Hal’s Navy

by | Oct 25, 2013 | Book Reviews

Cdr. Harold H. Sacks, USN (ret)
Parke Press 2013
220 pages $19.95 (paper)
ISBN 978-0-9883969-3-7

Baby boomers and pop culture fans may remember a hit sitcom that ABC aired in the 1960s— McHale’s Navy. The series, which ran for four years, was filmed in black and white and set in the Pacific Islands during World War II . It followed the schemes and adventures of a sometimes savvy, often lucky, and arguably wily group of sailors, led by the brilliant and likeable Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale (Ernest Borgnine).

Replace fiction with fact; trade black and white TV for colorful, linguistic imagery; change the time period from World War II to a two-decade span that includes the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War; move the setting to various naval ships, cities and ports around the world; introduce an entirely new set of real characters. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself chuckling aloud, and perhaps pondering survival, as you read Hal’s Navy.

In this newly published memoir, Harold H. “Hal” Sacks recounts how, as a Jewish boy from the Bronx—an admittedly over-protected, only child—he joined the United States Navy as a reservist in 1952 to avoid being drafted into the Army. When his initial three-year commitment was coming to an end, this literature-loving, unlikeliest of sailors reenlisted, turning his service in the Navy into a 20-year career, eventually becoming the brilliant and likeable leader of his own group of men.

Using his exceptional memory, attention to detail, and casually conversational writing style, Sacks provides readers with an often-humorous glimpse of Navy life during a crucial period of American history. He hooks us early, in the book’s introduction:

“Whereas it is customary to thank those responsible for making this effort possible, the author wishes to thank: First, the People’s Republic of North Korea, for invading South Korea in 1950, and then for insisting on repatriation of 80,000 North Korean POWs which President Truman wisely refused thus precluding a cease-fire in 1951. Otherwise, I would not have faced a draft into the Army in 1952, the avoidance of which motivated me towards the Navy.”

From the first chapter, we follow Sacks as he describes his earliest days of enlistment: how he was given a few months to complete his master’s degree in American Literature from Columbia University and barely fitting in a wedding ceremony to his beautiful bride Annabel just before leaving for Officer’s Candidate School. Surely, he wouldn’t have to deploy to war, Sacks theorized, which is why he joined the Navy rather than the Marines in the first place. His theory proved incorrect, however, and days after finishing OCS Sacks found himself aboard a destroyer, headed for battle support duty in the Korean War.

Hal’s Navy is not just sprinkled with anecdotal gems; it is showered with stories ranging from narrow escapes, to brushes with celebrity, to new life and to lives lost. Readers may find themselves shaking their heads with amazement as they follow Sacks’ career, the growth of his family, and the changes he experiences sometimes before, and sometimes along with, America and the world.

Yes, there are the inevitable Navy titles and acronyms, but Sacks—to his credit— remembers that not everyone reading this memoir will have military experience, and helps us along with initial explanations and frequent references.

Throughout Hal’s Navy, we are able to learn about Sacks’ commitment to observing Jewish traditions, wherever and whenever possible. He describes Passover seders held aboard Navy destroyers and in Saigon during the Vietnam War. A delightful story details how he was able to observe Shabbat while in Vietnam.

Hal’s Navy is rife with a variety of stories, military and otherwise. He regales us with an improvisational visit aboard Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, an encounter that led to an evening of cocktails with Johnny Carson, and an Intelligence School paper that earned Sacks an A+ and gave America its defensive tactics during the Cuba Missile Crisis.

Readers of Hal’s Navy can thank Sacks’ grandfather and his beloved grandchildren for giving this honored veteran and community leader the impetus for officially recording his Naval experiences.

“The real reason I wrote this book was for my grandchildren,” Sacks says. “My grandfather was born in New York and I was very close to him when I was growing up, but never once did I ask him what his life was like as a child or a young man in the 1800s in New York City.

“I am blessed with intelligent, talented and handsome grandchildren. Have they asked me, “Grandpa, what was it like in Korea?” or “What was it like in Vietnam?” Not once. So this book is really for them. I hope that in years to come it answers some of the questions they might wish they had asked.”

Fortunately, Sacks chose to publish to a wider audience. With all that he’s shared in this memoir, readers can only guess that there are many stories Sacks didn’t have room to include. Volumes could follow, and, if we’re fortunate, this series—like a similarly named, much-remembered sitcom— will continue to entertain us with more volumes (episodes) to come.

—Laine Mednick Rutherford is associate editor of Jewish News.