Lots of people have “Ed Koch stories” – like when he was asked to explain how a former rival was defeated for re-election, even managing to lose in her home precinct. “Her neighbors know her!” he answered with the characteristic Koch shrug.
My favorite story, though, is more personal, dating from the mid-1980s when Hizzoner agreed to keynote the lecture series I was then running for West Point’s Superintendent. The appearance was a big deal, requiring intense preparations on both ends. I flew in the jump-seat of an Army Vietnam-vintage “Huey” helicopter that landed close to the Intrepid to pick up the mayor and his security detail for the 30-minute flight. Lifting off into the fast-deepening Hudson River twilight, we were treated to a stunning low-level view of the city, every light ablaze and every car jockeying for rush-hour position. Even the mayor was impressed, looking down and proudly commenting, “That’s really special, isn’t it!”
Exactly on schedule, we landed on the Plain at West Point and hustled off to a VIP reception with the Superintendent at his historic home, Quarters 100. The picture hanging over the mantle was a contemporary portrait of former Superintendent Major Robert E. Lee, resplendent in his blue uniform. My boss, an Army three-star general, had been well-briefed on something I had discovered only after reading the mayor’s official biography. Ed Koch had served in World War II, entering as a draftee in 1943 and serving as a combat infantryman in two of the war’s most desperate engagements: the Huertgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. In addition to those battle stars, he had also earned his stripes and the coveted Combat Infantryman’s Badge. In hallowed surroundings much different from Bastogne and the Siegfried Line, the mayor that night was the guest of honor as the Army welcomed one of its own at a very special homecoming.
Being Ed Koch, he naturally charmed the socks off everyone in sight. He particularly seemed to savor the irony of the one-time lowly draftee exchanging pleasantries with the nation’s next generation of military leaders – and then giving a speech to a packed auditorium. As usual, he was right. One of my cadets in the audience that night was future Brigadier General Mark Mark Martins, a decorated veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and now the chief prosecutor of our Military Commission. The evening’s highlight came during the question-and-answer session when a visibly nervous cadet stood to read a carefully written question. It began badly. “Major Koch, how have you…” A grinning Ed Koch quickly leaned over the podium to help him out. “Excuse me but that’s SERGEANT Koch!” The 500 cadets in the audience roared their approval.
Wanting to share the fun – and having to teach an early class the next day - I had already arranged for my deputy to make the return flight with the mayor. After a final round of handshakes and best wishes, the rotors whirled and the mayor’s chopper lifted off into the darkness. I got to my office before dawn the next morning, carefully negotiating several inches of snow that had fallen overnight. To my amazement, we were on the local and national news—the lead story was how Mayor Koch, returning from a speech at West Point, had barely survived a near-crash in an Army helicopter forced to land by a sudden snow squall. It was my first, but not last, experience with media headlines that often tend to be exaggerated.
After an hour of frantic phone calls, the real story emerged. On the way back, our helicopter had indeed run into a snow squall that the weatherman never saw coming. Yet these were Army combat pilots, warrant officers who had survived far more difficult conditions precisely because they knew how to handle unexpected challenges. “Sir, the only ones who got excited were the mayor’s security folks,” one of them later told me. Under near white-out conditions, the Army pilots managed to land their craft safely on a small landing pad next to the Hudson River. “Of course, our best navigation aides were all those red cop-car lights following us down the river.” The mini-blizzard hit in full force just after they landed, so Mayor Koch insisted on putting up the entire flight crew at Gracie Mansion for the night, a story they still tell their grandchildren.
It is a sad reality of our times that the last survivors of the World War II generation leave us every day. Yet he sudden departure of Sergeant-Mayor Ed Koch also brings bittersweet memories of a true patriot and a class act.