Matty Shavel of Princeton, at nearly 90 not quite retired from his textile business, grabbed the chance to join a thank-you trip to Washington for World War II veterans.
On June 6, Shavel, a Jewish Center member, and his son Douglas traveled to the capital on an “Honor Flight,” where they visited war memorials, met other war veterans, and were overwhelmed by a visit by a uniformed midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
That would be his grandson Joseph, son of Jon Shavel and Ruth Harris of Princeton, who will be leaving on July 15 on a destroyer headed to Guam, Bahrain, and the Indian Ocean. At the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va., Joseph stepped out of the cab, hugged his grandpa, and shook hands with everyone around.
“Probably one of the most thrilling moments of my life was when he got out of the cab — six foot, five inches, in a white uniform,” Matty Shavel said. “Everyone was jealous of me. Of the 96 guys who were there, the emotion was not to be believed. Guys cried. Everybody rushed to shake hands. One guy saluted him.”
Some 72 years earlier, Matty was a senior at James Madison High School in Flatbush, Brooklyn, when all senior boys were told to report to the gym. There they heard an announcement on the loudspeaker from Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who made an offer to the seniors. “Anyone who volunteered and enlisted in the Air Corps could have the day off to see Frank Sinatra at the New York Paramount,” Shavel recalled.
On Oct. 22, 1943, 220 young men went down to Whitehall Street and enlisted, under the condition that they would not begin active duty until they were 18 and had graduated from high school. Shavel met those conditions on Feb. 25 and was at Fort Dix on March 7.
Matty served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying missions over the Caribbean looking for submarines.
“We were kids; we were babies,” he said, noting that the United States had had no standing army between 1918 and 1941 and training for the new recruits was cursory. Half-joking, Shavel said, “Why did they send 1,000 planes over Berlin? If they had sent less, we wouldn’t have hit anything!”
Though all his grandchildren know exactly how long he was in the army — two years, 11 months, and 13 days — Shavel allowed that he had an easy time of it during the war because he never left the Western Hemisphere, and they never spotted any submarines from their plane.
On the morning of last month’s trip to Washington (NJ participants are brought to Washington by bus), the vets and their “guardians” ate a bounteous breakfast at Williamstown High School in Monroe Township. A musical ensemble played tunes from the era, and young female singers performed 1940s songs and the fight songs for each branch of the service. “That was the first tug at my heart for the day,” Douglas Shavel said. “When the men stood up to sing — it meant a great deal to them.”
Other guests surprised him. “Motorcycle guys come in, with black leather pants, blue jeans, scarves, tattoos, chains — it was like someone had the wrong address,” he said.
But they turned out to be 150 Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Knights, there to accompany the buses to the state’s border, along with five police cars and an ambulance. They were “warm, friendly, caring, shook hands with everyone — anything they could do for these men,” Douglas Shavel said.
At the World War II monument on the National Mall, Douglas was particularly impressed with many of the quotations carved on the walls. They also stopped at the Iwo Jima memorial, because three men on one of the buses had fought there, as well as the Vietnam Veterans and Lincoln memorials.
“It was really wonderful to feel it,” said Douglas, 54, who found himself asking, “‘Could we do it again if we needed to?’ I don’t know. That generation was all of one mindset. It was wonderful to see that heartfelt American spirit. These guys were all part of something really big.”
Some of the men were very sad, presumably having lost friends in the war, and facing the end of their own long lives. “It was very deep; very hard to explain,” Douglas said. “As I’m trying to think it through, I’m still not giving the depth and how many things it touched — you could see it in their eyes.”
For Matty Shavel the war experience marked his generation. “Every one of my friends was in the armed forces; everybody did it,” he said. And he noted that unlike in later conflicts the victory was decisive. “We did not win in Korea and Vietnam,” he said.
Asked about how the war may have affected his connection to America and his feelings of patriotism, Matty Shavel said, “I don’t think my allegiance to America was ever in question. My father was in World War I, and I didn’t have any relatives who were members of the Communist party. I went in the way I came out, believing in America — and I still do.”