Lifelong Jersey City resident Arthur Weinberger still remembers the balmy night in June, 1945 when he was injured aboard the U.S.S. Caldwell after it struck an underwater explosive off the shores of Borneo.
He recalls the ship rocking forcefully up and down, tossing him defenselessly around as heavy objects and debris hurtled at him from above. He remembers the flesh across his midsection tearing open, and he described the eerie calm that followed from the shock of the ordeal.
For almost 60 years, Weinberger lived successfully as a wounded yet proud Navy veteran. He married Manhattan native Blanche Donner in October, 1951, started a family, and began a career as a store manager. But the one thing that always bothered him, he said, was that he never received official recognition for the two years of wartime service that came very close to killing him.
"They said I was recommended for a Purple Heart, but I never got it," Weinberger said at his home on Glenwood Avenue in Jersey City. "But I decided last year to call City Hall and see if anyone could help me get it."
When Jaime Vasquez, director of the city's Office of Veterans' Affairs, heard of Weinberger's dilemma, he knew Weinberger needed to fill out a special form - the S-180 - to finally get what was owed him when he was honorably discharged from the Navy in January 1946. After all, Vasquez had done it himself.
Helping veterans get their due
"When I came into this job, I was told about [the S-180]," Vasquez said. "I sent it in myself and received an envelope in two and a half months. I got medals that I didn't even know I was entitled to."
Vasquez, a Vietnam veteran and former city councilman, said he didn't know he was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for his service. Neither did Weinberger.
When he left the Navy, Weinberger was told he was only authorized to wear ribbons for the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the American Theater Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, the Honorable Service Lapel Pin (also known as 'Rupture Duck') and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon.
When he sent in his S-180, he was told he had four more medals coming to him: His long-awaited Purple Heart Medal, a Navy Occupation Service Medal, a Discharge Button and a Philippine Republic Presidential Unit Citation.
Weinberger said he sent a letter to the Navy records office in St. Louis, Mo., in August 2002. He received his medals three weeks ago.
Vasquez said the time discrepancy between his and Weinberger's receipt of their medals was most likely due to administrative concerns.
"I imagine [the time it takes to hear back] is probably commensurate with how much research they have to do," Vasquez said. "It takes a little while, maybe three to six months, but eventually you'll get a response."
When Weinberger finally did get his medals, he didn't immediately pin his newly acquired ribbons onto his jacket. He instead decided to put them away for safekeeping.
"I'm very proud of them," Weinberger said.
Grew up on Mercer Street
Born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents of Hungarian descent, Weinberger moved to Jersey City when he was 4 years old. His father Samuel, a baker by trade, opened a bakery on Third Street between Varick and Monmouth streets, and the bread shop - known as Weinberger and Gottlieb's Bakery - was his family's primary source of income.
His father then sold his Third Street bakery and purchased a bakery on Essex Street in Paulus Hook. After only a year at his Essex Street operation, the elder Weinberger suffered a stroke and died.
Weinberger's family lived off Samuel's pension for three years, after which they moved to Mercer Street, again between Varick and Monmouth streets. After attending School 9 and Dickinson High School, Weinberger answered Uncle Sam's "greeting," which is what Weinberger said was a contemporary euphemism for getting drafted.
He was anxious to join the Armed Forces, Weinberger said, and it was a feeling that wasn't entirely exclusive to him. In fact, the block he lived on before going to war was known as the "Old Glory block" because almost every family who lived there had sent either one or two sons to help the United States fight the Axis Powers.
"The guys back then wanted to go," Weinberger said.
"I reported to the Newark Armory on Jan. 2 for a physical," he added. "I asked for the Marine Corps, but it was full. Since I didn't want to [march over land], I asked for the Navy."
Trained at the Recruit Training Camp in Great Lakes, Ill., Weinberger was then sent to serve on the Pacific Fleet. He was placed aboard the USS Caldwell, a 1650 Class DD-605, and for 18 months served as an ammunition crewman on the full-size destroyer. Along with 300 other sailors, Weinberger's mission was to help protect Allied aircraft carriers and supply convoys. Yet only 200 sailors returned from the Philippine campaign.
"One hundred guys were buried at sea in Lady Gulf, Philippines, when two suicide planes struck [the Caldwell] in 1944," Weinberger said. "The [Japanese] were brave, but they didn't have much going on upstairs."
Weinberger survived the Japanese suicide attacks unharmed. After spending 90 days in San Francisco, Calif., while the ship was being repaired at the local Bethlehem Steel Shipyard, Weinberger and the rest of the Caldwell crew returned to patrolling the Pacific. It was then that Weinberger sustained his injury, when the Caldwell sailed into Brunei Bay to support the Invasion of Tarakan.
When he was discharged, Weinberger had spent more than two years in the service.
Ensuring a family legacy
"Veterans are nonchalant about [asking how to receive their medals], but I ask them if they have children or grandchildren," Vasquez said. "I've been giving this S-180 form to all the veterans I meet. Even to the immediate families of deceased veterans."
"It's part of American history and it's part of family history," Vasquez said. "It's a continuing acknowledgement of their contributions [to the United States military]."
What compelled Weinberger to inquire about his medals, however, wasn't a sense of duty to his family's posterity. He said it came from a desire to see the fruits of his labor before he died.
"I'm getting to an age where I might not even be here tomorrow," Weinberger said. "I figured that before I die, I want what I fought for. I wanted to see them before I go."
Vasquez said those interested in obtaining an S-180 form should contact his office, either by going to Room B-7 in the basement of City Hall or by calling (201) 547-4328.