Uncovering A Greatest Generation Mystery

Some time ago, while cleaning up the house, I found a moldy cardboard box in a basement corner. Rifling through the contents, I found my uncle Herbert’s 1940 Textile High School yearbook.

I also found a scrapbook, apparently kept by his mother. For the first time, I saw pictures of my paternal grandparents on their wedding day in 1921, a portrait of my grandfather, a World War I naval veteran, dignified in dress uniform, photos of my father and two uncles, Herbert, older than my father by two years, and Marvin, younger by 10.

My grandfather, Harry Klein, circa World War I.

Like flickering frames through a Kinetoscope, I saw my father’s family in a rush of images through the 1920’s, thirties and forties; my grandparents, young and handsome in their wedding portrait, later aged and worn down by The Depression; my grandmother, beautiful as a young bride, now with dark glasses in a frowzy print dress, appearing far older than a woman in her mid-thirties. Another series of photos tracked my uncle Herbert, as Semitically good-looking as John Garfield, from young boy to young man.

My grandparents, Harry and Sylvia Klein. This photo was probably taken sometime in the mid-to-late 1930’s in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.
Electricians Mate Second Class Herbert I. Klein

I had grown up with my mother’s extended family in a two-story Queens walk-up before moving to Long Island when I was ten years old. I remember them in vivid, primary colors.

By contrast, I knew little about my father’s family and never had any emotional link to them. My grandfather Harry Klein died in February 1948 at age 50 of a heart attack. His wife Sylvia followed 15 months later, also of a heart attack, both paternal grandparents gone before I was born.

Their oldest son, my uncle, Herbert Irwin Klein, an electricians mate in the Navy, perished at sea in mid-September, 1944 when his minesweeper, the YMS-409, sunk somewhere in the Atlantic off the North Carolina coast. Their second son, my father, David Klein, survived the war after serving two years in the South Pacific on a troop transport.

In a crumbling, yellowed envelope, I found an inch-thick file of letters from my grandfather to different Navy departments, congressmen, a U.S. senator and the Secretary of the Navy, requesting information about the loss of his son in mid-September 1944.

For two-and-one half years, Harry Klein waged a lonely campaign to get more information about his son’s death than the Navy was telling him, never satisfied with the answers and never fully acknowledging that my uncle was gone. My grandfather’s stubborn belief that the Navy was lying kept him from seeing that the service was telling him all it knew, or at least being as transparent as wartime conditions permitted.

My grandfather was relentless, writing in careful, elegant script, his tone evolving from polite to frustrated to furious. He spent six or seven thousand dollars, then a small fortune for a government accountant trying to verify that his son had died. He took regular train rides to Washington to roam the halls of Congress and the Navy offices, buttonholing any elected official or bureaucrat who might help him. The stream of correspondence ended only when he dropped dead of a heart attack after chopping ice on a sidewalk in front of his Queens house, less than a year after his last letter.

His grief also blinded him to what he did accomplish: that an ordinary tax accountant from Brooklyn, mourning his lost son, could prod and push the massive bureaucracy of the United States Armed Forces into mobilizing an extraordinary, multi-million dollar international air and sea operation involving hundreds of ships and airplanes to scour the Atlantic in search of his son’s craft.

Must Be Presumed Lost

The story begins when my grandfather’s 11-year-old son cut short his newspaper delivery route on the morning of September 20, 1944. My uncle Marvin rushed home to tell his parents he had seen a four-paragraph Associated Press dispatch reporting that a minesweeper, the YMS-409, disappeared during a hurricane in the Atlantic the previous week. Four other vessels were also reported missing. My uncle Marvin recognized the hull classification designation of his brother’s ship.

The YMS 409 was a minesweeper built in 1943 that went down during the Great Hurricane of 1944, probably on September 12, 1944 somewhere in the Atlantic off the coast of Cape Hatteras NC. All 33 of its crew perished. Drawing assignment on a minesweeper was hazardous duty. Fragile by nature, they were built with wooden hulls because mines were often magnetic and attached themselves to metal-hulled ships. The ships swept up mines using chains anchored by trailing buoys. Marksmen set off the mines with rifle fire.

The telegram from the Navy came later that day. It began with all-too-familiar, dreaded words, “The Navy Department regrets to inform you…”, offering my grandparents the only known facts about the 409’s disappearance: the time it was last seen, its last known location and the following explanation: it vanished “DURING PASSAGE OF HURRICANE MUST BE PRESUMED LOST.”

