He recently retired from a 48-year career as a crusading prosecutor, first as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and later as District Attorney for Manhattan. As with so many successful men and women in the United States, Robert M. Morgenthau's career had its roots in his military service, which began in the Navy's V-7 program. Here's his story.
I can still remember exactly when I decided to join the Navy. It was June 1940, and I was driving on the West Side Highway in New York City, listening to the radio, when the newscast reported that the Navy had begun a new V-7 officers' training program opened to students with three years of college. College students who hadn't graduated yet could now earn commissions in the Naval Reserve.
That sounded like just the ticket. I wanted to become a reserve officer so I'd be ready for the war. I'd tried both the U.S. Army and the Canadian Army, but neither would take me until I completed college. And the recruiting office for the new V-7 program was at the 135th Street pier-only two exits away. I got off the highway and signed up.
I took my 30-day midshipman cruise in July 1940, spending my 21st birthday on the battleship USS Wyoming (BB-32) in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. After graduating from college, I took three months of midshipman training on board the USS Prairie State (IX-15). On graduation, I became Ensign Morgenthau. They would call us "90-Day Wonders."
Over the next four-and-a-half years I served on three destroyers and learned a lot about life, about running an organization, and about luck. Without realizing it then, I also prepared myself for what later would become a career as a prosecutor, focusing on homicides, terrorist financing, and white-collar crime-a far cry from the wartime Navy.
I went to communications school and was assigned to the USS Warrington (DD-383), for transfer to the South Atlantic Fleet. I was in the Boston Navy Yard on Pearl Harbor Day. I'll always remember the message coming over the communications system: "Japan is bombing Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill. Repeat: Japan is bombing Pearl Harbor."
When we got to the South Atlantic, I was transferred to the USS Winslow (DD-359), a destroyer that was deployed to look for German blockade runners and raiders. There'd been a lot them in that region before the United States entered the war, and I was assigned as boarding officer, stopping and boarding any ships that looked suspicious.
The most dangerous part of this assignment involved the rope ladder that the suspicious ship lowered so that the Winslow boarding party could come aboard from its motor whaleboat. You had to grab the ladder at the top of a ten-foot swell, and then pull yourself up, making sure you climbed aboard before the whaleboat came back and broke your legs.
In mid-1943 I was transferred to the USS Lansdale (DD-426) as executive officer, and the day I arrived, the captain set down his rules. "Everyone likes to give candy to children," he said. "but if this ship is to survive in a war zone, one of us has to be an S.O.B. I've decided that's you." He dismissed me, saying, "Good morning, Mr. S.O.B."
On the Lansdale, we escorted convoys from the Caribbean and U.S. ports to the British Isles and to North Africa. On 20 April 1944, a German aerial torpedo exploded at a forward stack. We were in the water for three hours and lost 47 men. Eventually, we were picked up by the USS Menges (DE-320), a Coast Guard-manned destroyer escort.
After the Lansdale sank, I was assigned to the USS Harry F. Bauer (DM-26), a destroyer minelayer. As exec, I assigned four African-American steward's mates to the 20-mm guns abutting the stack-against standard practice then. My faith in the gun crew proved justified. When a kamikaze exploded above the forward stack, they remained at their posts.
On 6 April 1945, during the first major attack on the Navy at Okinawa, the Bauer was assigned to the northern picket station nearest Japan. While it was still dark, we took an aerial torpedo through the bow. I called our squadron commander to report the damage but couldn't raise him on the radio telephone.
The task force commander, Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, interrupted: "Do not wait for relief. Proceed at best possible speed to base at Kerama Retto." On the way south, we were just ahead of the biggest kamikaze attacks of the war. We were doubly lucky: the ship that took our station was severely damaged by kamikazes.
Shortly before the war ended, we again came under attack. This time the kamikaze made an 18-foot hole at the waterline. A bomb-disposal expert inspected the damage and told us not to worry-that it wasn't a bomb. We were sent to Leyte Gulf for repairs, traveling more than a thousand miles at the edge of a typhoon.
It wasn't until after we'd moored alongside a destroyer-tender in Leyte that we found we'd been carrying a live, 550-pound bomb, which was leaning against the bulkhead of the forward fireroom. The striker had hit its detonator, but the detonator was a dud. Meanwhile, the ship that replaced us was carrying a 250-pound kamikaze bomb.
In all, the Bauer amassed a stunning record during the war. She was credited with destroying 17 kamikaze planes, and the ship and all the members of her crew were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
As executive officer, I learned about managing people and the importance of loyalty. All assignments and promotions must be on merit, not friendship. I learned to look for the best in everyone, not for their faults.
I worked with men from all corners of the country, and all sorts of backgrounds, but I always tried to find common interests. I also learned never to trust an expert-described by some as "an S.O.B. from out of town." This view was reinforced by the misinformation about the bomb on board the Bauer.
My experience on that ship taught me to spread the credit around rather than only rewarding the leadership-a principle that later helped keep morale high in the Manhattan district attorney's office. Lessons learned from surviving in hostile waters far from friendly skies gave me the experience and courage to prosecute cases without fear or favor.
When the war ended, I knew that I was headed for a career in public service. That was settled when the Lansdale sank. When I was floundering around in the water-without my life-jacket-I made a lot of promises to the Almighty. One of them was to do something useful with my life if I ever got out of this jam. I've tried to follow through.
I didn't talk about the Navy much after I got out. Fifty years later, at a law school reunion, I was sitting next to a classmate who asked me what I had done in the war, and I, in turn, asked him about his military service. He had been a Marine aviator on board the USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), which was severely damaged by kamikaze attacks in May 1945. As it turned out, I was nearby that day-on the Bauer.
I was thunderstruck. Here was a close friend-somebody I'd known for years-and we'd never talked about our war experiences. I began reaching out to other veterans. The more I talked with them, the more I realized just how defining a time my days in the military had been.
I am not big on mementoes. My uniform is in a trunk in a barn that recently burned down. I still have my shoulder-boards, and two combination caps-one blue and one wartime gray. And I still have my sword-awarded for having been second in my class at 90-Day Wonder school.
But at age 90, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the impact the Navy has had on my life, and on reflection I see it has been enormous. The lessons have stayed with me-about leadership, about determination, about public service, and, perhaps most of all, about being lucky.
Sure, I learned in the military that you have to be self-confident and have well-trained officers and crew. But in the end, luck plays the most important part. You have to have Lady Luck riding on your shoulder. During my time in the Navy, I did.