On Saturday afternoons after inspection, I would go to Brooklyn via the NY Central Railroad to the Grand Central Terminal and then proceed by subway to the Utica Ave. station at Eastern Pkwy. On May 13, 1944, I was met at the subway station by Hilda and Gert, my sister-in-law; a practice never before experienced. For some reason, I did not anticipate any serious motives for this action; in fact, I thought it was a very warm reception for my homecoming. The three of us walked along Schenectady Ave. towards President St. where my parents were living with my two sisters. After walking one block, they informed me that my sister Irene had taken her life during the night by leaping off the roof of the apartment building in which my family resided; Irene had her birthday that same week reaching the age of 32. Upon hearing this tragic news, I was not able to walk any further and immediately sat down on the stoop of the nearest building in complete shock.
Irene and I had an unusual sibling relationship; full of great respect and love for each other. I use the term “unusual” because of the seven year difference in our ages, traveling together every morning on the subway, she to her office and I to school; and, most importantly, her always confiding in me. She adored Kenny and enjoyed visiting him at the Friedfeld home on Carroll St. a block away. She always asked Hilda’s permission to wheel him in his stroller and frequently bought his clothing.
In retrospect, I feel guilty by not doing more than I did in seeking medical help for her mental illness which I detected on more than one occasion. On one of my leaves at home, I watched her cross the street in a daze not mindful of oncoming traffic, completely oblivious to the risk of being killed. Also, she sent me a letter while I was in Wellesley asking me if I knew of any young men to whom I could introduce her. These two instances should have immediately alarmed me to the severity of her illness. Perhaps, being 26 years of age and not having any previous experience with mental patients, I was not capable of handling the situation. Also, I had not spent much time at home for almost a full year. Five years before her death, she was rejected for a life insurance policy for health reasons. A year prior to her demise, she applied for admission to the WACS to serve her country and was turned down again for poor health. These rejections plus an ill-fated love affair contributed to her severe depression.
Another incident that I can never forget and that was told to me after her death was the fact that Irene realized that she required medical assistance and a few days prior to her demise she called for an ambulance to take her to a hospital for treatment. When the ambulance arrived, my mother sent it away. Unfortunately, in a Jewish home at that time, mental illness was a greater shame than committing a crime. Also, how could her daughter ever find a man to marry who knew that she once suffered from this illness.
When I finally reached my parents’ home, the scene that greeted me can never be forgotten. My parents were sobbing hysterically, my sister Anne was sitting in a stupor, not believing what her sister had done. I wanted to see Irene before she was removed. She was lying in a wicker basket on her bed; I did not open the basket because I wanted to remember her as she looked in life and not in her present condition caused by a fall of six stories. Since she died on the Sabbath, her body was removed by the undertaker after sundown.
I immediately notified my superiors at Wellesley that as a Jew I was obliged to sit shiva for seven days and would then return. Evidently they inquired of a Reformed rabbi and they informed me that I must return after sitting for three days which I did. This was the first time in my life that I was subjected to the practice of shiva and I must be frank in saying that I, personally, have never been a great supporter of sitting for seven days as a captive audience. The repeated questions that are asked by well-meaning people who pay their respects to the mourners, i.e.: How old was the deceased? What was the illness? Did the deceased suffer a long time? etc. Many of the visitors spend their time conversing with each other in another part of the room on matters not at all related to the reason for their presence. Quite often loud laughter is heard which may or may not annoy the mourners.
When my mother died years later on eruv Shevuoth ( a day prior to the festival of Pentecost), many of my friends told me that my mother must have loved me because she knew how much I was averse to this religious practice and her timing allowed me to sit less than one day. Judaism dictates that if a burial occurs a day prior to a Jewish holiday, the mourners sit for only a few hours and then celebrate the holiday.
