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Category: Opinion

Thoughts & Views: A time for remembrance


Do you know anything about the S.S. Leopoldville?

That’s a rhetorical question, because odds are you don’t. As Christmas Eve nears, I wanted to share the story because this Dec. 24th marks the 70th anniversary of a tragedy that cost the lives of 763 American soldiers but was an official secret for many years.

I first learned of it in 1999, from a retired New York City police lieutenant, Allan Andrade, when I was working for the N.Y. Daily News.

The column I wrote then is available online, but also available, and of greater import, is the book Andrade authored, “S.S. Leopoldville Disaster: December 24, 1944.” You can find it on Amazon.

At risk of plagiarizing myself, I’m repeating the story for Observer readers because those 763 men deserve to be remembered.

The U.S. Army troops were members of the 262nd and 264th Regiments of the 66th Infantry Division who were being transported across the English Channel, from Southampton to Cherbourg, for deployment in the Battle of the Bulge. In all, there were 2,235 soldiers, including some British forces, aboard the Leopoldville, a former Belgian passenger liner converted into a troopship.

As the ship approached the French coast, it was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank. More than 500 of the Americans are believed to have gone down with the vessel. Another 248 died of injuries, drowned or froze to death in the frigid Channel. In all, 493 bodies were never recovered.

Those who were found were piled on a Cherbourg pier. Andrade provided me with a quote from his book, from a Linden man, Robert Hesse, who had witnessed the scene. “Live ones were stacked up with the dead ones. Some were so frozen, they could only move their eyes, but that was enough to save their lives.”

For whatever bureaucratic/ diplomatic reasons, the story of the Leopoldville was kept secret and remained so long after wartime censorship could be used as the explanation. Survivors were ordered not to discuss the sinking. The families of the victims were given scant information. The telegrams sent by the Army read, “Missing in action.” Or, “Killed in action in the European area.”

The U.S. Army records were not declassified until 1959; the British files, not until 1996.

(An interesting sidelight, although it may be apocryphal since the sources have not been verified: As the story goes, for decades, the French Navy used the sunken wreck of the Leopoldville as a training site for divers. This supposedly ended in the late ‘90s when they finally learned the facts about the ship.)

In 1997, a 66th Infantry Leopoldville memorial was finally erected at Fort Benning, Ga. It is inscribed with the names of the dead, including 24 from New Jersey. Among them are two local men: Pfc. Malcolm B. Christopher of Nutley and S.Sgt. Gilbert J. Steuble of Belleville.

For a complete list of the victims — which, coincidentally, was complied by Andrade — visit leopoldville.org.

That’s one of the benefits of the internet. Things that had been lost to history are now being rediscovered. The dead can become, as they should be, the honored dead.

And now, I will deliberately plagiarize myself, paraphrasing the words I used to end the column I wrote for The News:

Come Christmas Eve, you might acknowledge the supreme sacrifice of the Leopoldville victims. With a silent prayer on a holy night.

 – Karen Zautyk 

Thoughts & Views: The real lesson of Thanksgiving

Well, another Thanksgiving has passed and another U.S.A.-made myth has been celebrated about how the Pilgrims made nice with the Native Americans, and with their help, learned how to plant corn and other crops and thereby got through the first winter in the New World.

I don’t know what the current school books say about that early 17th century adventure – nor do I know how the new PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College & Careers) test measures American students’ knowledge of the event.

But I believe it’s safe to say that the sanitized, spoon-fed version of the Puritans’ voyage to America is nothing more than a dressed-up fairy tale of how the English colonists actually behaved.

An exploration of, for example, Howard Zinn’s classic study, “A People’s History of the United States,” first published in 1980, reminds us that, “When the Pilgrims came to New England … [t[he governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, created the excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a ‘vacuum.’

“The Indians, he said, had not ‘subdued’ the land, and therefore had only a ‘natural’ right to it, but not a ‘civil’ right. [And a] ‘natural’ right did not have legal standing.”

