Photos by Keeley Smith.
On Wednesday afternoon, Long Beach resident and veteran Elliott Birnberg had just finished talking to a friend, and was looking for a snowcone.
The parking lot of the Long Beach VA Healthcare System had been roped off for the Fifth Annual Veterans Day Celebration. Birnberg, nearing 90 years of age, shielded his eyes in the early afternoon sunlight.
His gaze followed the various BBQ and vendor tents, scanning them for the section with snow cones while he paused to chat.
“I’ve got a story, but I know someone who has an even better story,” he said. “I know someone who fought with General Patton.”
He went on to list his friends’ various exploits, which included being by General George S. Patton’s side during the Battle of the Bulge. His friend was someone whom he was lucky to encounter at the VA Hospital’s annual celebration, held in reverence for those who served.
Birnberg said most of the World War II vets of whom he knew had died by now.
The stereo speakers lining the perimeter hummed with old-school American classics, featuring Ray Charles’ rendition of “America the Beautiful.” A mix of children, veterans and volunteers lined up at the tents, dishing up on burgers, beans and pie. The occasional scream of joy could be heard originating from two blow-up kids toys in the corner of the lot.
Classic cars lined the entryway to the event, and a booth full of photography created by veterans emerged particularly popular.
Birnberg himself had a pretty exciting tale. In fact, Birnberg’s service wasn’t even recognized until a few years ago, as it involved helping the navy stock up on poisonous gas, a violation of the Geneva Code at the time, according to Birnberg.
“There was rumor Japan was going to use the gas; I guess the U.S. wanted to be prepared,” he said.
Though Birnberg didn’t see battle, he was trained as an engineer and trusted with tanks of gas.
He said he completed his training on Catalina, where they actually witnessed the death of a soldier in a P-51 fighter plane while staying in the barracks located at the now-defunct Catherine Hotel. Birnberg said fellow soldiers attempted to open the plane’s canopy open when it fell into the water, but could not, and the soldier perished with the plane.
Birnberg became an officer before he was sent to San Mateo for engineer training, where he graduated in the top 10 percent of his class. From there, he headed to Portland, which was considered a non-military port (and therefore a perfect place for secret operations), up the Columbia River, and then to Seattle, to stock up on the tanks that held the poisonous gas.
“The [military] papers blocked everything out, past Portland,” said Birnberg.
During the secret mission, he traveled via a merchant marine ship to Hawaii, behind a few ships that were sunk along the way. Birnberg was ultimately sent to Guam, where he helped outfit troops as they made their way to Iwo Jima and Tokyo.
When he completed his service, Birnberg said the military granted him an honorable discharge, but his particular contribution to American history remained classified for many years.
Currently, he lives in Long Beach and wakes up at 5:00AM to run a liquor store located in Los Angeles. He does not look to be 90 years old, despite a bout with cancer and stents in his legs, given the grin he flashes and way he moves.
On Wednesday, he was happy to enjoy the camaraderie of his fellow vets, proud to mingle with the many others on the hospital's premises who have served. Everyone was in good spirits as they made their way around the lot.
“If anyone asks, my service number was 388067,” said Birnberg, smiling.
Above, left: Elliott Birnberg. Above, right: Flags lining the entrance to the celebration.