“My wife died in April. We were married for 72 years. I am 95 years old. I grew up in upstate New York during the Depression. My father lost everything in 1930, including the house. We moved to New York City into a cold apartment. There was no hot water so we boiled it on the stove. We had to share bathwater. It was hard on my father, he had a heart attack at 34. I shined shoes for five cents a pair on a corner in the garment district in New York. I had to pay 25 cents to be there on the weekend. Back then men wore spats and I couldn’t get polish on them. I knew a lot of mafia people in our neighborhood.I shined their shoes and went to school with their kids. They tipped me a quarter to $5. At night I sold newspapers at the train station. Some of the weekends I cleaned grocery stores at night. I gave my parents the money. We ate stale bread and peeled the green off the mildew. We stole potatoes from pushcarts and cooked them on the corner. The fellow knew we were stealing them. It was rough out there. We went on WPA and got free knickers and shirts. I boxed and got shirts and pants through that. Our shoes had holes and we went to uptown neighborhoods to dig shoes out of garbage cans. We took the tongues out to repair the holes in our shoes. It kept from rubbing the concrete on the bottom of our feet. We played kick the can and blocked off the streets. The police took us to baseball games.
I heard it on the radio when World War ll started and told my mother I wanted to be on a submarine. She wanted me to be the first of our family to go to college. I was 5’2″ and 5’3″ was the minimum height to enlist. My doctor told me to sleep on the floor for three months and I would grow. So I did it. I got on the bus and laid on the floor of the bus and laid on the floor of the train. I got to Broadway and New York, walked up the stairs, and said I am ready to go. I weighed 112 pounds. He didn’t even check my height, just signed me up. I was sent to Japan and was on the U.S.S. Plaice for two years.
When you cross the equator, you shave your head. I don’t drink or smoke, so when we went ashore, my job was to get everybody back. We would do anything to help each other. Tony Curtis, his name was Bernie Schwartz, was in my crew. The biggest lesson to learn is everyone counts. They all picked on me because I was short, but I could handle it because I was street smart. I had exceptional eyesight and was a lookout at night. I spotted things sometimes before radar got them. We were in the Mariana Islands area. Sometimes we went in a wolf pack to sink ships. We lived for sinking Japanese ships. The first one we sunk was a fuel ship. We watched it burn through the periscope. We attacked cruisers and destroyers. We were shot at several times and almost had it. We limped back to Midway Island. I got two bronze stars for secret missions that I can’t tell you about. The new submarines are hotels compared to ours. You are stuck on the submarine with so many different personalities and faults and boredom sets in when you live under the surface of the ocean. We had to learn how to live together and take each other for who we were.
I was an enlisted man aboard the USS Missouri the day they signed the peace treaty with the Japanese. My first thought was I am going home. The Japanese were scared of Americans and when the war was over, we tried to be as good to them as possible. We took some of the flags and made clothes for the Japanese children who had no clothes. Just for something to cover their bodies. We took them chocolate. The people in Japan were just like us. Every country was the same thing, they were just a different color.
After the war, I went to work at International Paper Company and worked my way up and traveled around the world for them. My wife always went with me. I got to know the workers at every plant because they were the most important part of the company. I wanted to work for the FBI, but I was too short. I had to be 5’6″. I took computer courses at night and became a computer programmer. School is the most important thing and learning something new every day. People are people. Everyone has a different personality. When I leave at 10 in the morning, I am out and active all day. I still drive and thankful to be alive. I hope I still have something to teach kids.”
(My son Jake is into history, especially World War 2. We have been interviewing veterans together to help save their stories and will put them on Souls later this year. I don’t have a story from Normandy, but have to put up one to honor the men and women who served and to remind us of their character and the world they grew up in.
Surprising Jake today with a trip to the WW2 museum in New Orleans for the 75th anniversary celebration. I hope we will have a chance to interview more veterans there.)