They also used the Bible (Psalms and Romans) to justify their belief that they had a right to take the land from “heathens” who, if those creatures resisted, must expect to “receive to themselves damnation.”

And so, the new Americans set out to destroy the Indian tribe of New England, the Pequots, by burning their wigwams, destroying their crops and killing as many as they could, Zinn notes.

Naturally, the Indians tried to defend themselves – after all, they were the legitimate residents – but as the years advanced and the numbers of marauders from Europe increased, the odds were against them.

We know how things turned out: Like other oppressed peoples, they were subjected to genocide and the remnants of once proud tribal nations were forced onto federal reservations and miserable living conditions.

What lessons can we apply from the “Plymouth Adventure”?

It seems that, having taken a cue from the once imperialist Brits who sought to extend their dominion by seizing other distant lands and exploiting their resources over centuries, the U.S. has sought to surpass its motherland by becoming the pre-eminent world power.

To that end, we don’t hesitate to dictate terms to other countries in return for financial or military support.

We send our Navy SEAL teams, CIA contractors and drones on covert missions to kill people whom we and our allies wish out of the way, no matter the cost (casualties/ deaths) to the local population. Frequently, to justify those missions, we label those targets as part of a blanket, world-wide terrorist organization.

But, like the Puritans before us, we engage in this violence on the assumption that we are always in the right because the people overseas cannot possibly run their affairs without our help. And it’s only fair that if we’re taking the risks, we should get something back for our trouble, whether that’s “strategic security in the region” or cheaper oil from OPEC, or some corporate cut of the action.

It could be that – by supporting puppet regimes for so long or by penalizing countries that trade with Communist Cuba — we have contributed to the circumstances that have triggered insurgencies which we now call “terrorist” actions.

Of course that doesn’t excuse the kidnappings and slaughter of civilians – mostly women – in northern Nigeria by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram or the beheadings of journalists in the Middle East or the killing of anti-polio health care aides in Pakistan by Islamic extremists.

Maybe other countries, as suggested by recently departed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, do look to the U.S. to take the lead in remedying horrific situations around the globe – and we have generously contributed to worldwide efforts to relieve hunger – notably, for ever-increasing Syrian war-torn refugees.

But we need to rethink our policies – foreign and domestic – in how we approach political issues.

So when desperate folk from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere leave their native lands to try and make a better life for themselves and their families in America, we should, as Emma Lazarus urged, open that “golden door” a bit wider for those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Here is the great lesson to be learned from the Pilgrims’ insular vision: The path to opportunity should be open to all, for diversity is what can make us great again.

– Ron Leir 

Thoughts & Views: ‘Phishing’ season is year-round

Basic RGB

In my spam folder, there are currently 15 emails: two ostensibly from EZPass telling me I owe toll money; four alerting me to a FedEx delivery/ shipping notice; one, to a U.S. Postal Service delivery; one, for a UPS delivery; two notices to appear in court, and five messages from a company of which I have never heard but which wants me to confirm my address and my credit card payment.

I have opened none of them, and as soon as I finish writing this, they will all be deleted. I kept them on file for tally purposes only.

They are all bait used by scamsters who are “phishing” — attempting to lure the email recipient into providing personal information (name, address, account info, etc.). Info they can then use to steal your identity.

Sometimes, you don’t even have to reply. Merely by clicking on a link in the email, you could download a computer virus that will allow the crooks access to all sorts of data.

Even worse, is something called a “Trojan” (as in the horse, okay?). As described by Scambusters.org, when you click on an icon or link, “It installs a downloading program that then fetches and installs at least two more files on your system. These may disable your firewall, look for and steal credit card and bank account details, make screen snapshots and allow hackers continued access to your machine.”

I am so wary now that I won’t open a suspicious email, much less click on anything.

I wrote about the “notice to appear” scam earlier this year. Back then, I did open the missive, out of curiosity, but luckily there were no repercussions. It gave me a date and time when I was scheduled to appear for my “hearing” in “the court of St. LouisTampa” and if I did not show up “the case may be heard by the judge in your absence.”

