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LI federal judges recount WWII experiences

Leonard Wexler, Thomas Platt and Arthur Spatt, in

Leonard Wexler, Thomas Platt and Arthur Spatt, in Federal Court in Central Islip. All three judges served in the armed forces in World War II. (May 21, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Ed Betz

On Memorial Day, Judge Jack B. Weinstein, 90, will lead the Village of Great Neck parade as its grand marshal. In a remembrance service at the village green, the World War II submarine officer will pay homage to those lost in battle with a poem penned by a grieving, battle-weary soldier six years before Weinstein was born.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders fields.

Weinstein is part of a unique fraternity. He is one of five senior judges -- average age 87 -- in the federal district court that covers Long Island and part of New York City who form a band of brothers as veterans of World War II.

Weinstein, I. Leo Glasser, 88, Arthur D. Spatt, 86, Thomas C. Platt, 86, and Leonard D. Wexler, 87, are among the dwindling ranks of the Greatest Generation. Glasser and Wexler were GIs who fought in Europe; Platt and Spatt served on Navy transports as an ensign and petty officer, respectively.

They spoke in recent interviews about how being thrust into war while in their late teens and early 20s shaped their world and the direction of their lives and careers when they came home.

Weinstein said it was how he learned to become a leader.

"The experience, I would say, was transformative," observed Weinstein, assigned in 1944 to the submarine USS Jallao as a lieutenant commander, junior grade.

"I consider World War II participation to be the most extraordinary event not only in my life, but in my opinion, other than religious events, the most extraordinary event in the history of the world," Spatt said.

There was no moral ambiguity or doubt in the mission the nation faced to defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

"We were on the side of the angels," Weinstein said. "I was always aware that, in a sense, I was the tip of a sword that was being fashioned by the entire country."

His sub sank a Japanese cruiser in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, and a merchant marine vessel in August 1945, days before Japan's surrender.

For his Brooklyn courthouse colleague Glasser, a soft-spoken man who saw combat in Europe as an Army tech corporal, military service is best remembered for the treasured lifelong friendships it gave him, and the buddies who didn't return home.

"In my immediate unit, I can think of four who died who were relatively close to me," said Glasser, who served with the 796th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion.

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Weinstein, a Brooklyn College graduate, said he grew up a "parochial New Yorker," but his outlook broadened as he got to know people from all parts of the country when the Navy sent him for advanced training in electronics to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Soon, he found himself taking turns at the helm of the Jallao and learned lessons in confidence and boldness that he took years later to the federal bench, where he has presided over mob trials and major class-action lawsuits against the makers of asbestos, Agent Orange and guns.

"I learned to make decisions and decide things firmly, so the minute I walked into my courtroom, when I was appointed [by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967], I was in command, full command of that courtroom," Weinstein said.

It's one reason he rarely wears judicial garb, usually presiding in a business suit. "I don't have to wear my robes. The submarine was informal," Weinstein explained.

Because he dealt with so many different types of people as an officer, Weinstein said he learned how to respect and listen to people of all types who appear before him as a judge.

"I had a sense as an officer for responsibility for my men, which carries over; a responsibility to people I sentence, to their lives," he said.

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Spatt, Platt and Wexler -- senior judges in Central Islip -- often meet for morning courthouse coffee and sometimes reminisce about their wartime experiences. "We talk about it from time to time," Spatt said. "We have a certain camaraderie, the three of us."

Platt and Spatt came through their Navy service physically unscathed. Wexler, a grunt with a tank-destroyer battalion, was wounded in a foxhole by a German artillery shell.

Platt, a member of a prominent Republican family from Long Island, spent his time as a child learning to sail at Cold Spring Harbor. Unlike Weinstein, who saw lots of action, Platt spent his time uneventfully on a troop transport ship in the Atlantic after schooling as a PT boat captain in Florida.

He wanted to be a Navy pilot, like former President George H.W. Bush, but Platt couldn't pass a depth-perception test.

"I was a lucky son of a gun, I could have gone with Bush and got shot down," Platt said.

Like Weinstein, Platt said being in the Navy taught him to be decisive and in command of his courtroom.

For Spatt, a middle-class kid from Brooklyn, the war opened up the world beyond DeKalb Avenue.

Once, his amphibious transport ship in the Pacific, the USS Sherburne, was attacked by Japanese kamikaze pilots. But he came through it to be at a historic scene of triumph -- part of the massive flotilla of U.S. ships that sailed into Tokyo Bay as the United States formally accepted Japan's surrender in September 1945.

"It was thrilling to see," Spatt recalled.

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Glasser and Wexler saw death up close, particularly around the time of the German counteroffensive in December 1944 known as The Battle of The Bulge.

Wexler, son of a garment cutter from Brooklyn, remembered waking up some mornings after sleeping on an armored vehicle in a sleeping bag and having to wipe snow off his face in the Ardennes forest. The day he was wounded, he recalls a sudden, warm feeling, and then looking down to see he was sitting in blood from a leg wound. He staggered to an aid station and collapsed, waking up in an Army hospital.

As a private, he also got a full load of menial and backbreaking tasks.

"We lived like rats," said Wexler, who resolved then to become successful if he made it out alive. "I realized this [was] not the way to live, the last man on the totem pole."

Glasser, who presided over the 1992 trial of the late mob boss John Gotti, landed in Europe a few weeks after D-Day at the small French town of St. Mere Eglise. His unit pushed east, eventually crossing into Germany in spring 1945. The horror of battle was constant.

"You think of the American young men as wholesome, kind," Glasser said. "Something happens to some people in the course of battle and . . . you might see somebody chop some fingers off [dead enemy soldiers] to remove [jewelry] -- it was shocking, but things like that happen."

Wexler, after being wounded, was shipped home and upon his discharge went to college, something he had not expected to do, with the help of the GI Bill. Indiana University and New York University School of Law opened up doors for him and led to an active Long Island law practice, and later his judgeship.

Glasser's war ended when he was injured moving ammunition crates. He did a short stint studying law in Birmingham, England, before returning stateside and graduating from Brooklyn Law School.

Weinstein's observance of Memorial Day will be public. The parade steps off onto Middle Neck Road at 9:30 a.m. In a remembrance service, he will read the World War I poem "In Flanders Field" by John McCrae.

Glasser isn't planning anything special, but he said that he will think about the young men he served with near the Ardennes who never made it back alive.

"I hope there will come a day when we have no more wars and the lion will lie down with the lamb and we can have universal peace," Glasser said.

 

JUDICIAL BAND OF BROTHERS

 
Jack B. Weinstein

Age: 90

Service: U.S. Navy (aboard the submarine USS Jallao)

Rank: Lieutenant commander

Highest awards: Command citations, with Gold Stars, for submarine service

 

 

Arthur D. Spatt

Age: 86

Service: U.S. Navy (aboard transport USS Sherburne)

Rank: Quartermaster second class as navigation petty officer

Highest awards: Asiatic Pacific Medal with Star and Philippine Liberation Medal

 

 

Thomas C. Platt

Age: 86

Service: U.S. Navy (aboard transport USS Harry Taylor)

Rank: Ensign

 

 

Leonard D. Wexler

Age: 87

Service: U.S. Army (Europe)

Rank: Private first class

Highest awards: Purple Heart and two Bronze Battle Stars

 
 

 

I. Leo Glasser

Age: 88

Service: U.S. Army (Europe)

Rank: Tech corporal (T-5)

Highest award: Bronze Star

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