These stories were written in the early 1990s when the author, Samuel Rimler, was in his early 80s. He wrote them so his grandchildren and their children would know what he had done as a young man. As it turns out, it is a document for everyone else as well.
It presents a picture, perhaps unique, of what it was like to be a Jewish immigrant in the U.S. Marine Corps during the years between the world wars, when the Corps had just seventeen-thousand men, mostly Southerners, and was led by the charismatic Major General Smedley Butler.
The author never knew his age exactly. Ellis Island Registry records say he was ten when he arrived in New York Harbor from Logov, Poland in 1920. More likely, he was eight. He was the sixth and youngest child of Jacov Josef Rimler and Ruchel Nussbaum.
Jacov Josef came to America first, at some point between 1912 and 1914, bringing with him his two elder sons, Eddie and Israel, and leaving his wife behind with their four younger children: Sylvia, Abaham, Mildred and Samuel. While Jacov Josef and the two older boys were in the U.S. earning money to book passage for the rest of the family, World War I intervened. Those were years when Ruchel had to shepherd her children as they were confronted by, and trapped between, opposing armies, Russian and German, who despised Jews even more than they hated one another.
The author rarely discussed those days and he does not write about them here. All we know for certain is that Ruchel broke down under the stress and made an unsuccessful attempt on her life by throwing herself into a well. She never regained her mental balance and eventually died in a New York asylum. We also know that Samuel, aged five, went from door to door singing songs in exchange for food.
When the family was reunited in New York City in the early 1920s, it had no center. Everyone made his or her own way. The author left school after the eighth grade and found himself on the streets, sleeping in pool halls, and leaning toward petty thievery as an acceptable occupation. That is where we find him as these tales (he called them vignettes) begin.
He takes us through four years as a private in the regular Marine Corps (1930 to 1934), two as a sergeant in the Marine Reserves (1939 to 1941), and four as a chief petty officer in the Navy during World War II. He was to live another fifty-four years, but was most proud of his years in the service—proud and, paradoxically, ashamed. He never forgave himself for not being with his old Marine battalion when it landed on Guadalcanal. The fact that he was aboard ship in the North Atlantic at the time doing convoy duty did not assuage his guilt.
As will become clear from these memoirs, he held himself to a very high—perhaps an impossibly high—standard. After all, he was a Marine.
He was also a loving husband to his wife, Ruth, and father to us, his children: Walter Rimler and Rona Arato.
Below is the first of the vignettes in which he tells about the day he joined the Marine Corps.
It was a hot July morning and I was walking east on 23rd Street. I had just been fired from my job at a stationery store for dishonesty.
Earlier, while sweeping the store, I had spotted a crumpled two-dollar bill under a counter and had pocketed it. The money had been deliberately placed there by the owner to test my honesty and I had failed the test. Now I walked the streets without a job, without purpose and without direction.
As I neared Lexington Avenue, my eyes were attracted to a poster of a Marine in dress blues. Reflections of the movie, "What Price Glory" flashed through my mind and I came closer to get a better look.
While standing and gazing admiringly at the poster, a sergeant exited a doorway and stationed himself beside it. He seemed unaware of me as he stood nonchalantly gazing at the street scene.
For a few moments, we stood there: an unkempt school dropout awed by the sight of the real and pictured Marines in their dress blue uniforms with all manner of colored ribbons on their chests, and the sergeant who seemed not to be aware of my presence. Then our eyes made contact.
"Want to join the Marines?" the sergeant asked.
I, not believing that the remark was addressed to me, looked about to see if there was anyone else present. But nobody else was there.
"What do you say?" the sergeant inquired in a Southern drawl,
"Do you think I can?" I asked doubtfully
"Why don't we go upstairs and see," the sergeant suggested.
"I'd like to try," I said.
