Interview of Henry Flick (with Izzy Zerling) Transcript Number 527
HAYES: We're here today on April 22nd at the Jameson Hotel and we're talking today with Izzy Zerling, did I pronounce that correct?
HAYES: and Henry Flick, both members of the USS Booth. And we're asking them to share their story with anyone listening or reading this transcript. I am Sherman Hayes, university librarian at UNCW.
HAYES: Why don't we start, Henry, with you. Give me a sense, before you went into the war, where were you at.
FLICK: Well before I went into the service, I was living in Bloomsburg RD5 and I worked for an electrical contractor in Berry.
HAYES: This is in Pennsylvania?
FLICK: Pennsylvania, as an apprentice electrician. Then I enlisted in the Navy and there I went into boot camp at Sampson.
HAYES: When did you enlist in the Navy?
FLICK: Right after I graduated from high school, 1943.
FLICK: Then I went to boot camp in Sampson and came out of there a fireman 1st class. Then I went to Purdue University through their electrical program, which was 16 weeks.
HAYES: Now tell me where this place Sampson is at.
FLICK: That's up in Great Lakes, Utica, New York. Then I went out to Purdue and I came out of Purdue a 3rd class electrician. Then I went from Purdue to Norfolk. That's where I went on the USS Booth. We went out on a shakedown and put the Booth in commission, and I stayed on as one of the electricians on the Booth. I served three years on there. Then I went from 3rd class to 2nd class to 1st class and then my time was up and I was discharged.
HAYES: Alright good. Okay, now where were you at when you got started, Izzy?
ZERLING: Well, I got started.. I tried to enlist, but my wife wouldn't sign the papers. She wouldn't stand for that. I said I'd wait until they draft me. I lived on the lower East Side and all of my friends, they were in the Army and some were in the Navy. When I was drafted, I was married, they drafted me, and I was sent to training in boot camp.
HAYES: Now you were in New York City at this time?
ZERLING: Yes, I was brought up in New York City. When they drafted me, they said I'd be in the Navy. I said no, I wanted to be in the Army because Joe Lewis and all of my friends who were fighting, they were all in the Army. I said I can't swim and they said we'll teach you how to swim. I was a junior lifeguard at that time.
HAYES: So they taught you to swim.
ZERLING: Well anyway, I had my tears in eyes, I wanted to be with Joe Lewis in the Army. My brother, he was in the Army. He was a prisoner of war later on in Germany. He was there about a year. Going back to boot camp, I met some of my friends there. They needed an instructor, somebody to be in the fitness program and being that I had that experience, I worked for the ______ Society for kids. I had a lot of experience with training kids.
When I was in boot camp, I met all of my friends there. I was a big favorite in the boxing game. I used to box often. I was never in the Golden Gloves because they rejected me. They said I had a murmur heart and kept me out of it. As time went on, I couldn't get my license. They took my license away for two years until I was passed by the doctor. I had to be examined and had examinations every month so they rejected me.
I went to the doctor, there was a Dr. ____, I'll never forget that name. He kept me busy. Every month I had to see him. I was 16 years old. One of the times, I worked for Lilly at that time and I was supporting a mother and a younger brother. I told the doctor I wanted to be in the amateurs. He said I shouldn't fight no more. I said, "Doc, I'll get my own doctor." He said no, we have doctors, I had to come back the next month and this doctor will examine you. I came back and again I was rejected.
It happened more than a dozen times. One time I came late and he was about to close his office. He saw me coming, he took his hat off and threw it on the floor. He said, "You again. Come in here and I'll examine you." He rejected me again. This went on for about two years. I said, "Look, I have to get my amateur contract. I want to box. I'm ready. I'm not a pro fighter, I'm a beginner and I do alright with these guys."
He said, "Don't be a fighter." He said, "You're like me, you're a nice guy." I trained in Stillman's gym. That's where they had all the good fighters. I was only a kid and nobody took advantage of me. He made sure of that. Freddie said, "Look, I'll get you a good job, don't fight no more." He was discouraging me. I said, "You don't want me to fight? Look, I trained to be a fighter." He said that they held back on me because I was just a kid.
