Leonard Gershon


As Interviewed by Ted Gershon, March 15, 2018

Leonard Gershon: In His Own Words

My Name is Ted Gershon and I interviewed my Grandfather, Leonard Gershon, about his involvement during the Vietnam War as a specialist in Turkey. He joined the war as a Canadian-American volunteer for four years to become a citizen in his new country.

When they called me over and said, “You’re going to the Russian border,” my ears were hurting me and they said, “The plane leaves today, after six days in Istanbul.” And I said, “I don’t think I want to fly anywhere,” and they said, “Oh. Tomorrow we’re going to take you across the Bosporus Sea ‘cause Istanbul is Europe, most of Turkey is Asia. There’s a main part of the world called Constantinople. And they said, “Well the plane leaves tonight but if you want a train ride...” I said, “Good, I’ll take the train to Borrel.”

They take me across the Bosporus Sea, eight o’clock at night on a Sunday, and I don’t speak Turkish. They stick me on a train, I’m the only American, and I have a compartment like James Bond in a James Bond movie. And nobody spoke hardly English- there was a conductor who spoke French and I didn’t speak Turkish. People come up to me, like a guy and a sister, and they could see I was not Turkish and I had a cabin. People on the train had hibachis and were sitting on wooden chairs, cooking in the middle of the train. People thought I was very rich because I was in a compartment. My compartment cost 27.50 for three days, nine dollars a day, and it was cheap. But kids would come up and talk to me and ask if they could come sit with me and one guy had a sister, she was like 15 and he was 17, and they wondered if I’d ever been to New York. I said, “Well, yeah. I flew Pan-Am from New York J.F.K. to over Germany to Istanbul and here I am on the train, you know.” They’re really nice, they’d say, “Well, so you know all about New York?” I’d say, “Sure,” and they’d say, “Oh, well when you get to your final place, we live close by and you can come stay with my family, if you want to be friends with me.” And they figured, maybe I could help them to get to New York.

They said, ”Make sure you get off at the last stop, otherwise the train goes into Russia and you’ll get arrested.” And they were teaching me Turkish, they were teaching me games, and they could speak English. So… It’s easy to make friends. I thought, whether I’m in Mexico or Turkey, if you’re nice to people, people tend to treat you back nice. You don’t want to go to other countries and people look at you and think you’re the “Ugly American” because then they want to hurt you or beat you or they don’t like you. It’s that way in other countries. Because in Mexico, I always got along fine there, but you’ve got to be careful in some countries... Anywhere nowadays. You just don’t want to make enemies. So on the Orient Express, I think I learned more about real life in the army. And not everybody’s going to learn that, right? So, it was a tough country. But it was fascinating...