The service made a feeble effort at redaction. Clearly visible through a line of “X’s” is the notice: ‘TO PREVENT POSSIBLE AID TO OUR ENEMIES DO NOT DIVULGE THE NAME OF HIS SHIP OR STATION.”

Two days later, my grandfather sent his first letter, requesting the names and addresses of the crew, not yet knowing the 409 had no survivors. In each of the seven letters that would follow, he repeated the same requests. Please provide more information, the names of any survivors, the names and addresses of any relatives.

Harry Klein’s first letter to the Navy, September 22, 1944, two days after he received a telegram notifying the family that his son was missing at sea. “Assuring you of my appreciation in granting my request…”

Each time, the Navy replied with a monotonous sameness. In polite, empathetic, bureaucratic language, a service spokesman told my grandfather it had no further information about his son. Yet despite the near uniformity of every letter, each response would add a tantalizing new detail, just enough to stoke my grandfather’s belief that the Navy was holding back.

In one letter, the Navy informed him it was against policy to provide the names of crew family members. It then gave him contact information for two of his son’s shipmates. In another, after telling him there were no survivors from his son’s craft, the Navy gave him the name of a shipmate who supposedly survived the storm. My grandfather later found out that the “survivor”, a maintenance operator, did not actually come through the hurricane. The sailor was put off the ship five days earlier because he was ill.

It wasn’t until more than a year later, after my grandfather had enlisted a Brooklyn congressman in his crusade, did he discover the extent of the hurricane’s devastation.

In a letter dated October 4, 1945, my grandparents were told that winds estimated at 130 to 150 knots and waves as high as 60 feet “hammered the escort ships and the merchant vessels.” The letter disclosed the longitude and latitude of the 409’s last known location, going on to say that the Navy had conducted a thorough search, but no trace of the 409 or any other missing vessels was found. It would later come out that five vessels and 344 sailors were lost at sea.

In the days before today’s blaring multi-platform media, newspaper and radio coverage of the storm’s lethal impact was muted. Remember that photographers, at President Roosevelt’s request, didn’t shoot him below the waist because images of the American president in a wheelchair projected weakness. Mid-war, with the tide just starting to turn in favor of the Allies, the government, and journalism mores of the day, deemed it necessary to shield the public from any news that would demoralize it and encourage the enemy.

Today, more advanced radar detection systems would classify Hurricane № 7 (before hurricanes were named, they were numbered) as a Category 4 or 5, one of the worst storms of the 20th century. Remembered as The Great Hurricane of 1944, it devastated the east coast from North Carolina to Maine, killing, in addition to the sailors, 46 civilians and causing nearly $1 billion (roughly $14 billion in 2016 dollars) in property damage.

His anger rising, and not willing to accept the Navy’s explanations, Harry prompted his boss at the New York State tax department to contact U.S. Senator James M. Mead. The senator asked the Navy to conduct a more thorough search for the missing vessels. My grandfather now inquired whether the Caribbean islands and Key West were searched. “Perhaps they are stranded on one of these islands,” he wrote. “After all, these brave young men deserve the Navy Dept’s. consideration to ascertain their whereabouts.”

The next response was astonishing, although my grandfather still didn’t see it that way. In a letter to Sen. Mead dated March 29, 1946, copying my grandfather, the Navy wrote:

“Since the letter dated 30 October 1945… the Bahama Islands area has again been exhaustively searched for missing personnel. Early in December 1945 a surface and air search was conducted over this entire area… An aircraft carrier, a destroyer and approximately one hundred small boats were utilized in addition to all available United States Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Royal Air Force planes. In one day over three hundred flights were made. This intensive search continued for five days with negative results. …. It is improbable that anyone on them would not be sighted from planes crisscrossing the area. In addition to the full scale search made last December, Navy planes from the Gulf Sea Frontier, the Caribbean Sea Frontier, and the Florida Naval Air Base on Puerto Rico, British planes operating from Nassau, and commercial transport planes flying over this area, all have been briefed to be alert for any signs of missing persons.”

My grandfather’s letter writing campaign bore fruit. After prompting the U.S. Senator from New York, James M. Mead, to intervene on his behalf, the Navy conducted an extraordinary surface and air search for the missing vessels from my uncle’s convoy, consisting of an aircraft carrier, a destroyer, hundreds of small craft from the Army, Navy, Coast Guard and the British Royal Air Force. Three hundred flights were made over Florida and the Caribbean Islands. No trace of the missing craft was found.

