When Sam Nebesky called to tell his future wife he was going into the Corps, she fainted.
It was 1940, when Nebesky, a Jewish kid from the Bronx, longed to be a part of World War II and the fight against Germany’s Adolf Hitler. Three years later, at age 24, he was drafted.
“It was understood that the country needed us and that’s what we did,” he said. “I feel very proud of being a .”
Nebesky shared his story with the Miami Herald as part of a Veteran’s Day tribute to the approximately 16 million who served in the U.S. during World War II. He’s one of about 850,000 U.S. World War II veterans who are still alive, 75 years after the United States entered the war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“Every man wanted to serve the country,” he said. “It was our duty as Americans.”
Now 98, he still remembers those early days as a . He went through 10 weeks of boot camp at Parris Island off the coast of South Carolina, where he lost his hair and 20 pounds, but gained a wife on the day his training ended, July 29, 1943.
Nebesky, who had a 10-day furlough, sent his girlfriend of three years, Shirley, a telegram from the train station in Washington, D.C. It read: “Meet me at Penn Station. We’re getting married.”
She did and they ran from Penn Station to City Hall; they got to the Marriage License Bureau with two minutes to spare before closing time. They spent their honeymoon night at the Hotel Edison off Times Square. Nebesky still has the room receipt: $4.95.
“You think you can get that today?” he asked. “It’s probably $300 to $400 a night.” (Today’s rates hover around $120.)
A few days later, Nebesky was shipped to the Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, where he learned aircraft instrument repair work. From there, he was shipped to the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, then onto Okinawa, an island off the Japanese coast, which just had survived a typhoon.
“Everything was totally destroyed, the tents were all ripped up. We had to climb down a rope ladder, as we couldn’t get off on the gangplank.”
Nebesky was then sent to Yokosuka, a base that the Japanese had surrendered to the U.S. in 1945.
“I had to take care of the pilots and the ordinance,” Nebesky said. “The pilots would check in with me and I would give them their equipment.”
After the war, Nebesky and his wife moved back to New York, where he worked as a salesman at a paper company for the next 38 years.
Thousands of miles away in the fall of 1943, another young man, Henry Garner, was training on South Beach as part of the infantry. He lived at the Betsy Hotel at 1440 Ocean Drive — then called the Betsy Ross Hotel –for six weeks while he trained. He eventually moved to the Indian Creek Apartments, where he stayed for another six weeks before shipping out.
Garner was 19 at the time and hailed from Louisiana. He was sent to Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. Garner, who served 33 months, was one of those who loaded the bombs onto the bombers.
“I gained a lot of geographical experience and a lot of wonderful friends,” said Garner, 91.
After the war, Garner returned to Louisiana where he finished up his undergraduate work and completed master’s and doctorate degrees. Over the next 45 years, he taught in high school, was promoted to principal and returned to teaching at various colleges and universities, including the University of Miami.
Garner, who lives in Louisiana, recently returned to visit the Betsy Hotel with his two daughters, Hollie and Kimberly, his grandson Garrison, who’s a sophomore at the University of Miami, and his significant other, Irene.
“It was so nostalgic,” he said. “I just reminisced at how different it looks now.”
Miami historian Dr. Paul George said hundreds of thousands of men and women came through Miami Beach for training in the during World War II.
“The Beach was completely taken over by the during World War II,” he said.
Hotels were filled with recruits and , and Ocean Drive and Lincoln Drive hosted parades and festivals.
“It was a wondrous time,” he said. “Miami had this post-World War II explosion.”
After the war, many veterans returned to Miami to start new lives, lured by the warm weather and their wartime memories.
Although Nebesky never trained in Miami, he and his wife bought a place in Century Village in Pembroke Pines in 1986 as she always wanted to live in South Florida. They’ve had many happy years here, although Nebesky still mourns his wife’s passing at age 77 in 2000.
Nebesky said he still thinks of the men and women who served with him and those that serve today.
“I’m one of the lucky ,” he said. “The day that they said goodbye to their loved ones, they never knew if they would see them again.”
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