Throughout 1942 and 1943, the Russians persistently demanded the opening of a “second front” in Western Europe to relieve the pressure on the eastern front where Hitler had committed the bulk of his armies. The Allies promised an invasion of Europe, but with the stipulation that the offensive would not be undertaken until their armies were fully prepared for this gigantic task. By the summer of 1944, sufficient men and material had accumulated in England to make the venture feasible, and on June 6 the Allies struck. An armada of 4,000 ships, protected by a canopy of aircraft, started to disgorge troops on the Normandy beachheads between Cherbourg and Le Havre. The Nazis had expected additional landings in the Pas-de-Calais area and consequently dispersed their forces. Their failure to assess correctly the Allied strategy enabled Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied invasion forces, to establish a 60 mile beachhead and win the port of Cherbourg in the following three weeks.
The Germans contained the Allies in their cramped beachhead until July 26 when a U.S. armored column burst through the Nazi lines at St. Lo. This unleashed an Allied offensive of tremendous power. Additional U.S. armored forces widened the gap and were soon running wild throughout France. Three weeks later on August 15, another army of U.S. and French troops landed on the Mediterranean coast of France and pushed rapidly northward.
Allied forces captured Paris on August 25 and raced toward the German frontier. British and Canadian troops broke through the German lines and advanced toward Belgium. By Sept. 15, Eisenhower had six armies drawn up along Germany’s western borders. His blitzkrieg had chased the wehrmacht out of all but a small section of eastern France. The Allies also penetrated Belgium and the southern part of the Netherlands.
Returning to the war in the Pacific at this time, on April 18, 1943, U.S. code breakers pinpointed the location of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, the planner of the attack on Pearl Harbor, flying in a Japanese bomber near Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Eighteen P-38 fighters located the bomber and shot down Yamamoto. On April 21, Pres. Roosevelt announced that the Japanese executed several airmen from the Doolittle raid on Japan. A day later, Japan announced that captured Allied pilots will be given “one way tickets to hell.” In May 1943, U.S. troops invaded Attu in the Aleutian Islands and the Japanese ended their occupation of this island.
Army and Marine divisions under Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander of Naval forces in the Pacific, landed on Saipon in the Mariana Islands on June 15, 1944 to begin a bloody three-week battle for control of the island. Next, on July 21, Army and Marine units invaded Guam, 100 mile south of Saipon, and three days later, marines moved on to Tinian Island. This was an important turning point in the Pacific war, as the American seizure of the Marianas brought the Japanese home islands within reach of the U.S Army Air Forces’ B-29 bombers, which in late November began to fly missions against the Japanese homeland.
In the middle of June 1944, when the semester at Wellesley College ended, I was able to bring Hilda and Kenny with me. I rented an apartment in the city of Wellesley from a Mrs. Neal, an Irish woman in her sixties who immediately took a liking for us and behaved as a mother to us and not as a landlord. She owned a two-family house, we occupying the first floor and her family living above us.
Every day at 3 pm Hilda and Kenny would come by bus – a 15 minute trip – to visit me. We would be through with our classes in the afternoon and then participate in calisthenics and sports. Hilda would be amused watching me do the exercises, which I always disliked, and I made sure to stay in the rear so that I would not be noticed doing nothing; I did enjoy playing football. On Saturdays after inspection which ended at 11 am, I went to our apartment and spent a most enjoyable time with my family till 4 pm Sunday when I returned to the school.
Every Sunday morning we took bus rides to Worcester and other cities close by and especially to Boston where we would spend the day at the Commons, which is the name of a large and beautiful public park. Kenny adored a torn and ragged small blanket which he held close to him and which he called “banky”. On one Sunday morning, as we were on the bus headed for Boston, he forgot to take his “banky” and all hell broke loose. His screams and sobbing were so bad that we were compelled to return to our home without ever getting off the bus. Needless to say, that episode assured his never leaving the house without his comfort “crutch”.
Prior to this time in my life, I never indulged in tasting or drinking alcoholic beverages. On one Saturday afternoon, we were invited to the home of a fellow student who was married and lived across from our house. He invited several other students and their wives or girl friends.
