Just before Labor Day, novelist and longtime TV executive Robert Kotlowitz died at age 87, 68 years after he should have.
In the interim, he finished his education at Johns Hopkins University, got married, raised two sons, wrote several novels and was editor at Harper’s magazine. Described by many as thoughtful and deliberate, in 1971 he reluctantly accepted a position with the nation’s largest public television station, New York’s Channel 13.
What followed was American broadcasting history. Kotlowitz, who went on to spearhead shows such as "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report," "Live at the Met," and "Brideshead Revisited," paved a road on which the growth and success of public television traveled.
Obituaries nationwide credited Kotlowitz for the above, but made scant, if any reference, to his World War II service as a rifleman in Company C, 104th Regiment, 26th (Yankee) Infantry Division. Kotlowitz, however, told the story in his 1997 memoir "Before Their Time."
Released after the 50th anniversary of the war’s end, "Before Their Time" was a herald to the wave that hit popular culture a decade later with hits like HBO’s "Band of Brothers" and the silver screen’s "Saving Private Ryan."
But Kotlowitz’s account has become something of a World War II mini-classic. There are several reasons for this.
Kotlowitz was never supposed to be in a rifle company. After dropping out of his pre-med program, he was drafted and went through basic training. His superiors recognized Kotlowiz’s talents and assigned him to the Army Specialized Training Program. Its goal was to let soldiers finish college in certain disciplines so they could then provide valuable technical expertise to the war effort.
In 1943, Kotlowitz attended the University of Maine, but the program there was shut down months later. Infantrymen are killed in battle rather quickly in proportion to the rest of the force, and depleted divisions needed replacements. So Kotlowitz endured more than a year of training both stateside and in England before shipping to France in the fall of 1944.
Also, Kotlowitz wrote his memoir -- a crisp 192 pages -- with a writer’s sensibility. In the same vein as William Manchester’s account of his Marine service in the Pacific, "Goodbye Darkness," and a similar tone to his World War I predecessor Siegfried Sassoon, Kotlowitz was author-as-combatant.
Finally, Kotlowitz’s real war, as he so aptly put it, began and ended in a 30-second baptism of fire during the Lorraine campaign at Bezange-la-petite, while attacking an obscure target the Germans would soon abandon, Hill 256.
In the dawn mist of Oct. 12, his platoon assaulted the hill and was cut down by a volley of rifle fire and two passes from a heavy machine gun. Of the 40 men, 37 were killed instantly or picked off by snipers as they lay wounded, or tried to escape.
No trumpets. No drums. Just infantry combat.
Kotlowitz survived by playing dead for 12 hours until medics came to collect corpses under the cover of night. While not wounded, he carried the scars of survivor’s guilt the rest of his life. Anyone reading his memoir can appreciate how that moment of horror shaped Kotlowitz’s future.
I read "Before Their Time" when it was first published. I was years removed from my service in the Gulf War, and a subsequent stay in California to attend grad school. At the time, I had just begun teaching graduate-level history to mid-grade Army officers.
I made the book compulsory reading for my students, as Kotlowitz vividly captured the tedium and terror of a GI’s existence. He also demonstrated how to seize an opportunity handed him by the Fates, and run with it to a very full life -- one that not only affected his family and friends, but also the nation.
When I learned of Kotlowitz’s death a few weeks ago, I went to my office to find "Before Their Time," and then recalled I lent it to someone years ago. I bought a new copy, and noticed the change to the cover photo.
My former edition sported Kotlowitz’s postwar portrait in uniform: A boy, really, complete with Combat Infantryman’s Badge -- the Holy Grail of every ground pounder. On the current book though, there was an image I want to believe Kotlowitz himself selected: a rear shot of a lone American solider, a World War II GI busting up a hill to meet his destiny.
Call him grunt, dogface, or just Private, that rifleman embodied everything Kotlowitz achieved in life, in the 68 years after his time was up.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail him at: email@example.com