It also told me to download and read the “copy of the court notice . . . attached” to the letter.

If the non-existence of a place called St. LouisTampa wasn’t enough of a clue, the instructions to download something screamed, “DANGER! FAKE!”

I hoped that the column would alert some gullible, trusting readers to dangers lurking on the web. Which is the same reason I’m writing this one.

FedEx, USPS and UPS scams — and the ones allegedly from individual retailers — are still spreading, and I fear that as we enter the holiday shopping/ delivery season, recipients might fall for them.

Just delete the damn things. If you are truly concerned about a supposed missed delivery or whatever, contact the company directly — but NOT via any phone number provided in the email, no matter how legit the letterhead/logo appears. Look up the number for yourself.

The EZPass notice of unpaid tolls or overdue account payment is fake, too, and spreading.

Don’t open it. If its mere arrival has you worried, call Port Authority EZPass customer service directly to find out if there really is a problem with your account. (Odds are, there isn’t.) Again: Obtain the phone number for yourself.

Below is more advice, as posted by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, on how to spot scams. Some may be repetitive, but better repetition than being ripped off:

• Don’t believe what you see. Scammers make emails appear to come from a reputable source. Just because it looks like a “usps.com” address does not mean it’s safe.

• Be wary of unexpected emails that contain links or attachments. As always, do not click on links or open the files in unfamiliar emails.

• Beware of pop-ups. Some pop-ups are designed to look like they’ve originated from your computer. If you see a pop-up that looks like an anti-virus software, but warns of a problem that needs to be fixed with an extreme level of urgency, it may be a scam.

• Watch for poor grammar and spelling. Scam emails often are riddled with typos.

• (Be wary of a warning that) immediate action is necessary. Scam emails try to get you to act before you think by creating a sense of urgency. Don’t fall for it.

Personally, I also no longer open any emails from senders I do not recognize. If you’re that eager to get in touch with me, contact The Observer. And identify yourself.

– Karen Zautyk 

Thoughts & Views: Playing the name game


What’s in a name? Plenty if it happens to be Avery Fisher, for example. That’s the name that – for now at least – is seen by visitors to the Lincoln Center hall where the New York Philharmonic plays its home games, in the world of musical spheres.

The music philanthropist gifted Lincoln Center $10 million more than four decades ago to keep the venue going and now, as The New York Times recently reported, the home team is reportedly proposing a $15 million buyout in hopes of snagging a bonus baby that’ll give the hometown crowd something to really roar about.

Maybe they’ll use the extra dough to put in reclining seats, more concession stands, bigger bathrooms, a special booth for the organist.

And maybe they’ll sew numbers on the back of the musicians’ tuxes – with a roster listing in the programs – so the patrons can either cheer or razz ‘em, depending on how they play on any given night.

Whatever the L.C. brain trust decides, fans of Avery Fisher will be glad to see that “Buck” Fisher won’t be forgotten: He’s getting a “League of his Own,” with a special wing of exhibits, photos and remembrances.

Yes, naming rights can be tricky. No doubt, people in Houston were mighty upset when Enron – whose moniker was tacked on to the Astros’ baseball field – went bust and the team’s owners, thirsting for a new benefactor, came up with Minute Maid Park.

Looking for University of Louisville’s basketball arena? Just watch for the sign reading: “KFC Yum! Center.”

In keeping with the culinary theme, the Corpus Christie Hooks minor league baseball team in Texas welcomes fans to home games at the Whataburger Field.

And the owners of the minor league team in Manchester, N.H., offer their fans a name they can really sink their teeth into: Northwest Delta Dental Field.

Here at The Observer’s home base in Kearny, where the mayor often laments that there aren’t enough tax dollars to go around, it’s a wonder that the town hasn’t tried to market its Municipal Building, the South Kearny Fire Station/Police Precinct or the Kardinals gridiron stadium to someone with a fat wallet looking for a tax write-off.

