They call him the colonel.
Or sir, Dr. and Mr.
And sometimes, he’s just referred to as “Harry.”
Edgemont resident Harry Garten, 98, has worn many hats over the years, perhaps most notably as a soldier of the United States Army.
Born in the Bronx in July 1920 and raised in Manhattan, Garten missed the draft by 10 days, so he technically didn’t have to register. But in 1942, during his last year of law school at Harvard University, he enlisted.
“You were allowed to take the New York Bar exam if you were in your third year of law school but had not yet graduated,” he said. “Normally you have to graduate and then go through the process. So, I took the bar exam in March of 1942 and passed it the first time.”
Just one week after Garten was accepted into the New York State bar, he was shipped out to Germany to work in military intelligence as a photo interpreter.
Garten said military intelligence isn’t what one would think. It didn’t involve spies or doing tricky work.
He said he felt it should have just been called “military information.”
“I was on a team,” he said. “We were facing the Germans in a noncombat position. Every day, weather permitting, we took aerial photographs of the Germans in front of us, looking for targets in the area.”
Targets were typically manufacturing vises, which are designed to hold workpieces still during machining operations, as well as artillery positions and railroad stations — things that were normally military targets. Garten’s job was to locate possible targets and to correct maps from Germany that were incomplete. After a certain time, Germany prohibited taking photos of its land.
While enlisted, Garten and the other infantrymen had nicknames for one another.
One was called Birdman because he had a PhD in ornithology, another was dubbed Brewmaster because he worked in a brewery in Minnesota. Garten was called the Harvard Lawyer, which Garten said was a name of derision because “that wasn’t rough work, it was a soft touch.”
Though Garten was spending time away from his family while in the service, his brother, who had also enlisted, somehow found his way to Garten.
“I was walking down the street one day, and someone is screaming my name from the back of a truck,” he said. “I turn around and it’s my brother.”
At the time, there were more than 2 million soldiers in Europe and somehow, Garten’s brother, Tom, wound up in the same place at the same time. The two were in a mining area in Germany where the soldiers used the showers. Tom was transported 40 miles from where he was with a truck full of men. Sometime after the two parted ways, Tom, a rifleman, was injured and had shrapnel trapped in his body. He was in the army hospital for about two months, but doctors couldn’t get all the steel out of him.
Garten’s service in the military came to an end, but his work wasn’t over. He married his late wife, Lila in 1949 and eventually began to volunteer at West Point where he gave tours to prospective students.
That volunteer work opened a door to an unforgettable experience.
“I went to a charity dinner as a representative from West Point,” he said. “We were in the basement of a wealthy homeowner and I look to the dance floor and I see a person I recognize. And all of a sudden it dawns on me. It’s Elie Wiesel.”
Garten introduced himself to the renowned author, who happened to be a fan of West Point.
“[Wiesel] had been rescued by the American Army and he was a very popular speaker at West Point,” he said.
The two got to talking about the Army, and Garten remembers it being an emotional experience just to speak with him.
Garten worked as an attorney after World War II, but he fell out of love with law after practicing for about two years.
As a criminal defense lawyer, he said he learned three important lessons.
“Plead guilty, get paid up front because no one pays from jail and the worse the criminal is, the more his mother loves him,” Garten said.
He switched his career to real estate, but was called back to active duty for about a year during the Berlin Wall crisis in 1961 — and was awarded a high officer position.
“It helped … that since I hadn’t done anything wrong, I was First Lieutenant [so] I got called up to Lieutenant Colonel,” he said.
Garten’s military experience isn’t the only thing that defines him.
He’s also an accomplished scholar.
He graduated from high school at age 14 and enrolled at Columbia University at 15.
It was a mistake to enroll so young, he said, because he didn’t feel ready on a social level. When dating in those days, Garten said, one of the questions women typically asked the men was about their draft status.
“I would say I haven’t registered yet, which meant I was younger than she was,” Garten said with a laugh.
And, if his last name sounds familiar, it’s because he comes from a family with some notable people.
He’s related to the late Mel Garten, who volunteered as a paratrooper in World War II. When he retired from his military career in 1968, Mel was one of the most decorated combat veterans of his time for his service in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. According to his obituary, he was awarded 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.
Mel’s son, Jeffrey Garten, served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1972. He went on to work in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations in foreign policy and economic positions. Jeffrey also married Ina Garten, a former staff member of the White House Office of Management and Budget, who also authored the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks.
Harry Garten meets with friends at Lange’s Deli every Sunday where he shares his war stories, but also talks about books and literature. Garten said he loves to work with words and recite poetry, especially works by his personal favorites, Edgar Allan Poe and Rudyard Kipling.
Looking back on his time in the Army, he said it was worlds away from his time in higher education.
“The brightest people I ever associated with in my entire life were my classmates at Harvard Law School, but I can’t think of any one of them I trust with for more than $10,” he said. “They know all the dirty tricks the lawyers know. They’re honorable men, I think they’re nice guys. But the finest people I ever met were the guys I met in the Army. They were true believers, they were honest people and when you have a friend working next to you in the Army, that’s what a friend is.”