At 91, Simon Zayon is still considered the “new guy.”
“I’ve always been the new kid on the block,” he explained. “I’m the new kid at the [Katz JCC]. In South Philly, I was always a kid. In the Navy, I was a replacement. I was a replacement in football.”
New or not, Zayon’s lighthearted spirit and commitment to tradition has continued a legacy of veterans in the armed forces, dating to 1917.
In May, the Zayon family was honored for their continued service in the Congressional Record, noting their 100 years in the armed forces. U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D-District 1) spoke of the family from the floor of the House of Representatives.
Zayon looked further into the future: “This is the start of our 101st year serving in the military.”
Zayon was the youngest of five brothers, all of whom served in and survived World War II.
His immigrant uncle and cousin served overseas in World War I; two nephews served in Vietnam and Korea; a cousin was in the Air Force; and even today, his great-nephew served five tours in the Middle East, while his grand-niece is a Navy nurse.
The Zayon family bleeds red, white and blue, his father used to say.
Zayon’s parents were immigrants from Kiev and gained their U.S. citizenship after settling in South Philadelphia in 1910.
“The difference in the Jewish people who came over [compared] to other immigrants,” he said, is “they had no country. There was nothing for them to go back to.”
They lived close to the Navy Yard, which Zayon would visit each Sunday when the gates were open to the public.
“[My parents] taught us to love America,” he said. “They taught us to give.”
By the time he was almost 18, all his brothers were drafted. “I was the only one left,” he said. After 11th grade, underage Zayon — only 17 — joined the Navy.
He was stationed at a training camp in Norfolk, Va., for only two days when they told him: “Pack up, you’re going.”
It was 1944, and in an open truck in the pouring rain, Zayon was taken to the dock at Chesapeake Bay. In an unorthodox fashion, he took a tugboat to the USS Savannah, and climbed a Jacob’s ladder to board the ship in the dark of night.
The ship had a capacity of about 900 men. More than 1,300 were on board.
Zayon was assigned his bunk — a hammock. He could only hang it up after everyone else ate. That went on for nine months.
“And then they inspected them when we took them down to see that we did it properly, and the war was on,” he said. “I had to get off that ship, and I couldn’t.”
The USS Savannah traveled to the Mediterranean, Caribbean and throughout the Atlantic. The first week they went to Trinidad — the farthest Zayon had traveled prior was a 12-mile trolley ride in Philadelphia.
The USS Savannah then escorted President Roosevelt on the USS Quincy to and from Malta in 1945, where he met with Churchill and Stalin.
Near the end of the year, Zayon transferred to underwater demolition to get off the ship — and away from the hammocks.
He trained in Fort Pierce, Fla., but was interrupted to go to war with Japan. He went to San Francisco and was assigned to the USS Landing Ship Tank-275 as a coxswain.
“I didn’t have a license. I didn’t have insurance. I couldn’t buy a drink. I couldn’t vote. I couldn’t do anything. And when I got out of the Navy, I still couldn’t do those things. But they gave me that boat responsibility,” he laughed.
Then the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. They had to change course.
“They didn’t know what to do with us,” he said. His ship was sent to New Zealand to pick up 400 Japanese prisoners of war once the war ended to return them to Japan, a six-week voyage.
He photographed some moments using a pocket-sized Japanese camera.
Representing his service is a pierced left ear — still garnished with a shiny silver stud, complementing his blue eyes and white goatee. Below deck years ago, two guys grabbed him and said, “We’re going to pierce your ear.”
Using an extra long needle and brown soap, they performed the common ritual for Adriatic service sailors.
After serving two years, Zayon went to the University of Miami to play football, but an injury quickly changed his plans. He transferred to Villanova, where he was the “understudy” for John Sandusky, a future NFL player and coach.
He taught high school for three years before jumping into the real estate industry for about 20 years, among other local businesses.
In recent years, Zayon was featured in two documentaries, one by Rutgers University detailing firsthand military experiences in World War II, and another created by 15-year-old high-schooler Antony Post. It follows Zayon’s desire to return to Malta and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for the sailors who did not return home.
Post went to Malta with his mother in 2016, where he recited it at sea for Zayon.
“What I did in the Navy in two years, people in 30 years don’t travel that far or do,” said Zayon, who used to belong to Congregations of Shaare Shamayim. He’s since shared his story to numerous schools and organizations in Cherry Hill, N.J., where he now lives.
Zayon has passed on his altruism to his three daughters and two grandsons, the way his parents taught him.
He celebrates Veterans Day in honor of his brothers, but for him, every day is Veterans Day.
“I never had baseball heroes. I never had baseball cards,” he said. “I never had heroes. My brothers were.”
He paused in between memories, his hand to his chin. For him, the fundamental principle of serving in the military is simple: “You have somebody’s back and they have your back.”
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