines.
Then, on December 24, the British 21st Army Group halted the westward advance of the German offensive. With improvements in the weather, the Allies subsequently launched air strikes on the Germans, wiping out troops and disrupting supply lines. On January 25, 1945 the German offensive was finally defeated. The action had lasted one month, one week and two days.
The Germans had ultimately deployed some 450,000 troops as well as 1,500 assault guns and tanks. More than 1,000 Luftwaffe warplanes had also taken part. German casualties – including men who had been captured, wounded or killed, or were missing – numbered between 63,222 and 98,000. The Americans, meanwhile, deployed a force of 610,000 and suffered 89,000 casualties. The infamous “Bulge” is remembered as the second bloodiest battle in the whole history of the United States.
A little over three months after the battle ended, World War II came to a close. On April 20, Adolf Hitler retreated to his underground bunker, never to return to the surface alive. Hamburg and Nuremberg had already fallen to American and British forces. The Red Army had surrounded Berlin and was laying siege to it. All escape routes were now blocked. Knowing that there was no way out, Hitler committed suicide alongside his long-term mistress Eva Braun, who he had married in the days before.
The “Bulge” would later be the subject of several films, including the 1965 widescreen epic Battle of the Bulge. The movie starred Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson. The offensive also featured in Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five as well as in dozens of board games and computer games. And in 2001 it was the subject of two episodes of the series Band of Brothers.
Brooks never wrote or directed any films about the battle. But he did take a swipe at Hitler in his much-loved 1967 satire The Producers. The film – which was also Brooks’ first as director – won an Oscar for “Best Original Screenplay.” What’s more, it was also subsequently adapted for the stage as a musical.
The story concerns a sleazy Broadway producer, Max Bialystock (played by Zero Mostel), who was once admired but has now fallen from grace. His high-strung young accountant, meanwhile, is Leo Bloom (played by Gene Wilder). While cooking Bialystock’s books to cover up a $2,000 fraud, Bloom has an idea. He realizes that a failed Broadway production might actually net them more cash than a successful one. This is because investors won’t expect a return on a flop – and are hence unlikely to check their accounts.
So Bialystock and Bloom decide to stage a production that is sure to fail. They settle on a musical written by a former Nazi, named Franz Liebkind; his piece is in fact called Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. Having acquired the stage rights for the musical, the producers then sell shares in the production to a tune of 25,000 percent.
However, the play proves to be a huge success. And since Bialystock and Bloom have massively oversold shares, they are unable to pay back their investors. Real-life audiences, meanwhile, liked The Producers just as much as their fictional counterparts had enjoyed the stage show – and the movie ensured Brooks’ place in Hollywood history. And this proved a particular achievement as the Hollywood studios had originally shunned the film.
Brooks’ biographer, Parish, noted how the comedian had expressed his gratitude for the success of The Producers – in typically dry comic style. “I’m grateful to the army,” he reportedly said. “Grateful to Hitler, too. The Producers made me the first Jew in history to make a buck out of Hitler.” Clearly, the comedian had had the last laugh.
Brooks’ career thereafter continued with a string of cinematic successes in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. But his role in World War II reminds us of the existential necessity for humor in the face of horror. To laugh at atrocity is neither to trivialize terror nor to put a brave face on unpalatable truths. In fact, beneath such humor is a rawness and vulnerability that reflects our most humane impulses – it connects us with our fellow humans.