After a little while, mint juleps were served to all and I informed my host that I never drank and thanked him for his hospitality. That was the first mistake that I made since getting me drunk would, evidently, be a source of amusement to the other guests who were no novices in the art of drinking. Every one kept telling me that mint juleps, which I never heard of, were very mild and that one drink would certainly have no effect on me. Never being a “party pooper”, I acquiesced and tasted my first mint julep, which I am sorry to say, enjoyed immensely. If one tasted great, two or more would taste even better. After three or more, I was completely inebriated. To this day I don’t remember what happened from that moment till the following morning.
Hilda told me later that my “friends” took me home and that she had to undress me and put me to bed. I awoke Sunday morning with no hangover or any ill effects; that was the first and last time I was drunk. It is quite possible that this incident created an immunity to imbibing since I have been drinking from then on and have never had any difficulty holding my liquor.
My classmates knew that I was Jewish since in our many conversations we spoke about religion. However, when Hilda joined me, many of them asked me why I married a gentile; my wife not looking like the stereotyped Jew. I was the only Jew in the entire student body and they probably had not met many Jews in their life. They also expressed surprise when they discovered that I was not one of them.
On one Friday night, Hilda and I were invited to go “skinny dipping” in the lake with the rest of the boys and girls. Of course, we were taken aback at their suggestion since we knew that that several of them were married and couldn’t believe that they would allow their wives to be seen nude and, perhaps, be fondled by other men. We could understand unmarried persons indulging in this “sport”, but never married people. We, of course, made our excuses and spent that Friday night as we always did by lighting the Sabbath candles, making kiddish, eating the Sabbath meal, singing zmirros, saying grace after meals and maintaining our Jewish heritage as it should be on a Friday night. I am quite sure that there are other Jews who would have jumped at the offer that was made to us, but being religious, we had no difficulty in rejecting the invitation.
A month before we concluded our instruction at the Navy Supply Corps School, each of us was given a choice of three desired assignments, including sea duty or shore duty. I chose in order of preference; aircraft carrier, battleship and cruiser. I wanted to go to war and fight and not sit on a Navy base. Unfortunately for me, at this time in the war, amphibious operations in the Pacific were the prime priority of our military strategy. Island to island hopping and invasion and conquest of these targets would enable the U.S. to build airstrips for our Air Force to bomb Japanese conquered territories and its homeland as well.
Consequently, almost my entire class was assigned to amphibious ships: i.e. APA (attack transports that carried Marines and the Army to the targeted island and landed these troops via LCVP-landing craft vehicle personnel-onto the beaches; AKA (attack cargo ship that replenished ships in combat with food and military supplies); and LST (landing ship tanks).
On August 25, 1944, I received my orders to proceed on Sept. 25 to Seattle, Wash. and report to the APA Pre-Commissioning School in connection with the USS Bollinger (APA234) which was built in Vancouver, Wash. and very soon to be commissioned and staffed. I was to be the assistant supply officer and the disbursing officer of this new ship. After completion of my course on Sept. 13, I went on leave and returned to my family until Sept. 25 when I began a four day cross-country train trip. Fortunately, being an officer, I traveled first class in a Pullman berth.
It seems that the Almighty either has a sense of humor or was testing me since Yom Kippur arrived on one of the days that I was traveling westward; thus, adding hours to my fast. The few officers that were traveling with me had great empathy for me and kept pleading with me that I should at least have a drink, if not food. However, Mendel, alias “nails”, would not succumb to temptations of the flesh when his soul was of greater importance. By coincidence, when I left Hilda and Kenny at the age of six months, a year previously, it was Rosh Hashona night.
On Sept. 28, I reported to the APA Pre-Commissioning School at the Hotel Fry in Seattle. It was not a “school” since there were no students or instructors. The entire hotel was requisitioned for boarding naval officers awaiting their assigned vessels for commissioning and also for officers assigned to gun crews on the merchant marine ships.
