Now that the draft was in operation, I decided to apply to the FBI as a Special Agent. In order to be accepted, one had to be either a lawyer or an accountant. I took a written exam in accounting, which was held in the FBI offices in the Federal Building in Manhattan; a few days later, I was physically examined. After several weeks, I was notified that there were no openings available. Evidently I passed both examinations since, had it not been so, they would have rejected me on failing either one or both of the exams. Little did I realize at the time, that the real reason was perhaps my being an alumnus of CCNY, where a great number of Jewish students were members of the Young Communist League. This is a supposition, as I have no proof to substantiate my accusation.
Two months later, on December 7, in the midst of peace discussions with the United States, Japan struck a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. At the same time, Japanese naval forces attacked Guam, Midway and Wake Islands. Their troops launched a series of invasion moves against Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaya and the Philippines. A few days later, Germany and Italy came in on the side of Japan. At Pearl Harbor, theUS suffered heavy losses in ships and aircraft and in the Philippines, similar damage was done to a large number of planes. Five battleships were sunk; namely, the Arizona and the Oklahoma permanently; and the California, West Virginia, and the Nevada were beached and heavily damaged. Three cruisers were moderately damaged and three destroyers heavily damaged plus 188 planes destroyed.
On “the day of infamy”, as expressed by Pres. Roosevelt in his speech to Congress declaring our entrance into the war, Hilda and I were visiting my parents in their home on President Street where they were now living after our marriage. Television was not yet in existence so the news was broadcast over the radio. It was a Sunday so the other visitors at my parents’ home were Morris Berger, his wife Jeanette and their infant daughter, Dorothy. Morris had been a foster child in our home for four years starting when he was 14 years of age. When he left our home he joined the Army and decided to become a career soldier. He was now 22 and reached the rank of Warrant Officer. He immediately left to report to his unit.
The virtually limitless industrial potential of the United States was immediately put to use, producing vast amounts of ships, aircraft and armaments, which was responsible for a relatively rapid change in our precarious situation.
The blow dealt to American naval power at Pearl Harbor dashed all hopes of getting reinforcements and supplies to the Philippines. Japan now had both air and naval supremacy. She was now able to invade these islands and poured troops onto the island of Luzon. By the end of December, two large Japanese armies were converging on Manila in a move to encircle the defending American ‑ Filipino units. Gen. MacArthur, however, eluded the trap, evacuated Manila, which fell on Jan. 2, 1942 and withdrew to the Bataan peninsula. Gen. Wainwright, who replaced MacArthur after the latter was sent to Australia, held firm until March 31 when Japanese infantry forced a breach in the Bataan lines and on April 9, they overran the entire peninsula.
Of Wainwright’s entire force of 43,000, some 36,000 were captured, killed or wounded in this battle. Wainwright with the remaining force of soldiers, marines and sailors and around 3,000 civilians escaped from Bataan and fled to Corregidor. This island fortress, however, was completely cut off from outside aid. Japanese units stormed the “Rock” and took it on May 6. With the fall of Corregidor the Japanese had conquered the last point of resistance in the Philippines, although American and native guerrillas still fought in the remote islands.
On May 4, 1942, U.S. carrier‑based planes attacked a Japanese task force headed toward New Caledonia and New Hebrides and opened a naval battle unique in history in that it was the first major sea engagement fought entirely by planes based on aircraft carriers. This unusual contest ended on May 7 in a Japanese defeat, this was called the battle of the Coral Sea. The American bombers sunk seven warships, including a carrier, and several transports. American losses were the carrier Lexington, the carrier Yorktown badly damaged and a destroyer sunk.