HAYES: Henry has gone to finish an interview with Andy Dutka and we're with Izzy. So you're at boot camp and you're helping out with boxing.
ZERLING: Yes, I was helping out with boxing. One of the professional fighters, a famous fighter, I just can't remember his name. They needed some instructors for the fitness program so he said to me, he was a bowswain mate, he said, "Izzy, you can train some of the fighters." I said yes I could. "We have a lot of sailors that are overweight." Meanwhile, I worked with these guys and so on.
In boot camp I met a lot of friends of mine from the Lower East Side. So when I got up on that big chair, bench that was on a football field, I had hundreds of sailors around me. And I was only a little baby compared to them, I was only 25 years old. I gave them exercises and all of my friends from the Lower East Side made fun of me. I said you, you, and you, I want to see you or else you've got to run the football field.
They'd say but they were my friend. I said friend goes out the window in the Navy. We're all together, all for one and one for all. This is business. My business was to get them in shape. So I had these guys carry a 100 lb potato sack on their back. It was in the morning and they lost all respect for me, but I meant well. They'll be sailors, they'll be fighters. Of course 2:00 in the morning I woke them up and they didn't want to get up.
They'd get up and would run. They were so tired, I pitied these guys. I'd say one more mile, one more, one more. One guy dropped and said he couldn't go anymore, a fat little boy. So I called time and said what do you want to do. He said, "Please Izzy, we won't make fun of you anymore." Of course this is what went on in boot camp. We had drills. We had USS Booth 170, the destroyer escort. We were getting in shape so we could be on that ship.
HAYES: So your first ship assignment was the Booth?
ZERLING: The destroyer escort Booth, yes, the fighting Booth.
HAYES: And what was your position then?
ZERLING: I was made on the ship the captain of the head.
HAYES: I don't know what that is.
ZERLING: Well that means that there was a nice, beautiful, clean toilet and I was the head of it. I was married then, my wife's name is Betty. I told her I was now the captain of the head. She was so proud of me, captain of the head. She didn't know what it was. So she was going all over the Lower East Side, "My husband is the captain of the head." They didn't know what it was all about, captain of the head. I didn't have that education, a college graduate. I was a poor little high school boy.
Going back to the Booth, there was somebody by the name of John Cartey I believe, he used to make fun of me. You know, Delancy Street is a busy section of the Lower East Side. He used to ride me, he used to ride me like anything. I wouldn't touch anybody. Unless you raised a hand on me, then I would feel sorry for you. So he used to say, "Yeah, you come from the East Side, the Lower East Side where they throw garbage from the roof to Delancy Street." I'd say yeah, they threw a little garbage. I got hit once on my suit from the dirty garbage. Yeah, you're the one.
He had his thing he was going to take me, but I was a little innocent boy. I said, yeah you don't say that anymore, but I said to make sure he didn't repeat that. He said he would repeat that anytime he wanted and that I better shut my mouth. He didn't know I had some experience in boxing. I was a pro then, retired. Well this was going on for quite a while.
Then of course we had practice on the Booth. We were lectured a lot. We had a good crew on the Booth. They were aces. Those fellows, I wouldn't change it for all the money in the world. They were so nice, so good, treated me like I was a brother. When we had our ship the first time around, I'll tell you the truth I forgot already what you call all around, I lost a lot of the things that I was supposed to say.
HAYES: No, that's alright, you're doing fine. So when you first got on the boat, had it been already active for a while or did you start right when it started, the Booth? Had it already been commissioned and out for a while when you came on?
ZERLING: Yes, I was on the USS Booth. There were a great bunch of boys, sailors, all my friends. Of course we had practice, we were all together. We had a practice with a shooting at the plane. Of course I was the first one initiated to shoot at the plane, not the plane, the tail.
HAYES: So you were actually firing guns yourself?
ZERLING: Yes, yes. We had practice. I came too close so they took me off and put somebody else on. They made me catch the big _____. They gave me asbestos gloves, big gloves you know. I had to catch, I was a good catcher. After boxing, I was a pitcher [laughter]. They said they needed a good catcher and I said I was a good catcher. "Where'd you catch?" I said I was a boxer and I used to catch. I knew how to catch. So they said alright, you catch. So I caught the shells.