Each room was quite large and furnished with a double-decker bed to accommodate 2 officers. In the eight weeks that I spent at the Fry, I was fortunate in not having to share my room with another occupant, except for one night. During these two months, nothing of any significance occurred since I was just marking time until my ship was to be commissioned. Being a religious person, I missed attending synagogue and therefore availed myself in this regard by visiting Reformed and Conservative temples on Friday night. Even though we accomplished nothing during the day, we had to remain at the hotel until the evening.
On my first visit to a Reformed temple, I was shocked to see every congregant sitting bare-headed and the rabbi not wearing a head piece as well. I did not remove my hat and, perhaps, the ushers had respect for a military officer as they did not ask me to remove my hat. The rabbi then commenced to light the Sabbath candles, a full three hours into the Sabbath, invoking the blessing in Hebrew. A large choir of men and women, many being non-Jewish, began singing Sabbath psalms in English accompanied by a magnificent organ. I must say, in retrospect, that this ex-yeshiva bocher was certainly entertained, if not inspired.
After the musical program, the rabbi, instead of sermonizing, gave a book report on a then current best-seller “Gentlemen’s Agreement”, which was later made into a movie co- starring Gregory Peck and John Garfield. The book’s theme was on the existence of anti-Semitism in the U.S. displaying instances of rejection of Jews in hotels and clubs. At the conclusion of the service, all were invited to attend a collation, which I don’t remember attending. Also, I can’t recall any of the congregants or the rabbi welcoming me to their House of the Lord. On several other Friday evenings, I visited a Conservative synagogue and was welcomed warmly by many of their members. I remember one middle-age couple who befriended me and invited me to their home.
In my entire naval career, I never experienced anti-Semitism directed to me personally. However, I will now relate an incident that demonstrated the existence if this evil in our democratic society. On one of my visits to the Conservative synagogue, I met a lovely young and pretty girl with whom I spent time in many conversations. She, of course, knew of my marital status so that our friendship remained platonic.
On one Saturday afternoon, as I was reading in my bunk, the door bell to my room rang and as I opened the door, I was greeted by a young Ensign who became my new roommate. He was the gunnery officer of a merchant ship and for some reason was assigned temporarily to the Fry. We engaged in a very cordial conversation and he, being at sea for quite some time, inquired as to my social plans for the evening.
I told him that I had no plans, but if he desired, I would call a young lady friend of mine and ask her if she had a friend who would complete a double date to attend a movie. He was thrilled with my suggestion, but informed me that he had no money or a clean shirt to wear for the evening. I told him not to worry since I will lend him the money and the shirt.
All four of us had a wonderful time and after the movie, I suggested that we go to a diner and have a sandwich and some ice-cream. As we were sitting and eating, the topic of our respective colleges came into the conversation. When his date mentioned her alma-mater as being the Univ. of Wisconsin, he, not knowing that any of us was Jewish, began a virulent outpouring of hate against the Jewish students at that school. It seems that he attended Wisconsin and took issue with two main factors; they being, that his college being a state school admitted Jewish students who falsely obtained Wisconsin addresses in order to attend at a much reduced tuition. Secondly, his college was a hotbed of Jewish communists, a fact that I agreed with without saying so publicly.
You can just imagine the looks on my co-religionists’ faces when he kept ranting about Jews in general. Without being detected by my guest, I discreetly cautioned the girls not to respond. After we returned to our room, and I was already in my lower bunk, he thanked me for giving him such a wonderful evening and asked me how I enjoyed myself. I still remember my retort which was, “I would have enjoyed the evening much better if I weren’t a Jew.” Complete silence followed. When I awoke the following morning, I discovered that my room-mate had left in the middle of the night leaving a note filled with contrition and asking for forgiveness. He mentioned that I treated him as a fine human being and he reciprocated with gratitude filled with hate. He said this episode taught him a lesson that will live with him for the rest of his life. A few days later I found an envelope under my door with the money I had loaned him.