DILLSBURG, Pa. — The clay model of World War II medic Bernie Friedenberg of Margate sits in the studio just a foot or so away from one of Sixers great Allen Iverson, both crouched, arms wide, ready.
Iverson will eventually cradle a basketball. Friedenberg is cradling the head of a dying soldier.
The two pieces, both the work of Chad Fisher, will eventually be made much larger, then cast in bronze. Iverson’s is headed for the 76ers’ practice facility in Camden, where it will join those of eight other Sixers, including Charles Barkley, Julius Erving, and Maurice Cheeks.
Friedenberg’s, sculpted in a Pieta-like pose with an injured soldier sprawled on his lap, may be headed to Atlantic City.
» READ MORE: A medic's memory of D-Day
The two works, only one of which was allowed to be photographed (the Sixers are keeping Iverson and another one of Dolph Schayes under wraps), sum up the dual mission of Fisher, 36, a Dillsburg, Pa.-based sculptor whose life and family’s work is divided between commissions for athletes and fund-raising dependent memorials of veterans.
The Fishers have completed bronze portrait commissions of major sports figures like the Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton and owner George Halas, Flyers owner Ed Snider and former Flyers coach Fred Shero, eight Sixers statues, and Steve Sabol of NFL Films.
But then there are the veterans, a labor of love and history inspired by former Inquirer staff writer Ed Colimore, whose chronicles of local World War II veterans has led to an ongoing collaboration with Fisher and his father, Fran Fisher, of Collingswood.
The Fishers, using old-school techniques and classical portraiture principles and a hand-built kiln that turned their Dillsburg building into a bronze foundry, have now completed larger-than-life monuments of Major Gen. Harry Rockafeller, a two-star general who served under Gen. George Patton, in Wall Township; Michael Crescenz, a Medal of Honor recipient whose statue is at the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial; and William “Wild Bill" Guarnere, the World War II veteran and amputee made famous by the HBO series Band of Brothers, in Delaware County.
They have now turned their attention to Friedenberg, who left Atlantic City in 1941 to become a medic in the 1st Battalion, 16th Regiment, of the 1st U.S. Infantry Division.
With Friedenberg’s bad eyesight, medic was the only place the military would accept him. Sporting heavy medical supplies on his back, he landed just off Omaha Beach on D-Day in water that covered him, then made his way to the beach and began working. He spent the next four and a half years overseas, returning to Atlantic City with two Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, and two Bronze Stars.
Freidenberg would later throw those medals on the desk of then-Mayor Joseph Altman and ask him to cosign a loan so he could open a bar in town. Altman, who’d never met Friedenberg before, agreed. And so the Monarch Bar, and then another, the Dusty Roads, was born.
Friedenberg’s face, before and after
Susan Friedenberg, his daughter, said her father, who died on May 1, 2018, at the age of 97, would be embarrassed by the project to build a bronze monument to his service in the war, one that requires raising about $150,000.
She said her dad never spoke about the war until Saving Private Ryan. “We saw German daggers on the wall, we saw all his medals,” Friedenberg said. “He never mentioned the war until Saving Private Ryan came out, and then all the floodgates opened.”
In 2016, he told the Inquirer in an interview in his Margate home, a few blocks from the beach, that he was still plagued by visions of that other beach from 72 years before, in Normandy, France.
“Everywhere I looked I saw dead and wounded,” Friedenberg, who was a staff sergeant, said in the interview. “I could hear men hollering ‘Medic’ from every direction.”
Working amid exploding shells and vast carnage, Friedenberg said he “moved on to the next casualty and then the next and the next and the next. There was no end to them.”
The monument will capture Friedenberg in those first moments of encountering nightmarish conditions on Omaha Beach, cradling a soldier who looks up at him. Friedenberg looks at the wound.
“We wanted to show the moment Bernie Friedenberg tended to many soldiers that day and here he is in that split second moment of working on a man’s wounds,” Chad Fisher said.
The final work will be 6 feet high, 12-15 feet wide, and require about 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of bronze. It will sit on a 3-foot-high pedestal that will be sculpted to represent the sandy beach.
The detailed rendering of Friedenberg’s features will await the full-scale model. Susan Friedenberg said her father’s face as a 19-year-old and then later, returning from the war, are markedly different.
“If you look at the pictures of dad when he left Fort Dix, he’s got that 19-year-old face,” she said. “When you look at him after he came back after four and a half years, his face looks so hard. ... so pained." ”
Friedenberg’s Atlantic City story: A tale of mayors
Susan Friedenberg originally approached the city of Margate, where her father lived out his later years, as a location for the monument.
But she and the Fishers moved on to a different desired spot: Atlantic City’s O’Donnell Park, where a World War I monument, the much-overlooked Liberty in Distress statue by Frederick McMonnies sits inside a circular Greek-Temple like structure at Albany Avenue.
The park is near the Stockton University campus and the Knife & Fork Inn, where Bernie Friedenberg used to sip a cocktail with the late State Sen. James Whelan, and contains other war monuments. It is a green space that is underused.
Atlantic City recently commemorated Sgt. Harold Brown, the first African American resident to die in World War II, with a monument at the park named for him. The city’s two fallen 9/11 heroes, United Flight 175 pilot Victor Saracini and John P. O’Neill, head of security at the World Trade Center, are honored with a Boardwalk memorial and a sand sculpture renewed every year by artist John Gowdy.
The Fishers have their eye on a circular paved area inside O’Donnell Park, surrounded by rose bushes.
Robert Turkavage, a former FBI agent and candidate for the area’s congressional seat, has been spearheading the effort to secure Atlantic City approval and raise the necessary funds from the community. He hopes local hospitals will bolster the effort to honor a hero who was a medic.
Like Friedenberg himself, Turkavage will plead Bernie’s case in a meeting with the Atlantic City mayor, now Marty Small, later this month.
The Fishers say they were drawn to Friedenberg’s story as a way to honor a veteran not on the front lines, but providing critical support behind them.
They do the veteran monuments at cost and hope to complete one a year, alongside their work of more contemporary popular heroes. Their next one will be of James Colimore, late father of Ed Colimore, a highly decorated glider World War II pilot who was among the first to land in Normandy on D-Day, and is to be placed at Dover Air Force Base.
Without minimizing the impact athletes have on society, the Fishers want to also remember the war heroes now in danger of being forgotten. “Bernie was a petite man,” said Fran Fisher, also an artist, who works closely with his son. “He had bad eyesight and the army rejected him. He was determined to go. He found a loophole. What a brave soul.”