Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mel Cohen in the Navy, Part 1

Wow, I have been away from this blog far too long.It's not that we haven't traveled and had some interesting experiences, it's just that I haven't had the desire to write. Now that I have that desire again, maybe I'll write about that as well. In the meantime, here are some stories that I remember my dad telling us from his time in the Navy during World War II.

Mel Cohen in the Navy, Part 1

Like most young men in the early 1940s my father, Melvin Cohen, enlisted in the armed forces for World War II. He ended up in the Navy and graduated as a midshipman, 90 day wonder, after attending the Navy’s Officer candidate training school that was held at Union College in Schenectady New York.

While sitting around the dining room table after a holiday meal or family gathering we could sometimes get him to talk about his days in the Navy. Sometimes it took some cajoling; he was often reluctant to talk about it. He was a good storyteller. I only hope that I can re-create accurately some of the stories he told us.
Dad’s assignment in the Navy after graduation as an Ensign was as second in command on a Landing Craft Tank (LCT). He earned a field promotion to first Lieutenant and became the captain of the LCT several days before D-Day when his commanding officer was sidelined with acute appendicitis and had to be evacuated. More about that later.

One of his favorite stories was about a gunnery mate on his ship who never had to touch a gun. In his civilian life this man was a pastry chef. Working miracles in the galley with sparse supplies, shortage of many staples, and the supposedly nutritious but quite boring realities of the Navy mess at sea was all that was necessary to keep this treasured soul ensconced within his natural element. Dad told us that the creampuffs his gunnery mate with able to create without access to real eggs or sugar not only earned accolades around the fleet, but were the linchpin of many barter transactions dad engaged in as part of the normal business of day-to-day survival in the Navy at sea.

Not all the stories were about pastry; some of it was pretty harrowing. The role of an LCT was to bring heavy equipment ashore, and as such had a pivotal role to play in the D-Day invasion. Dad participated in the first wave ashore at Omaha Beach. As a very green ship commander his survival and the survival of his crew depended on both his skill and ability, and a lot of good luck. Five LCTs were part of his group deploying heavy equipment onto Omaha Beach. Five went in, and only one came out. On his next trip into the beach, five LCTs went in and two came out – his ship, and the disabled LCT he was towing. During one of the sorties he was up in a crow’s nest trying to get a better handle on what was going on and where he should be going. Shortly after he came down from the crow’s nest he happened to look up to where he had been and saw that the crow’s nest had been destroyed by enemy fire.

I’m sure that there are details about the events of D-Day that dad rarely thought about, and never spoke about, certainly to us. Needless to say, close calls were the norm rather than the exception.
The full import of some events didn’t become obvious for many years. Dad told us about one loading or unloading exercise during which a large block and tackle swung out of control hitting him in the back and knocking him to the ground. He was examined by the Navy doctors who poked and prodded and banged on his spine with rubber hammers. They declared him fit to return to duty and he shrugged off the pain and discomfort as young men are wont to do. Roll forward 25 years. Dad is bereft of commuting by train due to a transit strike. He is suffering long hours in a carpool and the loss of income from his twice daily card games on the train. He develops terrible back pain, so bad he goes to see the doctor who sends him to a specialist. The specialist takes x-rays and asks dad when he fractured his spine. After showing dad the x-ray, and convincing him that one of his vertebrae really had been fractured at some point, the only incident that he could come up with where that might have happened was the incident with the block and tackle during his days in the Navy. Luckily, the end of the transit strike put an end to the worst of his pain. It turns out that in time of war, Navy medicine could be as spotty as the Navy food.

One of my favorite stories also had consequences beyond dad’s time in the Navy. A call went out to the fleet that three men on the flagship required a fourth for a game of bridge. Dad was always an eager and ardent card player, and never one to turn down the opportunity to play a hand of bridge. He sent word to the flagship that he was available, and a launch was sent to bring him over to the game. When he walked into the room and was introduced to the other players he was a bit intimidated by the quantity of ribbons, braids and scrambled egg on their uniforms. Suspecting a fairly high-stakes game he told them that he did not have a lot of cash with him. They told him not to worry about that. They really needed him as a fourth to allow them to play. They played round-robin. That means that dad played a rubber with each of the other players as his partner. As luck (and in his mind skill) would have it, he won with each of the other players with whom he partnered. When they totaled up the points he was far and away the big winner for the day. It turns out that they were playing for a dollar a point – very high stakes for a junior officer. He walked away from that game with a large roll of cash. Knowing himself, and knowing that if he kept the cash he would find some way of spending it, at the next opportunity he took the money and purchased a diamond. He sent that diamond home to his mother for safekeeping. Several years later that diamond was to become the centerpiece of my mother’s engagement ring.

That’s all for now. There are other stories. Some stories have a lot of detail attached, others not so much. There’s the story of getting lost in Paris during the blackout. He told us why he won’t eat Brussels sprouts. We know about a girlfriend, or fiancĂ©e, in France, but know very few of the details of that story. I’m sure the stories are not unique. Thousands of men in the greatest generation participated in World War II and there are many stories for each of them. But these were our dad’s stories and they gave us some insight into his early life and experiences that made him the man we loved as our dad.

Aaron Cohen
Garwood, NJ
28 September 2013