'Sadie's Boys' tells an American war story

By BILL BUELL | The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 12, 2018

Larry Lewis had plenty of experience writing scientific papers, but producing a non-fiction history book about his family's World War II trials and tribulations was quite a challenge.

"I have 100-plus patents and I've written plenty of articles for scientific journals, but it's just not the same," said Lewis, a retired General Electric chemist living in Glenville who recently self-published "Sadie's Boys," a book chronicling the story of his father's capture and his uncle's death during World War II. "I got plenty of help and I'm happy with the way it turned out. I don't know if I have a career as a writer, but I wasn't trying to get rich doing this. My goal was to tell the story well, and keep it alive for the people that care."

"Sadie" is Lewis's grandmother, who tried in vain to keep her two sons out of World War II. Ben, Lewis's father, became a prisoner of war in Germany in December of 1944, and Ben's older brother, Charley, had been reported missing in action more than a year earlier in June of 1943. While Ben returned home to Brooklyn after the war and eventually passed away in 1993, Charley was killed when his plane crashed during a reconnaissance mission over New Guinea and his remains were never found.

"Sadie was relentless in trying to get her boys out of the military or keeping them out of combat," said Lewis, who also grew up in Brooklyn before moving to Glenville in 1982 to start working at GE Global Research. "Then, when her sons were MIA, she pestered everyone for information. Sadie even wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt. In an era before texting, email, etcetera, Sadie was an aggressive letter-writer."

Although his father never said too much about his World War II experience, Lewis had heard the story of his capture and his uncle's death from other family members. When he retired from GE in 2014, Lewis was informed by his wife, Ricki, that he better find something to keep him occupied.

"I had put together a short talk about our story probably seven or eight years ago," said Lewis. "It was based on letters to my grandmother from her sons and some of the letters that she had written to them. But about three days after I retired, my wife looked at me and said, 'you're sitting around reading books. You need to do more to keep busy. Why don't you write a book about your family story.'"

Not a bad idea, thought Lewis, but there were numerous gaps to fill in before a book could be produced.

"I had the letters, but there were a lot of holes that had to be filled in," said Lewis. "From the letters I could learn that they were somewhere at this date, and then someplace else in four months, and someplace else three months after that. But I didn't know what happened in between."

Lewis began a long stretch of researching World War II on microfilm, much of it was old newspapers such as the Brooklyn Eagle and New York Times.

"The Brooklyn Eagle, which stopped publication in the 1950s, was the newspaper of the day in Brooklyn back then," said Lewis. "I would sit in the library for hours looking at it, and then I would go to the Schenectady County Library and look at the New York Times, starting around 1940 through 1945. I wouldn't say I read every day, but I read a lot."

The research was fun to do, said Lewis, even if he didn't uncover a gold mine of material.

"I'd spend one or two hours looking at microfilm, and I might find one nugget of information," he said. "But I enjoyed it, and even looking at the ads was fun. But because I did that I can tell you the exact circumstances of my father's capture in Europe, and I can tell you what day my uncle's plane was shot down and where, and who died and who didn't."

"Sadie's Boys" was printed by ShiresPress of Manchester, Vermont, and while they helped him put the book together, he got a really big assist from his wife.

"She's a writer, and that's going on her tombstone," Lewis said of his wife, who has produced several textbooks for McGraw Hill and numerous magazine articles regarding human genetics and other scientific subjects. "She was a big help, and I had some other friends who also helped.They took my bad sentences and turned them into good sentences. They made it flow better."

One of the stories Lewis uncovered while doing his research was particularly poignant.

"I had posted on a web site about my father's capture, and I was wondering if I could find anyone who had been captured or who had known him during the war," said Lewis. "I got a phone call from a guy whose father-in-law had recently passed away. He said his father-in-law had been interviewed by a Florida newspaper before he died and that I had to read the article.

"In the story the guy basically describes how they were captured, 'the Germans caught us napping,' he said, and he mentions how he saw this Jewish kid from Brooklyn and told him to get rid of his dog tags," continued Lewis. "The dog tags had a big H on it indicating you were Hebrew, and he knew that some American Jews had been getting rough treatment from the Germans. The guy said that later he had caught up with the young man and that he was happy to see he was able to make it back home. That was my father. That was a wow moment. That was fantastic."

Lewis will be speaking about his book at the Massry Residence in Albany on April 23, Northshire Books in Saratoga Springs on May 25, the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library on June 18 and at the Army War College in Gettysburg sometime in July. Anyone interested in "Sadie's Boys" should contact Lewis at larrylewisnotge@gmail.com.

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