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World War II I got a very low draft number, so I was sure to be called. Instead of waiting to be called and being put into whatever anybody decided to do for me, I decided to try to guide my own destiny a bit. I enlisted in the Navy out of Floyd Bennet Naval Air Station, which was a reserve air station in Brooklyn, New York....I didn't want to be in the Army because I remembered all the stories and the movies about World War I were about people living in trenches.

I just didn't want to be in the Army. And they didn't have an Air Force at that point. The Air Force was part of the Army-it was the U.S. Army Air Corps, not a separate service. I wanted to be in aviation. That's why I went out to Floyd Bennet to enlist. I could have gone to a Navy enlistment office; they had them all over the place. But I didn't want to enlist in the Navy in general; I wanted to enlist in the air portion of the Navy. I figured the only place that I could enlist and know that I was going to be connected to aviation would be at a naval air station. It wasn't true, of course, they could have sent me anyplace, but that was my perception.

If Germany had won the war, it would have been a much worse, terrible world. Most people thought [the U.S. entering the war] was in retaliation for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, especially in the Navy. The Navy lost most of it Pacific fleet, so the resentment they had was against Japan. But I felt, being Jewish and living on the East Coast, to me it was more important that the Nazi Empire not succeed. I was fighting for a personal reason. In the Navy, most of the people hated the Japs. There were a lot of German people in the Navy-descendants of Germans. Nobody held it against them. On the West Coast, they locked up all the Japanese and put them in concentration camps. The rounded up every Japanese, even though they may have been citizens or been residents for three or four generations. They were a fifth column. My concept of why the war being fought was different than most of the other people in the Navy. Mine was a more parochial view.

We felt this was our war. We didn't feel great animosity towards the Japs. I never came in contact with them. I had a deep hate for Hitler. Joining the Navy was a patriotic thing to do. People were still patriots. Being the policeman of the world, which we were at that time, is a tremendous task. Fanatics of any color are trouble. We had to stop them. For me this was a war against Nazism, and it was a personal reason.

This war was not like any of the other wars or any subsequent wars. This was a justifiable war. It was a moral war. People got killed, and parents, friends, relatives hated to see their family go into it. But yet they didn't run away. The people felt this was a just war. Something that had to be done, and people did it. They didn't like doing it....I personally didn't feel that this was a war against Japan and that I wanted revenge for the attack on Pearl Harbor. For me, this was a war against Hitler. I don't feel like I was alone in that feeling; it was something that everybody felt. I don't know how to put it...It was a different kind of war and a war that needed to be fought.

I was at the Polo Grounds football stadium...the home field of the Giants. I was watching the New York Giants play the Chicago Bears for the world championship. It was a big crowd that day. All through the game they kept calling Colonel Donovan, General so-and-so, Senator so-and-so....Colonel Donovan-somehow that name stuck in my mind. Colonel Donovan, I think, became the head of the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, which eventually became the CIA....Before the end of the game they made an announcement to please wait until the end of the game for an important announcement.

The game was over, and everyone starts making noise-it was a tremendous roar-and over the loudspeaker they said that somebody had attacked Pearl Harbor. The announcement was unintelligible over all the noise. Nobody knew who attacked and nobody knew where Pearl Harbor was...All military personnel had to report to their bases. I remember it so clearly: there was so much noise that we only heard the part '...attacked Pearl Harbor.' We didn't hear who. Everyone turned and said 'What's Pearl Harbor?' 'Where's Pearl Harbor?' I knew what Pearl Harbor was, but no one else around me did.

I reported back to the Naval Air Station. They decided to set up barricades on Flatbush Avenue, a major thoroughfare in Brooklyn. So we piled up sandbags, and we took some wing guns out of planes and put them on top of the sandbags, but we had no ammunition. All night long the Marine patrol was going around the perimeter of the base-it was right on the bay. All night long we could hear the Marines firing at the things they saw floating in the water. New York's harbors and waterways were no cleaner than they are now, so there was plenty of stuff for them to shoot at!

About three or four months after Pearl Harbor, I was called into the Executive Officer's office with a couple of other guys, and I was told that since I had gone to college I was eligible for flight training. It was not a choice; it was an order. At that time, they had planes, but they didn't have any pilots to speak of. Most people aren't aware of the fact that before World War II, most naval air pilots were enlisted. There were a number of officers, but they led the squadrons, and most of them were not pilots. I got my original training right there at Floyd Bennett.

