By Jaimie Julia Winters
Fleeing Austria at the age of 12 after Hitler annexed the country in 1938, Gerard “Jerry” Sorell went back at the age of 18 as an American soldier. He was fighting the same regime that had driven his Jewish family out of the region seven years prior.
Seventy-three years after World War II ended, Army veteran Private First Class Sorell will be presented the Bronze Star during a Veterans Day ceremony this Sunday, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m., in Edgemont Memorial Park. The Bronze Star is awarded to members of the United States Armed Forces for heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement or meritorious service in a combat zone.
Last weekend, Colonel Glen McElroy awarded the New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal at the Yogi Berra Museum to Sorrell. The 92-year-old veteran and retired chemical engineer said he was “pleased and proud to be the recipient of all the attention” more than a half a century after his discharge from the army.
It was Sorell’s son-in-law Mark Stehr who began the long road and paperwork to get Sorell honored for his service.
“This was a chapter in his life that has never been told or acknowledged. The fact that he went back over after escaping, and as the only child to his mother, says a lot about Jerry,” said Stehr.
Sorell was born in Vienna, Austria in 1926, and was a musically gifted violinist at a young age flourishing in a country known for its musicians. But with Hitler annexing Austria in 1938 and his family being Jewish, Sorell and his parents had to flee Austria. They spent time in waystations in Luxembourg and England before settling in New York City in November 1939.
In the states, he acclimated well, attended the High School of Music and Art and resumed violin lessons.
At the age of 18 and anxious to fight the Nazis, Sorell tried to enlist in the army, but was turned down because he was not a U.S. citizen. Just months later, in June 1944, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Soon after, he obtained his citizenship.
After basic training in Camp Blanding, FL, he was shipped to Europe. There, his fluency in German aided in the war efforts. During the Battle of the Bulge he was assigned to a heavy weapons company in the 394th Regiment of the 99th Infantry Division. In March 1945, his outfit spearheaded the crossing of the Rhine across the bridge at Remagen into the German heartland. While crossing under heavy German artillery barrage, Sorell sustained severe ear nerve damage and hearing loss or tinnitus, which lasts to this day. Later that year, the 394th Regiment participated in the Ruhr Pocket and Danube Valley Drive campaigns.
But it was his work after the Germans surrendered that he is most proud of. Again, Sorell’s fluency in German was put to use in Counterintelligence Corps and also placed him eye to eye with the people who had harmed his family.
“Both my grandmothers died in concentration camps. It was most gratifying to this Jewish, American soldier who escaped the Holocaust, and with the tables being turned,” Sorell said.
His role in the CIC was interrogating high-ranking German military personnel, concentration camp officials and government officials to uncover their roles in the Nazi regime.
“They were anxious to get them [Nazis] early on, because they were trying to erase their role,” Sorell said, adding his role was to look for the most powerful within the Nazi regime.
Life after war
In August 1945, Sorell was shipped back to the U.S. for reassignment to the Pacific war zone, but after Japan surrendered in September 1945, he was sent to Fort Campbell, KY in the 656th Tank Destroyer Battalion. In April 1946 he was discharged with the rank of PFC.
While on home furlough, he met his future wife Susan, also Austrian, at a Viennese Restaurant. Under G.I. Bill funding, Sorell earned a B.S.E degree in chemical engineering at Princeton University, graduating in 1950 with High Honors, and stayed on at Princeton for an M.S.E. in 1951. From 1946 through 1951, he also served as concertmaster and occasional soloist in the Princeton University Orchestra. It was also there, where he met Albert Einstein.
After graduation, he worked for the M.W. Kellogg Company in New York City. In 1970 he switched employment to Esso (now Exxon) Research and Engineering in Florham Park, prompting the Sorells to settle in the Caldwells. After leaving Exxon in 1986, Jerry established G. Sorell Consulting Services, providing engineering studies and technical advice for over 30 years to corporate clients and government agencies. He retired from that just last year.
Anxious to step up his violin playing, he and a neighbor teamed up to form the “Arthritic Duo.” They have performed a mix of classical and contemporary selections at continuing care communities and nursing homes in New Jersey.
Sorell played competitive tennis up until last year, which earned him several trophies in local tournaments.
Sorell and his wife recently moved into an adult community in North Caldwell. Daughter Tamara, her husband Tom and their daughters Jocelyn, Carly and Raquel live in New England. Daughter Deborah, her husband Mark and their two children Daniel and Julia reside in Montclair.
In 2017, after exhausting all efforts with the Office of Veterans Affairs on Sorell’s recognition for his service, Stehr reached out to Senator Cory Booker’s office. In August, the senator’s office contacted Stehr with the news that Sorell would finally get his medal.
Army Veteran Capt. Michael Turgeon will present Sorell with the Bronze Star in Montclair on Monday.