At 91, Max Heller still remembers well his years in the United States Army during World War II, and he recalls those days with vivid description.
Sgt. Heller served as a 60mm mortar crewman in the United States Army during the war, fighting during campaigns in the Pacific, including New Guinea and the Philippines — and with distinction: Heller was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, two silver stars and three bronze stars.
With the sly humor that is readily apparent when listening to Heller tell his stories, when asked when he was drafted into the army, Heller replies, “When I wasn’t looking.”
In fact, it was 1941 when Heller’s number was called up and he reported to Jefferson Barracks for duty.
After training in St. Louis, and Yuma, Ariz., Heller’s unit shipped out to Hawaii, to prepare for deployment to the Pacific theater of war.
“That was the last of our good times for a while,” said Heller. “We swam everyday, and it was a really beautiful place.”
From Hawaii, Heller was sent to New Guinea, where he met Australian soldiers, natives (who he later found out were headhunters), and his first experience of combat.
Heller was a forward scout observer on Lone Tree Hill, calling in coordinates for mortar attacks, which put Heller quite literally on the front line.
As Heller, and a group of fellow men from his mortar company, and a group of riflemen advanced up the hill, a rain of shells came down.
“All of a sudden I heard a phwoom ,” he said. “I saw a bomb explode ahead of me, and it was like I was staring at the sun,” Heller said. “I was out of it for a while, and when I came to, my buddy told me I had been crawling around like I was in the dark,” he said.
When his senses came back, Heller said he saw three of his fellow men lying dead.
Then the rest of the company joined the men on Lone Tree Hill.
“That was when everything busted loose,” he said.
“We were trapped,” he said, “there were shells flying all over the place, and snipers were firing on us. We were pinned down by fire by the Japanese Imperial Marines.”
“Guys were crying all over the place, waiting for medics to come,” Heller said.
“Nobody knew what was going on. All of a sudden another mortar hit, and I saw a root of a tree come up, so I laid down behind where it fell,” he said. After raising his head over the root, he heard a sniper’s bullet zing right by his head, and then he stayed under the cover of the root for the entire night, Heller said.
After three days, a battalion came to their aid, and they defeated the Japanese forces.
“It was a fight to the finish. We didn’t take a single prisoner,” he said.
In addition to recalling the intense fighting, Heller also talked about the more humorous, or ironic incidents he experienced.
After the battle, returning to the rear lines, Heller said, “I heard what I thought was someone laughing at me,” Heller said. “I heard something go ‘haw, haw’ and I looked up and I saw this large, multi-colored bird. I figured he must be thinking, ‘Look at you fools down there killing each other, and I’m up here enjoying life, not a fool like
“I wanted to shoot that bird, ” Heller said. “But I also wished I could just fly away like he could.”
As the war progressed, Heller ended up in the Philippines, fighting in the Luzon campaign.
It was there, again as a forward observer for the mortar company, that Heller earned one of the highest service honors: the Distinguished Service Cross.
Once again, Heller found himself dug in on a hill, on the front line against a defending Japanese force. This time, he was on “Banzai Hill” near Marikina on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
On March 21, 1945, Heller found himself once again dug in on a hill, on the front line against a defending Japanese force. In the middle of a pitched battle, facing Japanese machine guns, Heller left his foxhole to repair a disconnected communications line to the mortar in the rear. He reconnected the line, and as he stood up, he drew fire and found the location of the machine gunners. Heller called in the coordinates to the mortar men in the rear. And Heller was often dangerously close. His unit history states that Heller stood up to call in mortar attacks on positions as close as 20 yards away, which put Hellman in dangerous range for friendly fire.
Heller holds the Distinguished Service Cross, and he has two silver stars and three bronze stars to his name, and he was nominated for a Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in the Philippines.
Heller now lives in Brentwood with his wife of 61 years, Becky. After he returned from the war, Heller worked as a public relations man for the police department.
Sherri Sherman, Heller’s daughter (he also has one son), said that while her father told some stories about the war while she was growing up, she said he still has not heard them all, which is part of the reason she has been compiling his story and military records.
Sherman has become a sort of family military historian, compiling her father’s military records and collecting his stories.
“The Jewish community needs heroes,” she said. “You always wonder about the line between courage and agression, or even insanity. The thing about my dad is that he is so gentle, and never aggressive. So for him to do these things, it had to be to help his country or his fellow men.”