HAYES: Were those gloves big enough to protect you?
ZERLING: Oh, big, asbestos, they couldn't hurt a fly. Then sometimes I would get talking and once I got hit. But we had a lot of practice. Of course we were known as the Mighty Booth. We dumped a lot of Nazi submarines.
HAYES: Is that what you worked on, now what would an escort ship do? What was the main job for your ship?
ZERLING: My main job, they gave me a gun for watch. If anything happens, don't ask questions. We had a good time. We used to come to New York, we'd pile up salamis and canned foods. We used to have a little thing, when somebody had watch on the lookout.. they ate more of that food, the salami, than I did. We had three square meals a day. That's one thing that was good about the Navy for me because in the Army I wouldn't have gotten that.
My poor brother, on the ship with my shipmates, they were all my friends. Like my brothers, I'll put it that way.
HAYES: Now did you ever end up fighting that guy that caused you trouble or not?
ZERLING: Oh yes, one fellow knew about who I was, I said he should keep quiet, not to say anything about my professional record. Of course they had a nice little show of boxing on the fantail and everything. They needed a couple more bouts. They didn't have enough fights. So this Cartey said, "I'll fight Zerling." They asked if I wanted to box him. So I said, "Are you sure you want to box me?" "Yeah, I'll wipe the floor with you."
I said, "Don't wipe the floor. I'm not going to box you if you're going to wipe the floor with me." So the one in charge said I should go ahead and box him, that he would take it easy with me. So I boxed with him and he tried to hit me. He was missing me, I didn't touch him. So all of a sudden the buddies of mine, the sailors I'm talking about who were watching the fight, "Oh Zerling, you're doing okay, hit him one." I just missed and flew around and some of the tricks I do and they started to cheer for him.
Of course the lieutenant came in and just when he came in, I stuck my head out and he swung into my head. I didn't touch him, but he fell in the clinch. He was going to fall. He was tired of chasing me probably. So he said, "Hold on to me." I enjoyed boxing with him. If you gave me a million bucks, I enjoyed it so much. He couldn't touch me. He was so mad, so mad. He said, "Why are you running so much?" I said, "You're not going to hit me." But I didn't punch him. We became friends.
HAYES: Did you really?
ZERLING: Yeah, we became friends. He still didn't know that I was fighter. I invited him to my house. We had dinner together. He was out with one of my daughters, I had two daughters, you know. We went out to movies. We had a nice time and he became my buddy, but I never touched anybody.
HAYES: So that was the only time you had a fight in the whole time in the Navy?
ZERLING: I used to punch the bag a lot. I was afraid to hit anybody because they were all green and most of them were drunk anyway. I used to punch a bag when we came on shore to Norfolk, Virginia, and all those places had a gym. They noticed, the lieutenant said I was pretty handy punching a bag. So when we came back on the ship to go overseas, I think it was Casablanca or some place down there, he said that he saw me punch the bag and did pretty good. He said did I ever box at the YMCA or anything. I said that I had boxed a little bit. So he wanted to know how I'd like to represent the USS Booth, they had a boxing match when they got to shore.
I said if they needed me so bad, I would box. They didn't know better. At that time I was a retired professional fighter.
HAYES: And you had been a fighter for how long by that point?
ZERLING: About seven or eight years. When they refused me, I forgot to tell you, when they inducted me, after about two years I got my amateur cup back. My first fight, I lost a close fight. My seventh fight, I had a winning streak. I fought the Golden Gloves champion, Johnny Cabello. He fought Henry Armstrong later on for the championship, 15 rounds. Anyway he was at that time the Golden Gloves champ. So the referee tells you, shake hands and come out fighting.
I shook hands and I came out to shake hands again. I'm not supposed to. I'm supposed to be fighting. He hit me a shot, I saw stars. Freddy Brown wanted to see if I would quit. I said I couldn't quit now, the guy hit me when I went out to shake hands. It was the beginning, I didn't even get a warm-up. I didn't get to move around. He said, "You know damn well you're supposed to come out fighting. The referee tells you that." "Yeah, but I've got to shake hands."