How about building a new Town Hall in the redevelopment area on the west side and naming it … you guessed it … Trump on the Passaic. Add on a floating casino and just like that, you’re all set.

Harrison, which – like Kearny – has a state monitor checking its finances, already has the Red Bulls but it should take advantage of its school nickname, the Blue Tide, and explore the possibility of a naming merger with the detergent.

No one has approached me, as of yet, but I’m open to all comers. For a long-term deal, at say, five bucks a week, maybe some town would be willing to put my name above a basement closet door?

You could use it as a repository for all present, past and future columns and keep them under lock and key. For my own protection. Thanks for listening.

– Ron Leir 

Thoughts & Views: The debt we owe is forever


The poem that accompanies this column was found among the papers of the late Luke A. Kenney of Nutley. I recently wrote about him after his daughter, Pat Rush, donated the former Army sergeant’s World War I uniform to the Nutley Museum.

Rush is not certain her father composed the verse, but I have not been able to find any evidence of another poet.

In any case, when I read it, I knew I wanted to use it for Veterans Day because, although written specifically about the veterans of World War I, it is — unfortunately — timeless.

On Tuesday, small groups will gather at various war memorials to remember American vets, living and dead, and to thank them for their service. But the number of those paying honor will, sadly, be minuscule. How quickly we forget.

Worse, over the generations, we have tended — after the welcome-home parades were over — to ignore the needs of those who served. Some vets never even got that parade.

As Kenney’s post-WWI poem notes, “future care” was promised. But the pledges were abjured, recanted, retracted. If you think that criticism is no longer valid, consider the recent scandal surrounding the VA medical system.

Today, veterans’ organizations have launched their own programs to offer counseling and job support to the men and women returning from deployment, and groups like Wounded Warriors are doing yeoman work. But despite all this, I wonder how many do not seek help, and who see themselves as “discards.”

The Great War troops, who came home to adulation, were eventually selling apples on the streets. There is one story that personalizes the “discards” description as it applied to them:

In 1918, during the Meuse- Argonne offensive, Lt. Col. George S. Patton lay gravely wounded in a battlefield shellhole. Braving heavy German machine-gun fire, a soldier named Joe Angelo dragged him to safety, saving the life of the future four-star general. For his heroism, Angelo (who hailed from Camden, N.J.) was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Patton later said that Angelo was “without doubt the bravest man in the American Army. I have never seen his equal.”

In 1932, Joe Angelo was among 43,000 people — 17,000 of them World War I veterans — who marched on Washington to demand payment of bonus money the government had promised the vets, most of whom were unemployed and struggling with Great Depression poverty. The Bonus Army, including the men’s wives and children, set up camps in the capital, where they lived for several weeks. But then these were destroyed in an infamous action by the U.S. Army.

Infantry and cavalry led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, himself a veteran of the Great War, drove the men, women and children from sites and burned their shelters and belongings. MacArthur’s troops were supported by six tanks, commanded by Maj. George S. Patton.

The following day, in an attempt to plead the case of his fellow marchers, Joe Angelo personally approached the officer whose life he had saved. Ordering his minions to take Angelo away, Patton declared: “I do not know this man.”

When I read that account, I immediately thought of Peter.

“But he began to curse and to swear, saying, ‘I know not this man . . .’” (Mark 14:71,72)

According to biographer Stanley Hirshson, Patton later told his fellow officers that, since the war, he and his mother had often given Angelo money and “set him up in business several times.” He explained his conduct thusly:

“Can you imagine the headlines if the papers got word of our meeting here this morning? Of course, we’ll take care of him anyway.”

I hope that was the case.

Peter repented. Did Patton?

– Karen Zautyk  



To the editor: 

Children who start their school day without a healthy meal are much less likely to have the nutrition they need to concentrate and learn. With growing poverty in New Jersey, “breakfast after the bell” is one of the most effective ways to battle childhood hunger.

