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Seven decades later, two World War II vets form a special bond

Bernie Tuvman and Phil Nadler fought in World War II but didn't meet till decades later at a VA hospital. But their friendship runs deep.

September 08, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • Phil Nadler, left, and Bernie Tuvman are hospital roommates who've become fast friends at the VA hospital in West L.A. The two World War II vets have much in common.
Phil Nadler, left, and Bernie Tuvman are hospital roommates who've… (Steve Lopez / Los Angeles…)

Building 215 at the West L.A. Veterans Administration medical facility is called the Home for Heroes, and nobody can say the two guys in Room 211 don't qualify.

Bernie Tuvman, 90, and Phil Nadler, 87, have stories ripped from the World War II history books.

Tuvman, a gunner, bailed over Germany after his B-17 took enemy fire, and he was a prisoner of war for nearly two years at Stalag 17B in Austria. Nadler, a copilot, was on a mission over Manila Bay when an enemy shell hit the nose of his amphibious plane. He and his crew crash-landed, and Nadler spent a year in the hospital with internal injuries and a broken back.

"Bernie is a genuine hero," Nadler told me the other day from his hospital bed, nodding toward the friend who lay six feet away.

"He won two Purple Hearts," Tuvman, also flat on his back, said of Nadler.

But seven decades have passed since the flyboys were young, strong and lucky enough to defy death. When they met a little over a year ago in the hospital, they both realized that this time it would be a lot tougher to beat the odds.

Still, said Tuvman's wife, Estelle, "It's a wonderful story, the way they were thrown in together. They bonded."

Both men are Jewish, they love books and history and good conversation about both, and Tuvman says Nadler is the brother he never had.

Says Nadler:

"I have had two brothers, and I still have one. But my relationship with Bernie, and how I feel about him.... I just care about him."

Tuvman took a rough turn several days ago, with a pair of serious infections and a heart valve problem as well. They had to roll him out of Room 211 and take him over to ICU, and this didn't sit well with Nadler, especially after a new roommate was moved in to take Tuvman's place.

"I didn't like it one bit," said Nadler, explaining that the new guy insisted on keeping the window open all night. "The problem was, I'm anemic because I have kidney disease and have to be real careful, and I get cold at night.... And aside from that, Bernie and I are alike in so many ways."

Nadler, who practiced law for 63 years until he broke his shoulder 18 months ago in a fall, decided to protest by getting into his wheelchair and rolling out to the day room. He spent the night there and made his displeasure known.

"I complained, and yes, they kicked the guy out," said Nadler, who estimated that his blood pressure goes up about 30 points every time Tuvman gets wheeled out for a medical crisis.

But Tuvman was returned to 211 Thursday, and even though he was having trouble swallowing and could barely speak, Nadler was happy to have him back.

Tuvman's sons, Paul and Ken, told me one of their dad's prized possessions is the scrapbook he kept while a prisoner of war. He fashioned it from a swatch of heavy brown cloth and sealed the contents with the zipper that was on the jumpsuit he wore when he parachuted out of the spiraling B-17.

Paul brought the scrapbook to the hospital Friday and carefully opened it under his father's watchful eye, trying not to tear the fabric or damage the yellowed contents, which included notes, newspaper clippings and drawings of the camp. There was also a sketch of handsome young Air Force Sgt. Tuvman by fellow prisoner Donald Bevan, who went on to co-write the Broadway play "Stalag 17."

"My dad didn't talk about it, he didn't brag," said Ken. After the war, he said, his father did what a lot of the soldiers of that generation did. They worked, they raised families, and whether or not they ever put the war behind them, they focused on looking forward rather than back.

Bernie and Estelle, both from Springfield, Mass., honeymooned in California after the war and decided to make West Los Angeles their home. Bernie Tuvman was a glazier for many years, "a really great, great craftsman who was very methodical and precise," said his son, Ken. He loved food and had his favorite little joints around Los Angeles, including the old Nibbler's in Beverly Hills, where he always got a house specialty — the flannel pancakes.

Ken has wondered if it's all the more difficult to accept mortality after going through what his dad has been through — a Jewish man shot down at age 19 while fighting the Nazis, then taken prisoner, then rescued by American forces during a forced march to another camp.

Paul thinks men like his father and Phil Nadler are soldiers still, true to a code, facing the mission ahead with courage and with dignity.

"The only thing that's left for these guys is their core, who they are as people, as humans," said Paul. "My dad doesn't sit and complain or whine. He's just a good, sweet guy who kind of accepts the situation he's in."

Bernard M. Tuvman was born on Sept. 8, 1922.

He turns 91 today.

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