They had dug up someplace some old training planes called Yellow Perils. It was an N3N, built during World War I at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. It has a 45 horsepower engine. It was what they call an 'inherently stable aircraft,' because if you went into a tailspin or a nosedive, if you took your hands and feet off the controls, it would straighten itself out. They were so slow that if you had a 30-knot headwind, the plane actually stood still like a helicopter.

Since they needed pilots in a hurry, I got very abbreviated flight training. Since I was an enlisted person, I didn't have to be taught how to be an officer and a gentleman. After six months, I got my training, and I finished at Pensacola, Florida. After that I was a utility pilot. They put me to work ferrying aircraft from the East Coast to the West Coast, stopping at all sorts of naval air stations and army bases. Daylight flying from base to base, it took about a week to get a plane to the other coast. I did see quite a lot...I followed railroad tracks most of the time!

The first part of my duty in the Navy as a naval air pilot was ferrying planes back and forth. In the North African invasion, I was sent over. They had packed the aircraft carriers and freight carriers with planes, and there weren't enough carriers for us to fly off all the time. So the Navy had converted a Great Lakes ore carrier, called the U.S.S. Long Island, which was a tremendously long, shallow draft ship-long and wide, because that's what they carried coal in. They put a flight deck on it, and that was stationed offshore of North Africa off Oran and we were flying off of that. It was a portable landing field-not a carrier but just a platform.

We were flying cover for the advancing Allied troops. I was flying an OS2U; that was a Vought-Sikorski Observation-Scout plane....We were scouting positions [of the Axis forces], and the radiomen in the rear seat were sending back reports as to what was happening to the forces and where [the Allied troops] should send forces to round them up.

The Germans were very stubborn-they were always counterattacking and firing rifles or whatever else they had at the planes. But the Italians just plain ran. At one point we ran out of bombs, which we were using to disrupt their formations and disrupt their retreat, so that our troops could come up and capture them. We ended up throwing hand grenades at them. We were flying maybe 100 ft. above the ground, we'd pull the pin and throw the hand grenade over our head so it would miss our prop. If it hit a wing, we'd be in trouble.

I was sent back to the U.S. to Norfolk, Virginia. At that time German submarines were starting to rip Allied convoys apart. They would lie in long lines, and as the convoys came by they would sink them-it was like a duck shoot. The convoys had to travel at the rate of the slowest ship in the convoy. When they had military supplies, they would send them out on high-speed ships and send them in a convoy of-not 80 to 100 ships-but like 2 or 3 of them, and they would have armed protection and they would have mounted canon on these freighters. But the rest of the food, and trucks, and other supplies that were going over to reinforce the armies in the invasion of Europe all came on very, very slow, old ships. They were called 'Liberty ships.' Henry J. Kaiser and other ship yards mass produced them.

They converted some of the freighters into escort aircraft carriers called CVEs. They were very small, 12,000 ton ships. They had better power systems, because in order to land and take off they had to be maneuverable. The regular Liberty ships were very clumsy handling vessels. Once again I was flying those OS2Us. The ship had a deck that was about 310 feet long. We had two resting cables. A regular carrier has 6 resting cables. We had two resting cables and a net. The net wasn't worth very much because they didn't want to deploy the net if you were in trouble because they would rather that you went off the edge of the ship and got the hell out of the way [in order to attempt the landing approach again] rather than recondition the landing deck. Any planes that were up there trying to land or wanting to take off would be immobilized.

On North Atlantic patrols, we would pick up convoys off the coast of the Carolinas generally. They would come up from New Orleans and Texas, and form off the Carolinas, and then go up to Norfolk. There more freighters would be coming from all of the waterways out of Philadelphia and New York. Then we would convoy them to within air distance of England. Then land-based planes would come out and take over the convoys. Maybe we'd pick up a convoy going back. We would do this back and forth. Sometimes we'd be at sea for six months at a time, being re-fueled and resupplied by ships. The only time I ever really got to fly off a first class carrier is when I went to get the mail....At that time I would have given a lot to fly off a real carrier.

By that time they had developed an officer class of pilots. They weren't training enlisted men to be pilots anymore. That was an emergency situation. I worked my way up the rank, and eventually by attrition I became a Chief Warrant Officer....There did come a point in time when all enlisted pilots became ensigns, but by that time I was no longer flying. I never got to be an ensign. I became a Chief Warrant Officer by attrition. The squadron's complement called for so-many warrant officers, and when a warrant officer went into the water or was transferred out, they needed a warrant officer and the next man in line became a warrant officer. It was a field promotion.