Last school year, Hudson County jumped from 14th to fourth place in the state school breakfast participation rankings. School leaders in districts like East Newark and Harrison are all serving more than half of low-income children breakfast at school – and increasing the federal dollars their districts receive to feed hungry students. We applaud their efforts.

We encourage districts that have yet to switch to “breakfast after the bell” — especially Kearny — to implement this simple change. Districts that have implemented “breakfast after the bell” routinely report that logistical challenges are easily overcome and classroom breakfast becomes part of the morning routine. Not only do hungry children benefit, but the entire school community reaps the rewards of ensuring that every child begins the school day with a full stomach.

Nancy Parello 

Advocates for Children of New Jersey, Newark 

Co-chair of the NJ Food for Thought School Breakfast Campaign 

Thoughts & Views: We can all walk that tightrope

This past Sunday evening, a global audience tuned in to the Discovery Channel to watch the aerialist Nik Wallenda tackle another death-defying stunt.

On this occasion, Wallenda – of the Flying Wallendas circus family – would walk along a tightrope linking two 500-foot-plus high skyscrapers in Chicago – the Windy City – sans harness or safety rope.

And (drum roll, please) he would do part of the walk up an incline and another while wearing a blindfold.

This is the same fellow who, two years ago, strolled across Niagara Falls. (ABC insisted he wear protection for that one.)

“If I want to inspire others, I feel like I have to continue to push myself,” Wallenda told The New York Times in its Saturday edition. “I thought a blindfold would be very exciting.”


To me, exciting is managing to get out of bed in the morning without tripping over my own feet. Or pitching a softball without getting whacked by a line drive back through the box. Or performing on stage and not forgetting my lines.

Why push it?

Well, obviously there are some among us for whom life just ain’t worth living unless you do all you can do – however that translates in your own universe.

If you happen to be an entertainer on a world stage like Wallenda, I guess it’s the notion of rising to ever greater challenges that keeps you going.

Some people might see that as ego satisfaction – and there’s probably a pinch of that influencing the man on the wire – but if we are to accept his words, “inspire others,” as truthful, then we can look beyond personal acclaim to the idea that he’s taking us mere mortals along with him on his perilous journey.

That he’s putting the notion in our heads that we, too, have it in us to rise to the occasion, to be all that we can be, in the noblest and finest way in serving our fellow creatures.

Take, for example, the health care professionals – like Doctors Without Borders and their attending nurses like Kaci Hickox – who have put their lives on the line to work with the unfortunate victims of Ebola in West Africa.

There is the great courage of Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani girl shot and nearly killed by the Taliban in October 2012 for daring to advocate for a girl’s right to an education in her country and continuing to speak out in the face of persistent death threats.

Let us not forget the contributions made by test pilots, like co-pilot Michael Alsbury, who was killed this past Friday in the crash of Virgin Galactic’s experimental Space- ShipTwo in the Mojave Desert, and pilot Peter Siebold, who was seriously hurt after parachuting from the plane. And, before them, of course, Amelia Earhart and countless others who risked their lives … yes, probably for fame, but also for the advancement of aviation.

Let’s not forget Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the Mississippi Freedom Fighters who were an inspiration to the cause of civil rights.

Yes, they all walked their own type of tightrope because they believed that in pursuing something bigger than themselves that the world would be better for it.

– Ron Leir 



To the editor: 

In response to Karen Zautyk’s column on Ebola, I think much of the media coverage to date and the statements of some politicians have promoted a climate of confusion and fear. The following points are important:

1. The current strain of Ebola is not airborne. Exposure is through direct contact with infected bodily fluids such as vomit, diarrhea, blood or saliva.

2. All major medical organizations, including the American Medical Assoc. and the American Hospital Assoc., agree that involuntarily quarantining someone not exhibiting symptoms is unnecessary. Only symptomatic individuals are contagious. Govs. Christie and Cuomo did not base their mandatory quarantine policy for health-care workers returning from West Africa on medical science. In my opinion, it was done for political reasons.