The American forces scored another great naval victory a month later at the battle of Midway, June 4‑7, when both land and carrier‑based planes repulsed a Japanese naval armada of some 80 ships that attempted to attack the island. When this engagement ended after four days of furious fighting between rival air forces, the Japanese armada limped to its home bases, minus four aircraft carriers, two cruisers and three destroyers which had been sunk by American bombers and torpedo planes. U.S. losses were the carrier Yorktown, which had been repaired after the battle of the Coral Sea, and a destroyer. The battle of Midway, which was similar to the battle of the Coral Sea in that it was almost exclusively an air action, was a decisive victory since it halted a major Japanese effort to capture Midway and Hawaii. For the Japanese Navy, this marked the end of any real strategic offensive capability. They would never again possess a fleet of large carriers and well‑trained air groups. From now on, the war would be fought with a great increase in US naval might.
In April 1942, I received the very good news that Hilda was carrying a new member of our family. A month later, more good news arrived in my obtaining a CPA license after my concluding the three year requirement of employment in accounting. In September, we made our annual move to a new apartment to 921 Montgomery Street in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
On August 7, 1942, U.S. marines landed on the Solomon Islands in the first real offensive after the outbreak of the war. A division of marines secured a beachhead on Guadalcanal island; capturing a Japanese airfield. In November, the enemy launched a land and sea offensive to retake the island. This drive reached its climax in the naval battle of the Solomons. After three days of violent fighting, the Japanese were decisively defeated and the crisis had passed.
The expected date of our child’s arrival as predicted by Hilda’s obstetrician, Dr. Warwick, was the first week in Dec. 1942. Since this was my wife’s first experience in child‑bearing, we didn’t realize that a woman’s first child usually arrives later than expected. Suffice it to say, I began phoning her every day from a client’s office from the first of December onward. After almost four weeks elapsed and still no baby, I asked her if she was really pregnant. Incidentally, Hilda worked every day for her father till her ninth month, picking up large and heavy ledger books.
Finally, on a Saturday night after the conclusion of the Sabbath on Jan. 2, 1943, Hilda began to have contractions signifying the onset of labor. I immediately called Dr. Warwick who advised me to drive her to Beth El Hospital, about a ½ mile from our home. The residents or interns examined her and advised me to go home as she was a long way from giving birth; so I left and departed. An hour later, Hilda called me to pick her up as she was told that she was experiencing false labor pains. As soon as we arrived home, she began to have severe labor pains so I called Dr. Warwick and I became somewhat belligerent telling him that he left my wife in the hands of inexperienced medical personnel and that I expected him to go immediately to the hospital and that I was bringing her there as soon as I hung up the phone. Sure enough when I arrived at Beth El, he was there to greet us.
This time I remained in the hospital while Hilda went to the labor room; it was now 10 P.M. I noticed that if I sat in the men’s bathroom I was able to hear her moans and groans; and, thus, I felt as though I shared her pain and that she was not alone. After several hours, she was transferred to the delivery room and I was no longer hearing any sounds from her. I then went to the waiting room and sat with other expectant fathers. At around 4 A.M., Dr. Warwick came to the waiting room and said: “Mr. Prager, you are now the father of a boy who entered this world with a cane and a monocle,” meaning that he was almost an adult weighing in at 10 lbs. 12 ounces. I presume that his relatively large size was due to my wife’s gaining a great deal of weight during pregnancy and that he was born 3 ½ weeks beyond the predicted date. I was then permitted to see Hilda who was being wheeled to her room.
Needless to say, I visited her every evening after work except Friday night because of my not being able to drive. She remained in the hospital ten days and couldn’t attend the bris ‑ circumcision ceremony ‑ held eight days later on the following Sunday morning. One of my clients was named Kenneth and I always liked that name and receiving the approval of Hilda, we decided to name our son, Kenneth. Since both our parents were alive, we named him Elimelech, after Hilda’s grandfather and Dovid after my great uncle. I previously wrote very fondly about both of them.
I was very perturbed when my son cried in a very hoarse voice when being circumcised. He sounded as though he caught a cold while being in the hospital. Unfortunately, I was correct in that assumption. As soon as we arrived home, we called our pediatrician, Dr. Shore who informed us that Kenny had contracted a bad ear infection, which he immediately began to treat. Hilda had nursed her son for ten days while at the hospital and was now advised by Dr. Shore to stop nursing because of the infection. It is quite possible that Kenny’s problems with his hearing emanates from that time.
