McGrath was born in South Ozone Park, Queens, on June 12, 1927. He was the third of four boys born to Joseph and Johanna McGrath, although their second son, Harold, died of pneumonia as an infant. Bernard spent his childhood in Queens, and attended John Adams High School before deciding he wasn’t getting much from school. He left during his sophomore year at age 15, opting to work alongside his older brother John at a local butcher shop.
McGrath was acquainted with the military lifestyle from an early age, because his father had fought in the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in World War I. After returning home at the end of the war, his father felt out of place in the United States, McGrath said. He went back to Europe to help in the post-war rebuilding effort in Germany, where he met his future wife, Johanna Bruiel — and eventually brought her back to the U.S.
Since his parents’ meeting was a result of the war, Bernard and his brothers were always surrounded by a culture of military service. It continued into their adulthood: John was drafted into the Army in the early 1940s, and survived combat against the Nazis in Europe.
Just six weeks after turning 18, Bernard, too, was drafted, something he had looked forward to for years. He was sent to Fort Croft, South Carolina, for basic training, joined the 82nd Airborne Division and became a paratrooper. After undergoing a number of test jumps, McGrath said, he knew that jumping out of a real plane wouldn’t be a problem.
“I kind of figured they ain’t going to kill me here,” he said, “and once you do it, a lot of guys couldn’t do it enough. They enjoyed it all the time.”
McGrath had just begun basic training when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending the war. When he heard the news, he said, he was relieved to learn that he would not have to fight in the Pacific. Instead, he was glad to be going to Europe to keep the peace there.
He was sent to Germany in 1946, and spent most of his time there stationed in Frankfurt. Although McGrath never saw active combat, he was around those who had — on both sides of the fighting. He helped guard the prisons set up by the Allied Forces at the end of the war.
For his first month or so overseas, he watched over former German S.S. soldiers who were not yet able to return to society. He spent much of the rest of his service guarding another prison that housed American soldiers who had committed crimes during the war. Some had deserted their posts, while others had illegally sold cigarettes, liquor or food to German citizens or discharged soldiers on the black market. He returned home in November 1946, having earned a Victory Medal and an Army of Occupation Medal.
“I got a little smarter, probably, from being there,” McGrath said. “I felt like I was doing something good.”
He resumed working in the butcher shop when he came back to Queens, and in 1950 he met Dorothy Fuhry. The two married the next year, and lived in Queens until their daughter, Patrice, was born in 1958. Shortly thereafter, Bernard started working with his younger brother, Joseph, in his sheet rock and plaster business on Long Island.
Looking for a place to raise their family, the McGraths chose Sea Cliff, and had a house built on Dubois Court in 1959, just in time for the birth of their son, Michael, in 1960. Bernard still lives there, but Dorothy died in August.
Phil Como, the commander of James F. Brengel American Legion Post 456, has known McGrath for 30 years, and said he admires his kindness and honesty. And, Como added, he holds his friend in high regard because World War II veterans have a special place in history.
“As a class, their accomplishment was obvious,” Como said. “They saved the world from totalitarian, fascist nonsense, but as human beings, they were very unique . . . It’s not an accident they’re called the greatest generation.”
“They are the engineers of the world we have today,” said Fred Nielsen, a leader in the North Shore veteran community. “They’re the builders of this nation and our status in the world. It’s because of them we led the world following the war.”
Though he humbly downplays his role in the war, McGrath keeps books and folders full of photos and documents from his time in the Army — shots of himself, his regiment and the places they stayed and guarded during his tour of duty. He smiled as he shuffled through them, perhaps reminding himself that he did truly help the world during a period of turmoil. That, he said, is part of what makes Veterans Day so special to him.
“It always meant something to me, because my father was a veteran of World War I,” McGrath said. “It just makes memories. I don’t have a whole lot of combat memories, but I always tried to be a decent guy. It made me feel a little more confident than I was before. I felt like I could do something.”
“I’m not sure of how interesting I’ll be,” Bernard McGrath said as he sat down at his kitchen table. “No one ever shot at me.”
McGrath was referring to his time in the Army, which began near the end of World War II. Drafted in the summer of 1945, he wasn’t sent to Germany until after the war ended, and avoided the carnage that had shaken Europe for the first half of the decade. Nonetheless, at age 92, he is the last remaining member of the Sea Cliff community who can give a firsthand account of the war, and late though his service was, he still played an important role in protecting the world from those who had harmed it.