3. Nurse Kaci Hickox did not exhibit any symptoms. When the governors announced that she was being quarantined at University Hospital, they ignored the fact that she did not have a fever and was not contagious. Isolating her in a tent with no heat, A/C or a toilet was an overreaction and contributed to the climate of fear.

4. New York’s only Ebola patient, Dr. Craig Spencer, rode the subway, jogged several miles, visited a bowling alley, walked the High Line and patronized restaurants with his girlfriend before he exhibited any symptoms. The media contributed to the climate of fear by tracing his whereabouts, even though no one in the general public was at risk when he was asymptomatic.

5. The Dallas hospital exposures demonstrate that there are unacceptable deficiencies in protocols and training for nurses, doctors and first responders who may come in contact with Ebola patients. Instead of focusing on those gaps, most media and many politicians on TV continue to stoke a climate of fear by conjuring unreal risks to the general public.

We should listen to what the medical experts say about this deadly virus and base our public health policies on medical facts, not fear, and certainly not politics.

Mayor Alberto G. Santos 


Thoughts & Views: Ebola: More questions than answers

It’s not often that I agree with Chris Christie, but on the issue of mandatory isolation for certain persons returning to the U.S. from Ebola-afflicted countries, he is 1,000% correct. Or maybe I should say, was correct.

Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that the White House was “pushing” Christie and N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo “to reverse their decision ordering all medical workers returning from West Africa who had contact with Ebola patients to be quarantined” for 21 days.

On Monday morning came word that that the nurse quarantined at UMDNJ in Newark, who was raising a stink and threatening a lawsuit, would be released. As of press time, details were sparse, so I do not know if Christie himself had a change of heart.

At the same time, in New York, Cuomo was said to be “revising” the quarantine rule there.

So much for steadfastness.

Like everything else in the Ebola situation, uncertainty and confusion dominate.

Thus far, the Obama administration, and the Centers for Disease Control, appear to be completely clueless about how to manage, limit, prevent, whatever, the potential dangers of this disease to the American public.

Consider, for instance, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden’s statement during a press briefing that it was not possible to catch Ebola from sitting next to an infected person on a bus, but that such infected persons should avoid public transportation because they could spread the disease there.


The next day, another CDC spokesperson clarified (if that’s the right word) that it was “not impossible” to contract Ebola on a bus.

For weeks, the public has been assured that to contract Ebola, one must come into contact with a sick person’s “bodily fluids.” According to the CDC’s website, these include “but [are] not limited to urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen.”

The same site says “Ebola is not spread through the air . . .”

Okay. But what about the mucus/phlegm from a sneeze or a cough? The reason we are supposed to cover our noses and mouths when sneezing/ coughing is because the germs can spread a fair distance. Through the air. Isn’t mucus a bodily fluid? Maybe I missed it, but have these questions been addressed?

Let me state that I in no way wish to promote some sort of Ebola panic, which some news reports appear to be flirting with. We are far from a pandemic’s threatening our shores. But I’d like to keep it that way.

My point is that we simply do not know, or have not been told, enough.

Remember the adage “Better safe than sorry”?

A 21-day mandatory quarantine, be it in an American hospital or in one’s own home, is neither cruel and unusual punishment nor a violation of one’s civil rights. I would think that any of these health-care workers returning from West Africa would gladly agree to a quarantine, or do they care less about the health of Americans than they do about others’?

Yes, they are heroes for the risks they have taken to help the stricken. But I’d think a hero wouldn’t mind 21 days – which isn’t much time at all – in a secure environment. It’s not like they’re being sent to Guantanamo.

As we have seen, voluntary isolation hasn’t worked. As Cuomo commented last week: “’Voluntary quarantine’? No. That’s almost an oxymoron to me.”

But that was last week.

Word has come that Florida and Illinois have now instituted mandatory quarantine rules.

Let’s see how long those last.

– Karen Zautyk 


Last week’s opinion column “Gov’t stumbles threat to Republic?” was written by Ron Leir. His name was inadvertently omitted from the print edition of the paper.