In retrospect, his constant crying, day and night, was probably caused by ear aches. Our pediatrician, when informed of his crying, discarded this reason and we had complete trust in him. At night, we took turns in wheeling him in his carriage, shaking his crib and holding him. Consequently, we did not get much sleep. Incidentally, because of the war, the carriages were called “victory carriages”; and were manufactured poorly and with very weak material causing Hilda to replace these three times.
The daily news of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews in Europe, to say the least, was extremely aggravating to me. I told Hilda that I couldn’t look at the young men in uniform while riding the subway each and every day. Especially, since in most cases they were much shorter and thinner than I was; and most of them were gentiles. Jews were being beaten and dehumanized ‑ at this time we were not informed about concentration camps or gas chambers ‑ and I was hiding behind Kenny’s diaper. I informed her that I made up my mind and was going to 90 Church St. to apply for a naval commission. She became distraught and began to cry as though I was already a casualty of the war.
Her feelings did not deter me and I did apply in May 1943. I took the physical exam passing easily. Then, a few days later, I went for an interview. The ensign who interviewed me was a picture poster of a WASP; tall and handsome with blonde hair and blue eyes. When he spent a good deal of time interrogating me about my years at college, it did not at that time ring a bell about my attending a bastion of Jewish communism at CCNY. It was “deja vu all over again” as Yogi Berra would say. It was the FBI interview again.
A few weeks later in June, I received a letter from the Navy informing me that there were no Supply Corps officer billets available at that time. This excuse was ludicrous since we are in the middle of a war, building and adding ships to our fleet and “no billets available at this time”. Later on, in my naval career, an incident occurred that confirmed that there was either a quota for Jewish Naval officers or antipathy towards Jews by individuals in the Navy. It is no coincidence that almost all recent US presidents served their military time in the Navy. In Europe, as well, the sons of royalty all were naval officers. Perhaps the Navy was an exclusive club when Mendel decided to join. After my military service was over, I met a handful of Jews who were naval officers; but they were few and far between. The Army’s percentage of Jews in their officer’s corps far exceeded that of the Navy.
When one wished to apply for a commission in any of the armed services, he was required to submit his present draft status and the number and location of his draft board. This served a dual purpose: firstly, if he was already classified in 1‑A ‑ selected for active duty‑, he was ineligible for receiving a commission. Secondly, if his application was rejected, his draft board was notified immediately and he was summarily drafted. Within a week, my status was changed from 3‑A to 1‑A and I was ordered to report for a physical exam at the NYC Selective Service Center on Lexington Ave. and 45’h St. Since a draftee was able to select which branch of service he preferred, Hilda made me promise her that I would choose the Army for two reasons. If you selected the Army, you had to report for duty in three weeks; if you chose the Navy or Marines, you had to report in one week. Having me home the additional two weeks was very important to her. Also, since she had been reading and hearing of many naval ships being sunk with many aboard frightened her; whereas in the Army soldiers were killed individually. One torpedo or one bomb killed many at one time while one bullet killed one person at one time.
I passed the exam with “flying colors” and then went on line to be selected for a specific branch of service. You finally arrived at a desk where enlisted men representing each branch were seated. Always being partial to the Navy since childhood, but promising Hilda that I would ask for the Army, I chose the latter. The young Navy man then informed me that since I was a college graduate – which was on my record before him ‑ and the daily Naval quota of 50 draftees was not yet filled for the day, my choice could not be honored and had to join the Navy. You can just imagine my joy when my real wish was achieved and that I did not renege on my promise.
In the summer of 1943, we rented a house in Mt. Freedom, NJ jointly with Jeanette Berger, whose husband, Morris had been serving in the Army for several years prior to Pearl Harbor. Their daughter, Dorothy was now a year old. The date of my entry into the US Navy was July 30, 1943 and since I had a seven day leave, I had to report for active duty on August 6. On that day Hilda escorted me on a bus to Penn Station in N.Y.; leaving our son of six months with Jeanette. The trip from Mt. Freedom will always be etched in my mind; my wife’s heavy sobbing for 1 ½hours and my realization that I was leaving the woman whom I loved and adored and an infant son whom I was just getting to know. One must realize that for a couple who had seen each other every day for seven years, except for the summer of 1937 when I was managing Auerbach’s Hotel, this was a very traumatic experience.