He said, "No, you don't. You shook hands before and then he said to shake hands and come out fighting." I went out to shake hands.
HAYES: And he started hitting you.
ZERLING: He hit, Johnny Cabello, I was a young kid compared to him. I was maybe 18 and he was in his 20s probably. He had a lot of fights, I didn't have so many fights. I only had seven or eight fights and I had to meet that guy. If you had one amateur fight, you're open to fight anybody. When they announced a former Golden Gloves champ, that's all you need. I said, "Freddy, do you know who guy is?" Damn right, you want to fight him again. The return match, I beat him.
HAYES: Did you?
ZERLING: The return match, I said, "I've got to fight that guy." I had a lot of guts for a kid. I was nice, but don't touch me. So I beat him. Of course then I kept on winning, winning. Now I had to box another Golden Gloves champ the following year, Davy Crawford. He fought Willie Peck. He was the featherweight champion of the world. Davy Crawford fought him twice, 15 rounds, decision. But with me, I beat Davy Crawford also twice. He kept me from all these guys. They were murderers, you had to be crazy to fight these guys. He kept me away, I had a good trainer. He kept me even-steven. I'd lose about three pro fights between 45-50 fights. I lost two fights, I had a good record.
HAYES: So when you went to Casablanca then, did you fight for Booth?
ZERLING: Yes, I went to Casablanca. I boxed somebody. I weighed 160 pounds at that time. Now I weigh about 139 pounds. They treated me so well, three square meals a day. So we went to Casablanca. I trained the boys. I made good friends.
HAYES: Now where were some of the places that the..you were escorting other ships so you would stop along the way..
ZERLING: We had a fleet, a destroyer escort looking for Nazi submarines. That is what our business was. Also it was the battleships that couldn't enter shallow water or so, we could do that. We were so fast. We dumped a lot of submarines.
HAYES: You were doing depth charges. Say there was a submarine and you were trying to hit it, what were you doing during that time? What was your job?
ZERLING: I was catching the shells.
HAYES: Like if there was a plane..
ZERLING: That's right. We were also attacked by planes. I had a lot of fighting and I loved that, you know, an ex-fighter. We did a lot of convoy duty. The only time after the war, we had.. the war was over already, a Nazi submarine was under our ship or near the ship, the radar picked it up. I said, "Hey look we've got something underneath." "No, it's a fish," they said. So it was a Nazi submarine. We were escorting a tanker from Europe down to the States. This was someplace in Boston, I think it was. The war's over already. We saw that and the submarine never returned back.
HAYES: Were you ever able to.. did you meet some of the sailors on like the boats, the ships that you were escorting, or were they separated from you? You didn't mingle with the supply ships or the transports and so forth? You didn't go back and forth and talk to those people?
ZERLING: Well we went to Casablanca. We went to Italy. We mingled with the people and had volleyball games. We had events. We were doing okay. We had a little training boxing there. Here we're in training. We had a wonderful time. Oh they were nice to me, don't ask.
HAYES: So when you would come into shore leave, how long would that usually last? How many days?
ZERLING: About a day or two. I had a wonderful time on the ship. We had a few shows there. I remember fanfare. Before then I didn't know what a fanfare was. We stopped at quite a few places and we'd go out a lot of times.. with the priest, not a priest.
HAYES: A chaplain?
ZERLING: Chaplain, yeah, whatever, I think he's right here now. He's our chaplain here. He was on our ship. What a nice bunch of guys we had. We stuck together. Oh yes, on the ship, I always had money in my pocket. I'd go to sleep, I was tired doing a day's job, painting or doing this, I worked with these fellows. This one fellow, he was in the paint business in his hometown. So they needed to somebody to go down for the paint and he was elected. I became very good friends with him. He said, "Come down here!"
