Robert Morgenthau dismayed about low participation in veterans’ parades

Last year’s America’s Parade lacked spectators in spots along its Fifth Ave. route.

Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, 96, a WW II Navy veteran who will be the grand marshal of America’s Parade Wednesday, said he’s dismayed by the dropoff in attendance at such events honoring vets.

Last year’s America’s Parade lacked spectators in spots along its Fifth Ave. route. In contrast, this year’s Halloween Parade drew perhaps a million partying onlookers.

The low turnout in recent years “is certainly disappointing,” said Morgenthau, who served from 1940 to 1945. “So many men and women sacrificed their lives for the U.S.”

The 25,000 participants expected tomorrow march not just to reprise their own service, but to honor and commemorate fallen comrades, explained Morgenthau, who left the Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Tomorrow’s parade, starting at 11:11 a.m., will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Data on attendance on past veterans’ parades was not immediately available.

Morgenthau, who worked as a U.S. attorney before becoming Manhattan district attorney, traces the decline in parade attendance to conflicts — Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq — that had less popular support than World War II, when “the country was united” to fight the Axis powers. 

But recent warriors are no less deserving of our respect and gratitude, he said. “These men and women sacrificed their lives for us,” he said. “It’s important we recognize the sacrifices people made and how they rallied to the flag when we needed them.”

Does he support reinstating the draft as Congressman Charlie Rangel has suggested, noting that leaders may be more selective about the wars they declare if their own children are likely to fight them? “I don’t want to get into that issue!” he protested. Then, he added quietly, “but I think there’s some merit to it.” 

While the old salt has invited some of his WWII comrades to roll down Fifth Ave. with him on Wednesday (“they’re putting me in a red convertible!” he crowed of the parade’s organizers), he doesn’t know how many will show up.

Only about 855,000 WWII remain alive, according to the National WWII Museum.

“I had a friend who said that, first thing in the morning, he reads the obituary page. If his name is not there, he proceeds to have breakfast,” said Morgenthau, who has adopted a similar approach to aging. Surviving one’s peers and loved ones can be a bittersweet enterprise, but “I’m an optimist,” he said. “All my life I’ve been an optimist! We survived. My ship (the USS Bauer) survived 17 kamikaze attacks!”

Morgenthau signed into a Navy officers program when he was only 20 years old, eager for “the honor of serving my country” during war. While “my mother wasn’t that happy” about his decision, his father, a World War I veteran and the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was supportive. 

Morgenthau was also navigator and executive officer on the USS Lansdale when it was sunk by German aircraft in 1944, killing, he said, 49 men. He made all personnel decisions on the ship, subject to the captain’s approval. Designating people of color to the lowest-status positions on Navy boats “was standard practice,” he recalled. But he took the then-unorthodox action of assigning six African American mess attendants to man three anti-aircraft guns. They proved themselves worthy warriors, refusing to abandon their positions under fire. “When the USS Lansdale was going down, one of the stewards mates — his leg was broken! — but he stayed with his gun,” Morgenthau said. “He had to be pulled off!”

Morgenthau recommended the man – Marion Potter – for a silver star “and he got it.” Later, four of the others who manned the guns on the Lansdale followed him to the U.S.S. Harry F. Bauer, where he gave them the same battle post. 

“My four and a half years in the Navy were among the most important, if not the most important, of my life,” said Morgenthau. The management experience he received – recognizing and cultivating talent and to “always look for the best in people” proved useful when President John F. Kennedy – another Navy vet –  nominated him to serve as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. His Navy experience also aided him in his three and a half decades serving as Manhattan District Attorney. “Eighty four of the people I hired as ADAs (assistant district attorneys) went on to become judges,” including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said Morgenthau, noting he found Sotomayor to be “exceptional. . . She had an extraordinary talent and ability and a dedication to public service,” even as a young woman, he said. “The judges like to push around the young ADAs, but nobody pushed Sonia around.”  

Morgenthau, who now has physical therapy three times a week, opts for private health care. He’s alarmed by the scandals that have been unearthed around veterans’ healthcare. “I was and am particularly concerned with the way they treat people with PTSD and concussions,” he said. “We have a lot more people coming in, a lot more veterans…If you lose an arm or a leg, they do a great job. But if you have mental problems or a brain injury, they don’t.”

Still, Morgenthau is pleased overall with the progress made in an ever-changing world.

“I never thought the people who were kamikaze suicide pilots would wind up serving us sushi,” he said. “I just hope the crazies setting off road-side bombs will also become law-abiding citizens.”

Sheila Anne Feeney