We arrived at Penn Station around 5 p.m. and then Hilda had to leave and return to our child in Mt. Freedom. I can still remember vividly our ardent kisses and embraces and her constant sobbing as we took leave of each other, even though we knew that we would see each other in seven weeks upon the completion of my boot training. After my sister Irene left her office, she came to the station to see me off; we were always very close.
The train left around 8 p.m. with a small contingent of recruits from the NYC area. We headed towards Pennsylvania picking additional draftees as we progressed through several cities. The largest group was picked up in Jamestown, PA., the heart of the anthracite coal district. This procedure lasted all night so very little sleep was had by all.
We arrived around 6 a.m. at the U.S. Naval Training Station at Sampson, NY, located between Syracuse and Rochester. There were 200 recruits on the train and we were immediately separated into 2 companies of 100 each. I and two other Jewish men were placed in Company 170. We were all standing at attention on the side of the train in our civilian clothing. We were told to bring no clothing, just toiletries.
After several minutes, a Chief Petty Officer appeared before our company and asked if there were any college graduates present and, if so, to step forward. Mendel and the other two Jews stepped forward. My co religionists turned out to be accountants; whether they were certified or not, I can’t recall. He looks at the three of us and points to me and says: “You are the company clerk.” You, the reader, have as much knowledge about the duties of being a company clerk as I had at the time. But being selected for a prominent position 15 minutes after entering the Navy, certainly made me feel very good.
Now, we were ready to receive our sailor’s clothing, a mattress and a duffle bag to be used as luggage. Then we were escorted to our sleeping barracks, which contained double‑decker bunks and a foot locker. Being the company clerk, 1 was given my own office and was then informed of my duties. It was my task to assign duties to all the members of my company, i.e. kitchen, cleaning and other tasks. A boot (recruit) worked one week at his assigned duty and then was assigned another task; and so it went. Of course, I did not have any of these assignments and, most importantly, was excused from daily calisthenics and marching drills. I literally, lived the “life of Riley.” Every Friday night, Jewish services were held in the chapel. The leader of the service was a cantor who was assigned to Sampson for the duration of the war and an alumnus of Yeshiva Torah Vadaath. The Rabbi was Reformed and a career chaplain who attained the rank of Admiral. I enjoyed the cantor as he had a beautiful voice.
After 5 weeks of training, a bulletin was issued requesting typists, who if proficient would be immediately advanced to SK 3/c (Storekeeper third class), equivalent to sergeant in the Army. Since I never felt unequal to the task, although I had never typed a word in my life, I joined the other 2 Jews and several others in my company in taking the typing exam. To this day, I cannot believe I passed; perhaps, my being a CPA helped, as later events in my naval career would illustrate. I was now a SK 3/c with a patch on my uniform and, more importantly, an increase in pay.
Our seven weeks of training now came to an end. Whether it was the tradition in boot camp to present the company clerk with gifts at the end of training or whether my comrades just liked me, I still don’t know. At any rate, they presented me with a bracelet and wallet. We were all now granted a 7 day leave to return to our homes.
The joy of reconciling with my wife and child was beyond belief, as I stated before, I was never separated from Hilda. Of course seeing the rest of my family was very much appreciated. Unfortunately, the week flew too quickly and on the first night of Rosh Hashonah, I had to return to Sampson for future assignment. I stared at my son of 8 mos. in his crib and burst into violent sobs, not knowing if I was ever to see him again. I was escorted by Hilda, my parents, Hilda’s parents and, perhaps, other members of our families to the subway station at Eastern Pkwy. at Utica Ave. I didn’t cease crying till I arrived at Penn Station.