I said oh no, I was allergic to paint. He said you could get a discharge. I wouldn't have gone anyways. I had a nice bunch of boys, I didn't have that in New York. So we used to take sunbaths together. We had the 3-inch millimeter whatever, gun, the biggest gun around and they gave it to me to watch. They were looking for me and also the painter, I was taking a sunbath. They couldn't find us. Lassiter was his name, I couldn't think right away.
HAYES: That's okay. You were married, you said?
ZERLING: Yes, I was married.
HAYES: That was unusual. Were you unusual on the ship to be married?
ZERLING: No, they got me in the second draft.
HAYES: But I'm saying you were a little older.
ZERLING: I was about 26 years old, yeah. That's when I got drafted.
HAYES: So the Navy turned out to be okay then?
ZERLING: Oh yes. We had the greatest boat in the world, the Booth, with the fleet.
HAYES: But now you said you went to the Mediterranean, Italy, did you also.. were you still on when it went to the Pacific?
ZERLING: No, at the end of the war..
HAYES: The European part..
ZERLING: Yes, I was honorably discharged.
HAYES: Well good, so how long had you been on..
ZERLING: Middle 1942, till the end of the war.
HAYES: European part.
HAYES: So what was your last trip back? Where did you come in, to New York City?
ZERLING: They put me in the hospital for a while. St. Alban's I think it was.
HAYES: You got discharged 'cause you'd been in a while, you already had a lot of points built up. Is that how it worked?
ZERLING: I was a married man and had a lot of points. Also I had back trouble. So when you get to the city they said to take hot baths so I used to do that, but then I went to the doctor and he said you should be operated on. So I was operated on. You can put your hand in with the hole they made in my back. The doctor said you can hire a nurse and you'll enjoy hot baths twice a day and you'll see how it closes up by itself, which it did.
HAYES: So this was after the service or during the service?
ZERLING: After the service.
HAYES: Now did they consider that something that the service caused or had you had a bad back all along?
ZERLING: I got it in.. I ran out a lot of times when we fighting planes or Nazi submarines, I was in the shower and I ran out to get my underwear and that's about all. I don't think it did me harm, but I had rheumatism. I've got arthritis in other words. They gave me points and all and I was married.
Oh yeah, I had a bad toothache. They gave me a kit to pull out my tooth and that was the last, I wouldn't have anybody pulling teeth or anything on my personal body. So I went to the doctor on the outside.
That's right, I boxed in the Navy. The lieutenant asked me, "Would you represent our ship?" and I said okay, I'd represent the ship. "Did you box amateurs or all that?" Oh yes, amateur or professional boxing, I weighed 160 pounds, 139 now. So I'd box a big guy about 175 pounds. "Will you box him?" "Yeah, I'll box him." You know, you've got to represent the ship. So I fooled around with him and accidentally he cut my eye. I had about 18 stitches. I had a nice time. I enjoyed that, but I still wanted to fight. In New York, they'd stop the fight. I was bleeding. He was a big guy too. I was strong.
HAYES: Would it have mattered if you'd been a professional, would they have found that to be bad?
ZERLING: No, later on they knew already. I just moved on, he hit me, I blocked him. They didn't know these things. They'd come in swinging. I enjoyed it.
HAYES: Now would you run into USO troops in any of these places, shows and so forth?
ZERLING: They gave me a nice write-up on the Booth. "Champ" Zerling they called me. I had a nice time. I enjoyed every one of those sailors out there. They were my buddies. You see over there how they treat.. I don't think I had a friend like these in the world compared to these boys. They were sailors, they were fighters. I mean wartime.
I used to go out to the chaplain. When I had a cold, they'd say, "Go in the bar and have a drink." But I don't drink. So I said to the chaplain, "Come in with me and I'll treat you." He said, "No, you go in, I'll wait outside." I didn't know these things. What did I know about a chaplain not going into a bar? So I went in for a drink, one drink I had because I never drank. At home, a little wine and that was done with the wife. I never drank open to get drunk, you know.
HAYES: What about your mail? You know, you're married and you're trying to write home and tell what's going on. Did you get mail all back and forth?
