The Jewish Heart Of A Navy Man


I was born on Father’s Day. Many times over the years, we celebrated my father’s day and my day as one. But this year is different: our day falls just after I finish saying Kaddish for my father.

I loved being his daughter. Often, while sitting in shul, I think of my father’s stories, the ancient prayers echoing with the chapters of his life. He delighted in telling his stories — embellishing them too — and retelling them has become a way of feeling his presence. For this Father’s Day, I share one of his favorite stories. He much preferred giving gifts to receiving them.

If you had met my dad, you may have heard about Chief Charlie. Soon after World War II began, my father enlisted in the Navy. Rarely having traveled beyond his Lower East Side neighborhood, he was shipped off to the South Pacific where he served as a carpenter’s mate on a PT Boat.

In 1944, his ship was ordered to the island of Mindoro in the southern Philippines, where he and some other crewmembers were given the task of finding and interrogating the Moro guerrilla group on a nearby island near Basilan. The “password” to meet the group’s leader, Chief Charlie, was something about Sand Street near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Landing on the island, my father first saw a group of Moro Muslims dressed in what looked like pajamas with head dresses, carrying long knives called krisses. These island natives were known to be experts in using these weapons without mercy. Their reputation, known to the sailors, was that when the Moro Muslims drew their knives, they had to take blood — otherwise they would not go to heaven. So my father and his buddies weren’t without fear when they first approached the islanders, but soon, they were trading American cigarettes and white sheets for the long and still-bloodless knives. And they were led to Chief Charlie.

To the sailors’ surprise, Chief Charlie spoke English. When it was my father’s turn to speak with the Chief, he asked him about the origins of the password and his name, clearly not Filipino. Chief Charlie told them that his father had sent him to New York in 1938 and he had passed by the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He said that his full name was Charles Werble, and he was the son of a Jewish father and Muslim Filipino mother. When my father mentioned to him that he was Jewish too and that his father was also named Charles, Chief Charlie gave him his personal kris as a gift. My father kept the long knife with its carved wooden case decorated with inlaid pearl with him throughout his naval service, brought it back to New York and treasured it for the rest of his life.

I like to imagine the handsome 22-year-old sailor standing beneath lush foliage, kibitzing with Chief Charlie. “Leave it to Jack,” listeners to this tale would say, “to find the only part-Jewish fierce tribal chief in the South Pacific.”

Many years later, my father found a 1910 news story identifying Chief Charlie’s father, Charles J. Werble. The elder Werble served in the U.S. Army in the Philippines in the early 1900s and later served as an adviser to the Sultan of Sulu.

The Chief Charlie story presaged much about the man my father would become: We liked to say that he never met a stranger, that he found a way to talk to just about anyone and forge connections, and could make himself understood in any language with a few phrases, hand signs and a twinkle in his eye. He was an ambassador with his own portfolio. My father had an extraordinary way of opening his heart, and jumping right into the hearts of others.

And he held onto the young sailor’s spirit. He was ever adventurous and curious, and always watching over us, creating a net of safety. As All Hands, a PT boat magazine recently said, he made his last patrol. While he left the Navy with a distaste for war, he loved boats and being out on the water. In recent years, he’d wear his U.S. Navy cap (with the name of his squadron, PT RON 8), and people would stop him in the street and salute him or thank him for his service. He would say he loved his country.

He also had great affection for the Filipino people. Even in his last days, when he’d learn that one of the visiting health care workers was from the Philippines, he’d ask to have his kris taken out of its safe place. They all seemed to know what it was immediately, and they were then treated to the story of Chief Charlie.

Sandee Brawarsky writes about books for the paper.