It was exciting learning how to fly, but then again, the kind of flying I did was boring. I was flying circles above convoys. No glamour-I wasn't a fighter pilot or a bombardier. I never fired a gun in anger after the North African invasion. And I don't think I ever spotted a sub, although every now and again when we saw something-maybe a shadow-we dropped a depth charge. Whether there was something there or not, I don't know. We carried two depth charges. What we carried mainly were flares that we would put down. Then we would call for aircraft, or if there were a battle group nearby they might dispatch a destroyer, or if there were a big carrier in the area they might send some better equipped planes to handle it. But I do have to say that these escort carriers did save a lot of ships. It was direct combat, and it was very meaningful because a lot of ships made it across that probably wouldn't have without the escort carriers. The moment the first ship went down, every plane on board would scramble, and we would start dropping whatever we had. Whether I actually caused the destruction of a submarine I don't know. I would have some gratification knowing that I went through a hell of a lot of training and time and effort to have accomplished something I was designed to do. The only time I ever felt that otherwise was ferrying the aircraft from the east coast to the west coast, which is probably as utilitarian a work that you can possibly think of. But at least I felt I was accomplishing something. Then of course there was the North African invasion, where I felt I was accomplishing something when we were chasing the Italians.

One night landing on a carrier (CVE 89) in the North Atlantic, there were very heavy seas-maybe 30 or 40 foot seas. I came in to make a landing. I was about ten feet off the deck when the tailhook connected with the resting cable. At the same time, the ship rolled in a wave, rolling from port to starboard [dipping left to right]. The cable tensed and stretched, but when the ship rolled back starboard to port, the cable loosened and the hook disconnected. I spun, and my starboard wing collided with the control tower. If I hit the control tower head on I would've been dead. The engine would've been in my lap. As bad as it sounds, accidents of this type were not too uncommon. We lost a lot of planes that way. The North Atlantic seas are pretty rough in the winter. We had planes smash into the deck and into the hangars. A lot of people lost their lives that way. They say in the Navy, 'Sometimes you can earn a whole year's pay in twenty seconds.

They shipped me over to Chicago to Michael Resse Hospital. I had a crushed vertebra, and they wanted to pin my spine. I spent a couple of months in a body cast. At that point, I was no longer a naval air pilot. But they were very good to me; they sent me to Lakehurst, New Jersey where they have the blimp training program. There, as a Chief Officer at the time, I was in charge of administrative things. In order to keep my flight pay, which was 50% over and above my regular pay, all I had to do was fly four hours a month-which I did in a blimp. I was just a passenger. How did that affect my life? Wonderfully!

I can recall one funny thing that happened....Usually when we arrived on the West Coast they would send us back to the East Coast by the military air transport service. One time they were all filled up, but they still needed us back [East] as fast as possible. So the put us on a train-a whole bunch of us-maybe nine or ten of us-accompanied by an ensign who had just come out of training school. This was his first assignment.

So they sent us on a train....We got to be pretty grungy by that time. We stopped on a siding in Ohio in a little farming community....We were waiting for another train to come by that we could hook on to to take us back to the East Coast. There we were in this railroad station with nothing to eat. It was a Sunday morning. We decided to walk into town to try to find someplace to eat and take a shower. We were a sloppy looking bunch! We walked into the one hotel. It was a Sunday morning, and right after church everybody went to the hotel for breakfast. The ladies were sitting there with their white gloves and hats and the men were wearing farm boots with jeans and jackets, all spiffied up for the holiday. We walked in, and were we ugly looking! The ensign walked in and said he was requisitioning food and board. So they sat us at a table near the kitchen, but nobody came to wait on us....One of the guys got impatient. He stands up, pulls a gun out of his holster, and fired two shots into the floor. They got us out of there so fast!

[After the North African invasion,] I was on a casual transport being sent back to the States. It was made up of all kinds of personnel: Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard. Nobody knew anybody. I got into a craps game. It was on a blanket; we rolled the dice on a blanket. As luck would have it, I was winning. I had a lot of money. People were coming and going, leaving the game and coming in. But I couldn't leave. They wouldn't let me leave because they all wanted a shot at getting their money back. I had so many crumpled $1 bills. I got a hold of a Marine. He had a bag, and he kept stuffing the money into a bag to hold it for me. I didn't know how much it was. They kept playing me in relays...I don't know how long! It was in the hold, there was no daylight, I didn't know what time it was. If I had to go to the bathroom they took me there. They brought be things to eat, but I had to keep on playing. I was so tired. And I was praying that I should lose just so I could get the hell out of there! If I had decided I was going to quit, they would have thrown me overboard! It was a rough crowd! At that point in time, the seabag that the Marine was holding disappeared...with him. He had a party, I didn't!