ZERLING: Yes, but one thing good about this with the letter writing, when I was in the Navy, we were given strict orders, don't say anything about where you're going, how the weather is, anything that's got to do with the war because we'd have to tear your letter up. We've got a secret weapon. What's the secret weapon? I don't know what it is. Maybe.. I don't know.
But anyway that's the way it was supposed to be. So I'd write I was feeling fine, everything is okay with me, I've got a nice bunch of boys with me. I was out with the boys and so on and bla bla bla, nothing about the war. You can't talk about the weather. Today I'm surprised that the President Bush allows them to have meetings and talk about the war and say what's what and who they're attacking. I mean, that isn't right. You've got to string them around a little longer.
HAYES: Well the press, I think, is a little bit more active.
ZERLING: They shouldn't write we're attacking this, we're going there.
HAYES: None of that, you couldn't tell them.
ZERLING: I don't believe in that. I tell my wife. She says well it's the president, he knows best. I know he knows best, but this is what we had. I couldn't write about the weather even.
HAYES: Really, you couldn't say about the weather? Because they could tell where you were..
ZERLING: No, no.
HAYES: Because they could tell where you were.
ZERLING: You couldn't even say where you were, where you were going. But really I'm surprised to hear all the information that the enemy hears.
HAYES: Now you're coming from New York, you hadn't been on the ocean. Did you get seasick or were you okay?
ZERLING: No, no, I was seasick at first.
HAYES: Just at first?
ZERLING: Everybody was seasick. They were puking up overboard. I was seasick. They said, "I want you in the kitchen because they're all sick." I said, "I'm also sick." "Well you don't look it. Go in the kitchen and prepare something and after you're through, clean up." I said okay and went down there and of course I stood there and the mop was filthy. I put it in the sink with the dishes and all. So he said, "Take the mop and throw it overboard," twice he repeated it. So I threw it overboard. I came down and said, "Oh, I did it." He said, "Where's your mop?" "You said to me throw it overboard." "Zerling, what's wrong with you?" [Laughter] I was not a sailor. I was in about 2-1/2 years, 1942 in the middle. I was so happy to get out.
HAYES: How many countries do you think you saw, that you stopped at?
ZERLING: Italy we stopped, Casablanca we stopped.
HAYES: Other parts of Africa? How about up and down the coast, did you stop?
ZERLING: We stopped a lot of places. One place we stopped in Africa, I don't remember, but anyway I had nice sheets, white sheets with my name in big letters, "Zerling," make sure nobody swipes it from me. We stopped someplace, what did they call these guys, the border down there, I forgot already the name. We boarded down there and the Africans, whoever they were, had my sheets with "Zerling" on it. I don't know what they were looking to get, but they said, "Zerling, hey look." I looked, who swiped my sheets.
HAYES: How did they get them?
ZERLING: I don't know how. They wanted cigarettes. We used to throw them cigarettes. Oh don't ask what these guys did to me, my buddies. I forgot a lot of things.
HAYES: That's alright, you're doing great. Now when you come back..
ZERLING: My best laughter I had, I was sorry I did this. The captain, I had no business with him, Captain ______. I carried the paint, you know, by his cabin. He came out, he heard the noise. "Who done this?" He said, "Wipe this up." I had somebody else help me clean this up, there was so much paint. We did a good job. I was a good boy, did my duty, cleaning up the mess, you know.
HAYES: He probably knew you were a boxer too, I bet.
ZERLING: Oh yeah, he did. He gave me respect. I didn't have much to say to him. He wanted me to go to school. He'd say get a book and study and go to school. The one thing was I didn't like to study. I was the smartest guy, in school I was able to study, but I didn't study too much. So every time I passed the cabin, I had the book underneath my arm, you know. He used to shake his head so I knew what he meant when he shook his head. Pass by with the book, you know. I couldn't study. Just get the war over.
HAYES: One of the questions we always ask at the end is we ask if you were talking to a young person today, what would you summarize about the experience? Was it good, was it bad, would you have done it again? What was it like to be in this war?
ZERLING: To be in this war, it would be a privilege and an honor to serve my country.
HAYES: Okay, thank you very much.
ZERLING: You're welcome.