Irwin Schmuckler's veritable love affair with "Mo" started more than six decades ago. These days, though, it's become something of a long-distance romance.
The 82-year-old said that he hasn't seen the "old girl" in 12 years, due to her limited mobility (to say nothing of his). She mostly hangs out in Hawaii, and it's hard to get around when you're five feet longer than the Titanic, 332 feet taller than the Washington Monument, weigh 45,000 tons, and come equipped with 13.5-inch steel plating and 67-foot weaponry.
"Mo," of course, refers to "The Mighty Mo," or, more formally, the USS Missouri. June 11 marks the 65th anniversary of the battleship's commission — its official entrance into the U.S. Navy. During its World War II service, it was the largest ship in the fleet.
For Schmuckler — a resident of Martins Run Senior Residential Community in Media — the ship holds a special place in his heart, since he served aboard her for 13 months during the final stages of the war, along with 3,000 other sailors.
Schmuckler was born and raised in Roxborough to Russian and Hungarian immigrant parents. When the war broke out shortly before his 14th birthday, he did the math (basing it on how long World War I lasted) and figured that the conflict would be over by the time he reached enlistment age. When it wasn't, he chose the Navy over the Army because, as he said, "I didn't want to walk around the world."
He hoped to be stationed on an aircraft carrier or a battleship, and on May 18, 1945, he got his wish when he boarded the Missouri. Schmuckler was assigned to the ship's radio division as a communications yeoman — a post he said he was awarded because he could type. Were it not for that skill, he said, he'd likely have been swabbing the deck full time.
Schmuckler said his tenure in the Navy offered him a front-row seat to history, most notably when he witnessed the Japanese surrender on board on Sept. 2, 1945. He also had the opportunity to visit Greece, Morocco, Turkey and Rome, where he had an audience with Pope Pius XII.
Schmuckler was one of fewer than 30 Jews on the Missouri, and he said that, at the time, he was unaware of the pontiff's track record with the Jews of Europe. When he later learned about it, his opinion didn't change.
"I met him as the head of the Catholic Church, not as a political figure," he said, adding that more than anything, it was "the opportunity of a lifetime to have an audience with the pope."
These trips to various major cities even gave him the chance to do some sightseeing, including stops at the Coliseum and the Parthenon; he still has a small piece of the latter tucked away in a cigar box on his desk.
"I drank it all in, because I knew I'd never be there again," he said.
A Teacher on Several Fronts
Later, Schmuckler earned degrees from Drexel and Temple universities (where his twin brother is a chemistry professor), and he spent his post-military career in the classroom.
To make some extra money, he began teaching at Eastern State Penitentiary three nights a week — a gig that eventually led him to a 21-year-long tenure at Graterford Prison in Collegeville, where he was school principal and established the prison literacy project.
His teaching career also afforded him the opportunity to travel, including jaunts to Europe and Israel in the 1970s.
Still, he said, none of those trips matched his time on the Mo, and his face lit up when he heard the news about his beloved's 65th anniversary. Going through meticulously organized scrapbooks, he beamed when he saw photos of the ship. There's even a small corner of his apartment dedicated to a large, original, handmade scale model created by his nephew.
Though he'd love to return to the ship, his doctors have recommended that he not travel.
But he can hold onto some recent memories. In 1995, he was on deck for the 50th anniversary of the Japanese surrender (accompanied by his son), and he said that particular experience meant more to him than almost any other in his lifetime.