Entertainment in the Navy was going to a bar. It was inevitable. I never once went to a museum in the Navy when I was on liberty, and I can't imagine that any library or museum ever saw a sailor in there unless he was taking a girl out and trying to impress her. I learned how to drink in the Navy. Mostly we drank beer; we didn't get much pay. We drank beer. For entertainment on board they showed movies, very old movies. Sometimes the cans would be mismarked and we would get reel one, and then reel four, then reel seven, then reel two....On the naval vessels that I traveled on, the reel would finish, the lights would go on, the guy would take off the reel and put a new one on, the lights would go out and start all over again. Generally [the movies] were very old. What we would do is trade from ship to ship. Theirs were always as bad as ours were. The only times we ever got any decent ones is when I would fly off to one of the major carriers to pick up mail or parts. I would get movies from them, but also had to promise I would bring them back immediately. Those were the only times we ever got a Technicolor movie. The rest were all black and white and in very bad shape-full of scratches and marks.

I remember a situation where I was very damned annoyed. When Franklin Roosevelt died, they had a memorial service. The whole ship's company assembled. I happened to be in Norfolk at the time. They had a Catholic chaplain, an Episcopalian, they had a Baptist, they had a Lutheran. But they didn't have a rabbi. All singing the praises of Roosevelt. I remember the Baptist started reading some passages-how he ever tied it into Roosevelt's death!-it was a part of their Bible where they condemned the Jews for killing Jesus Christ. I got up and I walked out. Everybody saw me go. I got called in by the Exec., and he read the Riot Act to me about disrespect.... I got very angry and annoyed, and I told him that I was very upset about this man condemning the Jews for the death of Jesus Christ-which had nothing to do with honoring Franklin Roosevelt. I was supposed to go to Captain's Mast for punishment. I was restricted to the base, and said he was going to reduce my rank. I told him I didn't care and that I was going to appeal it. I thought it was disgraceful. Nothing ever happened, although I was transferred out after that. That's when they sent me to the Lighter Than Air blimp program. Maybe it was just as well that it happened, because that's where I met Walter Liebowitz.

There weren't too many Jews, and it was sometimes a hostile environment. I was at Lakehurst, and at this point I was a warrant officer. We had a dress parade with captain's inspection. Everyone was there, dressed in their best blue uniforms with all of their stripes. I was in charge of one of the detachments-all mechanics actually. I lined them up, left-face, forward march. And one guy wouldn't go. I said, 'Halt. Everybody reassemble. And forward march.' And he wouldn't move. I walked up to him and said, 'Sailor, what's your problem?'

He said, 'I don't take orders from Jews!'

I said, 'I'm a Jew, but I'm also your superior officer. And I gave you an order!'

He said, '***** you!'

I said to him, right after the assembly is over, you and I are going to have a word. It ended up that he had a wired jaw and I had a fractured wrist! The medical officer thought it was kind of funny-suspicious that he had a hurt jaw and I had a hurt hand-but I said [sarcastically] 'No, nothing happened!'

Also, when I was at Lakehurst, like I said, I was an administrative officer. One of the things I had was distribution of flight orders. People who flew regularly got 50% higher pay. There was always a certain percentage of flight orders that were distributed amongst the maintenance crews-sort of like a bonus. Ostensibly, it was for them to go on a test flight to check out the engines, but it was really a bonus.

There was a seaman second class who came from Arkansas-or Tennessee-he'd never been more than ten miles away from home. He'd never owned any clothing that hadn't been worn by somebody else first. In the Navy, it was the first time he'd ever owned shoes that somebody hadn't worn before, and that he had clothes that were brand new. It was a wonderful world for him. He was so naïve and wide-eyed about everything. One month I gave him the flight order. He never went up in a blimp before. That month he got 50% extra, which amounted to about $11. But he thought I was the greatest hero in the world. One day somebody said that I was Jewish. He heard it, and he got so angry that he got into a fight with the guy. He came to me, and he said 'Can you believe it-somebody said you were Jewish.' I said, 'I am Jewish.' He was in shock. He turned white. I said, 'What did you expect? Horns? A tail?'