Harry, still disbelieving and now bitter, wrote directly to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal on May 8, 1946, demanding that a Court of Inquiry be appointed, charging that the 409 should never have been ordered to sea with a hurricane closing in. He accused the Navy of negligence and suppressing information, saying that another ship in the convoy, fleeing the storm, sighted my uncle’s minesweeper. He demanded to know why no mention of the sighting was entered into the official record.

The Navy’s Judge Advocate Office replied two weeks later, telling my grandfather that no inquiry was conducted because there were no survivors. “(No) purpose would have been served by conducting an inquiry and none is contemplated.”

My grandfather made one last try. He contacted an advocacy group, Kin Seeking Missing Military Personnel, to intervene on his behalf. The organization sent a letter dated December 20, 1946, doubling down on Harry’s conspiracy charge. The Navy responded directly to Harry one more time, repeating the same answers the Judge Advocate had given my grandfather a few months earlier.

Harry died less than a year after that last exchange, stumbling into his house, stricken with cardiac arrest, collapsing in my father’s arms. My grandmother died a little more than a year later when her heart stopped. My father was convinced grief killed them both.

In the Jewish religion, the observant light a memorial candle on annual anniversaries of a loved one’s death. Until the day she died, my grandmother refused to light a Yahrzeit candle for my uncle on the anniversaries of his ship’s disappearance, never believing he was dead.

No funeral, no grave. For years, the only memorial to my uncle was at the East Coast Memorial at Battery Park in lower Manhattan, where the name Herbert I. Klein, Electricians Mate Second Class, is engraved on one of eight granite blocks, along with the names of his 32 shipmates and 4,061 soldiers, sailors and marines lost in the Atlantic. My father would go there once a year to pay his respects.

An Act of God

My father returned home safely from the war after serving two years on a troop transport, the USS Arthur Middleton, which island-hopped the Pacific, picking up and dropping off troops at Pearl Harbor and atolls dotting the ocean, participating in multiple island invasions culminating in the Battle of Okinawa. His transport survived a number of close calls, once escaping a kamikaze attack when a bomber missed the ship by 1,000 yards and, in another instance, when a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine slipped past the ship’s bow.

My father, David Klein (left), cutting up in a grass skirt, probably on an island in the South Pacific sometime in 1944. There was something to the McHale’s Navy version of the war.

His transport was ordered back to San Francisco for repairs four days after Allied troops stormed Okinawa. The Middleton spent the rest of the war in dry dock, sitting out one of the bloodiest battles in naval history.

David Klein hitchhiked home from California and, without missing a beat, applied for tuition assistance under the G.I Bill, received his accounting degree from Long Island University and built a very successful practice. He married, bought a house in suburbs, owned two cars, took the family on annual vacations, and sent two children to college; the quintessential post-World War II success story, a poster child for The Greatest Generation.

Combat veterans will tell you their survival depends as much on fate and luck as it does on their combat skills, the judgment of commanding officers and the tactical brilliance of admirals and generals.

My father’s ship served in some of the most savage battles of the war and he returned home to fashion a happy and admirable life. His brother’s minesweeper was part of a convoy on a routine sweep for mines and German subs when it ran into an Act of God. Destiny certainly had it in for Herbert Klein. Before the convoy set sail, his ship’s lieutenant had offered him a choice: forgo the assignment and take an immediate, short furlough, or go out on this campaign and be granted a longer leave after the convoy’s return.

My father was lucky. My uncle wasn’t.

It gave my father some comfort to name me after his older brother. Shortly after I became a newspaperman, he told my mother it made him feel good each time he saw my name in print, as if bestowing Herbert’s name on his son re-established a fragile connection to his brother.

Left to right, David Klein, Harry Klein and Electrician Second Class Herbert I. Klein. This picture was taken in Brooklyn, probably sometime in late 1943.

I still can’t evoke Harry and Herbert in primary colors like I can the family I grew up with, but I now see them in sharp black and white, no longer just etched letters on tombstones. And each year, during the Jewish High Holidays, I light a Yahrzeit candle for them.

Retired corporate counsel to a major automaker, history buff, avid baseball fan and golfer, proud to have been a newspaperman many years ago.