My grandfather was born in a dangerous world.
It was 1918, the First World War was raging, and the Spanish flu pandemic was claiming lives by the tens of millions. But he was armed with his keen intelligence and the values instilled by his hard-working immigrant parents. He excelled academically and went to college. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago, where he went on to law school and Law Review. He fell in love and married, and just as his legal career was beginning and he was ready to start a family, his country was drawn into another world war.
A few months after Pearl Harbor, figuring there would be a draft, he decided that he’d like to be a naval officer. As he told the story to me, the recruitment officer, perhaps in denial about the manpower the Navy would need for the undertaking ahead, was lukewarm about accepting him at first, and was struck by his persistence. He didn’t know he’d been accepted until he got an envelope in the mail addressed to Ensign Seymour Tabin.
After training, his first assignment was aboard a sub-chaser in the Atlantic, facing U-boats commanded by an enemy that literally sought the extermination of his people. He was promoted to second officer, and then, when LST-127 was built for the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, he joined the crew, and for most of the heaviest fighting served as executive officer.
LST stands for Landing Ship-Tank. These were ships designed to land heavy armor and troops on beaches. LST-127 earned five battle stars for action: in the Marshall Islands, at Saipan, at Tinian, in the southern Palau Islands, and at Luzon. As XO, my grandfather was responsible for giving orders to fire as the battles raged. He saw some close calls, including a kamikaze that nearly crashed into the ship but pulled up under fire.
The Navy no longer has ships like the LST; now when personnel and materiel are brought ashore, it’s done by helicopter to bypass coastal defenses, and when you see the casualty counts that resulted from landing right in the teeth of those coastal defenses, you can see why. After the first couple landings, the sailors aboard LST-127 learned not to make friends with the soldiers and marines they transported; the casualty reports were utterly devastating when they did. At Luzon alone, in the months following the landing, more American servicemen died than in the 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
In March of 1945, after the initial landing at Luzon but before the island was fully under American control, my grandfather was promoted once again and took command of LST-127. The achievement was impressive; the responsibility, as he told me, was terrifying. He remained proud all his life that he’d rebuffed white southerners under his command who complained about their proximity to the black cooks and stewards: He told them flatly that there would be no segregation on his ship.
As many of you know, I mainly write about current events, and two news items struck me last week as a tribute to what men like my grandfather achieved. One: Shinzo Abe, after visiting the World War II memorial in Washington, became the first Japanese prime minister to address the U.S. Congress to advocate a trade deal, and in his speech gave his condolences for the men we lost in the war. Two: The Judaic scholarship organization Dirshu announced that for the first time ever, the world’s Jewish population will soon be higher than it was before the war. A dangerous foe is now an ally; a genocidal campaign against our people has been reversed. If you follow my work, you know I believe we still face a dangerous world, but it’s a much safer world than the world my grandfather was born into, and it was men like my grandfather who made it so.
It was only a few years in his mid-twenties, but the experience followed him. In the 1990s, Grandpa was invited to a reunion for LST-127, but he didn’t go, for a reason that resonates very much when I tell this story to my veteran friends: He said it would be awkward, because he’d be the only officer there. My father was somewhat puzzled by this, responding “Dad, that was fifty years ago.” “They still call me Captain Tabin in their letters,” he replied.
I considered including Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” in this eulogy, but when I reread the poem I realized it would be inappropriate: Whitman’s extended metaphor for Lincoln’s death in the wake of the Civil War is about a captain who doesn’t survive his ship’s victory. My grandfather did more than survive. He lived nearly seven more decades, and he lived well, making the most of the safer world he’d helped secure.
He raised his son. He was a successful lawyer and a canny investor; as a bank cofounder he became a pillar of his community’s economic life, and his loyalty to Jewish tradition made him a stalwart of his community’s religious life. He was there for his grandchildren in good times and bad. He lived to see his great-grandchildren, and as someone with no memory of my great grandparents, I hope my niece and nephew appreciate how lucky they are to have known him.
He was an avid traveller and fisherman, with an early adopter’s fascination with technology; he was one of the first people we knew with a personal computer at home. He was witty and sharp, with an air of hypercompetent authority, lightly worn but unmistakable. He used to joke that he was never wrong, except for one time when he’d erroneously thought he was wrong but turned out to actually be correct.
I loved him, as I told him often, but more than that, as I made sure to tell him the last time we spoke, I admired him, and I admired the life he led.
Toward the end, though his mind was going, he still had flashes of wit. When a hospice representative told him he’d be missed, he replied, without missing a beat, “I hope so.”
I certainly miss him, and I know everyone in this room does, too. Baruch dayan ha’emet.
(Adapted from “The Scrawl,” John Tabin’s newsletter. Click here to subscribe.)