He had never met a Jew. All he had ever heard was that we killed Jesus Christ. That was it. That was very typical of the Navy, incidentally. Most of them had never ever met a Jew. Most of them came from very small towns in the center of the country, where the Jewish population of New York City was greater than the Jewish population of the whole state. A Jew was something that they had heard of but not in very good terms, and most of them to this day never met another Jew. They just went back to their hometowns.

Flight personnel always had to carry a sidearm. The Navy-issued sidearm was a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson with a four-inch barrel. We used to call them a 'hog's leg.' It came with a holster as thick as the sole of your shoe. It was meant for hard wear. When you sat in a cockpit, sitting on a parachute, for a number of hours, the damn thing always seemed to jab you in the wrong place. It was very uncomfortable.

One time the carrier I was on put into Port Algiers, which is across the river from New Orleans. A lot of my mother's family was from New Orleans. I had two cousins, who were married to two sisters, and their father owned a very large jewelry store on Canal Street, right near Maison Blanche department store. It was a five-storey building, and the first floor was all sorts of jewelry, dinnerware, giftware. The second floor was a pawnshop and the floors above that were a gun business. They supplied most of the arms that went down to South and Central America for all the revolutions. They used to ship them down there in wooden crates marked 'farm machinery.' They had a big collection of antique firearms. In fact, they used to rent them to movie companies to use as props. They had one of the original Gattling guns, the first machine gun.

My cousin took me in there. I explained to him about my gun, and I said that I would like to get a gun that was less cumbersome and easier to carry when I was flying. He said that he might have something for me. They had guns in barrels and guns in boxes all over the place. I told him it had to be a .38 caliber and it had to pass the bench test. It had to be put in a vice and fired at a target, and it had to hit a target at a certain distance. He pulled out of a safe one of the smallest handguns I've ever seen in my life: an automatic, it was made in Spain, it was a beautiful little gun-a ladies' gun originally, it had a mother of pearl handle and a silver barrel, and it was engraved in gold filigree. Beautiful thing! It had been altered from a .32 to a .38. The thing fit just the size of your hand. He put it in the bench vice and fired it. It passed the firing test. He asked me if I needed anything else, and I said that I could use a holster for it. He called in a woman from the shop and they made an under-the-arm holster for it out of glove leather. It fit right under the arm; you couldn't feel it....I was prepared to buy it, but they wouldn't take any money for it. They gave it to me.

When I got back to the ship, I went to the Chief Ordinate and asked him to perform a bench test on it so that I could fly with it instead of the issue hand gun. And it passed. He took me up to the captain and showed it to the captain. He had to get permission for it. The captain was in love was this thing! He wanted it, but I didn't want to give it to him. It was a gift.

Eventually, in time for my discharge, the Navy was going to hold me on, even though I had enough points for my discharge. They were going to send me out to the Mediterranean on mine sweeping duty. I wanted to get out, so I made a deal. I gave the captain the gun, and my discharge papers were signed. My admission into the active reserve was signed. My discharge from the active reserve was signed. My admission into the inactive reserve was signed, and my discharge from the inactive reserve was signed. All at one shot! I sort of bought my way out. It was a relief for me-I didn't want to stay in. Oh God-if someone gets a hold of this and digs my file up, I'll be in for bribery! [Laughs] I don't think so...I wanted out, and I had something somebody wanted.

After V-day, I got out as fast as I could.... [Being in the Navy] wasn't a bad experience, but it's not something I like to do over. I wouldn't like for you to have to do it. It was a different life. I wanted to get rid of everything [associated with the Navy], and for years I wouldn't wear anything blue.

It was a different life, and has no relation to who I am today. I was a different person. Sure, I learned a lot in the Navy. I learned a lot about human nature. I learned how to be orderly....It feels like it all happened to someone else, really. I think you will find in the overall picture that the number of people who went through all sorts of things in that period, they don't think about it afterwards. It's forgotten. Sure it influenced their lives somewhat, somehow, sometime. I never think too much about it. It's just something that happened. I never think of it as history or anything like that. It was a different life.

Note: by Arnold Spring


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This Day in History
1775: In Massachusetts, British troops march out of Boston on a mission to confiscate the Patriot arsenal at Concord and to capture Patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock, known to be hiding at Lexington. As the British departed, Boston Patriots Paul Revere and William Dawes set out on horseback from the city to warn Adams and Hancock and rouse the Patriot minutemen.

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