We walked up the rickety steps of the one-story brick building and the sergeant opened the first door at the head of the stairs. Inside, an officer sitting behind a desk leafing through a magazine glanced up but paid us no further attention. A small desk on the side of the room and a table in the rear with two straight-backed chairs behind it were the only other pieces of furniture in the office. The sergeant handed me a form to fill out, pointed to the table in back of the room, and then seated himself behind the unoccupied desk and pretended to look busy.
I sat at the table and studied the form, making no attempt to write. There were questions on it that I couldn't or was ashamed to answer. The officer, noticing my inactivity, glanced toward the sergeant, who approached me. "Having trouble?" he inquired. I shook my head in the negative and bent over the form.
There was the question of date of birth. I didn't know when I was born. Nobody had ever told me. So I opted for April 15th, the middle of the month in which Passover usually falls, having once overheard that I had been born before, during or after Passover.
Then there was age. That was another dilemma. Not knowing when I was born, I didn't know my age. Remembering that a year earlier I and a friend had been kicked out of an Army recruiting office because of our youth, I put down twenty, not wanting that to happen again.
Then there was the question of education. I was ashamed to admit I had dropped out of the eighth grade of junior high school so I just put down high school, omitting the junior.
And then there was the question of occupation. I had no occupation. Remembering a poem I had learned in school entitled "Work" by Henry Van Dyke, in which the poet praised all manner of labor, I put down laborer, figuring that what was good for Henry Van Dyke was good enough for me.
The only other question that bothered me was place of birth. Having been born in Poland, I was ashamed to admit it. But I put it down anyway. The rest of the information I had to provide was elementary and I had no problem filling in the spaces.
When I was finished filling out the form, I glanced up at the sergeant who came over, took it from to me, looked at it, and then took it to the officer for his inspection. The officer studied it for a minute and then said, "He'll have to get his parents’ permission."
My heart sank when I heard the officer's remarks. Parents permission? How could I hope to do that?
My father, an orthodox and observant man with a full beard who spent all of his spare time in shul would just as soon have given me permission to apostatize as to join. For men of his belief, Jews don't voluntarily join the military--they run away from doing so--even if they have to run to America.
My mother, who had suffered a breakdown in Poland and whose condition had worsened since coming to the United States, now sat either staring silently out the window or sitting on the stoop of our tenement house, singing.
The sergeant approached me. Did you hear what the lieutenant said?" he asked.
"Both parents?" I asked hopelessly.
The sergeant glanced questioningly at the lieutenant who held up one finger.
Just one, I thought. There was hope. My mother used to sign my report cards in Yiddish not knowing what she was signing. If I found her in a more lucid moment I was sure I could get her to sign the application form. But she could only write Yiddish. "Would a signature in Yiddish be valid?" I asked the sergeant.
"A signature in what?" the sergeant asked incredulously.
"It would be valid if it was witnessed," the officer called out.
The sergeant and I boarded a street car and got off at 5th Street and Avenue A, the other passengers believing that I was being taken into custody. As we walked east on 5th Street towards the East River, the men on the sidewalk hastened to make room for us and the women clucked their tongues, while all this time I was praying that my father wouldn't be home and that I wouldn't find my mother sitting on the stoop of the house, singing. When we crossed Avenue D I glanced toward our house. My mother was not sitting on the steps. I breathed a sigh of relief. But there was still the problem of my father. Would I find him home?
We walked up the three flights of stairs of the tenement house and I cautiously opened the door of the apartment and peered inside. My father wasn't home and my mother sat silently by the window.
I walked over to her, the sergeant a step behind me. I handed her the application form and the sergeant's fountain pen. "Mama," I said in Yiddish, "sign this," pointing to the place for her signature.
"Like I did the others?" she asked.
"Like you did the others, Mama," I said.
She signed her name in Yiddish in the designated place, the sergeant affixed his signature bearing witness, I kissed my mother on the cheek, and we left the house.
Within forty-eight hours, I arrived at the Marine base Parris Island, South Carolina, a place I had never heard of and would never forget.