On Saturday, Colonel Melvin Garten, born May 20, 1921, in New York City, died. He was 93. During his 30-year military career, he became one of the most decorated veterans of his time, earning the Distinguished Service Cross, three Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, five Purple Hearts, the Legion of Merit, two Joint Commendation Medals, and two Air Medals. In 1966, he lost a leg in Vietnam.
“We can’t pick when we’re born or where we’re born,” said his son, Jeffrey Garten, a professor at the Yale School of Management and husband of Ina Garten, the host of the Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa. “But he really was a person of what some people call the American Century. He lived through the Depression. He rose with the middle class. He lived at a time when the middle class became prosperous. He fought in the three major wars that established the United States in the twentieth century. He was from New York, and even though he traveled all over the world and lived all over the world, he never lost touch with the city.”
Garten grew up in Washington Heights, where he attended the Hebrew School of the Washington Heights Congregation, and his family moved to Brooklyn during the Depression. In 1953, he told a reporter from the Canadian Jewish Chronicle, “Every Jewish child should receive a sound religious training. He should know his people’s history, their setbacks, their triumphs — he should be proud of his heritage. I shall certainly see to it that my two sons, now aged six and three, know their Judaism and all it stands for.” On tours of duty, he would observe the High Holy Days at the Army chapel.
Garten enlisted in April 1942, after graduating from the City College of New York with a bachelor of business administration. Blind in his right eye from birth, he ran to the draft board the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, hoping to volunteer with the Marines. He was rejected, and had to memorize the eye chart in order to gain his eventual acceptance into the Army. Jeffrey recalled, “Once we were in Europe, and he had to get an international driver’s license. I watched him — he took his left hand and put it over his right eye, and then he took his right hand and he put it over his right eye.”
He married Ruth Engelman of the Bronx in 1942, before shipping out. She would later give birth to two sons, Jeffrey and Allan, now a federal prosecutor. Ruth Garten died in 2013.
Despite his many decorations, Garten told a reporter he had a hard time getting into the infantry division. With his business degree, he said, the Army wanted him in the finance department. “But I wanted to see action,” he told the Canadian Jewish Chronicle. “There’s altogether too much talk, and very unfair talk, about Jews being in the administrative end. The fact is that for the most part Jews make an excellent showing in all branches of the service…We Jews have nothing to apologize for.”
He was wounded three times during World War II, and later received a Silver Star for quickly taking over for a machine gunner who was killed after his gun jammed. He received three Bronze Stars, one for leading an attack against a concentration camp that resulted in the liberation of 4,200 prisoners. He also received three Purple Hearts, a Presidential Unit Citation, and a Combat Infantry Badge (he would later win two more of these).
In 1953, at the age of 32, Garten was recommended for the Medal of Honor for his actions near the Korean town of Surang-ni on October 30, 1952, while serving as captain of Company K, 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. He saw that two companies of the 31st Regiment were being pummeled by enemy fire, and most soldiers were wounded or dead. He grabbed a machine gun, a box of ammunition, and a sack of grenades and made a beeline for the eight remaining soldiers, who lacked a leader. He began firing the gun and throwing grenades at the enemy trenches and bunkers, holding the action until reinforcements arrived. Astonishingly, Garten was not wounded.
Speaking to a reporter from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1953, from his home in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, Garten’s father read an excerpt of a letter his son had sent home after hearing about the recommendation for the Medal of Honor: “Of course I am proud,” Garten wrote to his parents. “Gen. Patton and any other soldier worth his salt would have given his arm for this medal. There have been only two others in this division, both posthumously, so you see I can wear it, if I get it, quite proudly.” He added: “It’s a long way from recommendation to possession, with many a slip between…It may even get knocked down to a Distinguished Service Cross, but that’s no small pumpkin either.”
After retiring from the military in 1968, he enjoyed a blissful second act with Ruth in Florida. He took a job with the National Alliance of Businessmen in Tampa, and eventually joined the faculty at the University of Tampa. He remained engaged in civic life, and wrote letters to newspapers. In one letter he had published in the Tampa Bay Times in 1995, in response to an article about racism in the military, he wrote, “most of us retirees have seen racism in the military in some form.”
In 2008, Garten moved with his wife to the Stafford, an assisted-living facility in Lake Oswego, Oregon, to be closer to his son Allan and his grandchildren. There, he made a speech every Veterans Day, and wrote books about his life and work that the staff distributed to the residents. “In the last five years, he wrote seven books about his life,” his son Jeffrey said. “These were things we self-published. He wrote about the wars, he wrote about his wife, he wrote about his sons, he wrote about his retirement. He was almost immobile, but he just didn’t stop living. That to me is quite inspiring.”
Thomas Cloutier, the Stafford’s executive director, said the facility has been receiving many phone calls since Garten’s death. “He was an important man,” Cloutier said. “He is a hero and we all looked up to him. It was an honor to work for him for the last seven years. He’ll be missed.”
Throughout his military service and beyond, Garten maintained an almost impossibly sunny attitude. He believed soldiers should only write cheerful letters home, or not write at all. He loved Broadway musicals, particularly the music of George and Ira Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. He referred to the event that garnered him the Medal of Honor recommendation as simply another job he had to do. “Unpleasant, some of them, but now over with — and that’s that.”