Friday, June 08, 2007

On the Receiving End of History

Today's obituary section of The New York Times notes the passing of Arnold Lappert, an Army Signal Corps veteran of World War II. While Mr. Lappert served honorably in the Pacific Theater for more than four years, his wartime service might have gone unnoticed, except for his role in recording and reporting one of the greatest American defeats in that conflict.

In the spring of 1942, then-Sergeant Lappert was a radio technician, assigned to Schfield Barracks in Hawaii. His duties involved sending messages to beleaguered American forces in the Philippines, and receiving their replies. After the fall of Bataan in April 1942, the only remaining U.S. transmission facilities were located on the fortress of Corregidor, located in Manila Harbor. Passing traffic between the Philippies and Hawaii, Lappert struck up a relationship with Irving Strobing, an Army radioman on Corregidor. Lappert knew Strobing's identity from transcripts of the messages they passed. He also learned they shared something else, in addition to their military vocation. Both were native New Yorkers; Lappert hailed from Manhattan, while Strobing grew up in Brooklyn.

The two men were on duty the morning of May 5, 1942 (May 6th in the Philippines), when the Japanese launched their final push to take Corregidor. Strobing provided a steady stream of messages recounting the last hours of the American fortress. At one point, he indicated that the end was approaching.

“General Wainwright is a right guy and we are willing to go on for him, but shells were dropping all night, faster than hell,” he radioed to Hawaii. “Damage terrific. Too much for guys to take.”

In another message, Strobing captured the situation's growing desperation, and longed for a taste of home:

“We are waiting for God only knows what. How about a chocolate soda?”

Lappert was on the receiving end in Hawaii, recording and decrypting the messages as fast as they could. He later recounted that the communications were so important that "I had a general as a runner. One star, but a general...I’ll never forget his face over my shoulder and the way he ripped the paper out of my hand and ran.” When he received the message that Corregidor had fallen, Lappert "wept over his key," according to historian John Toland.

After returning from the Pacific, Sergeant Lappert began a quest to find Sergeant Strobing. According to the Times, they were finally reunited in early 1946, when the Jewish War Veterans of America brought them together, in conjunction with a pageant honoring the contributions of Jewish-American soldiers. An official from the organization served a chocolate soda. Each soldier was given a straw, and they drank from the same glass.

After leaving the Army, Mr. Strobing went on to a civil service career with the FAA and the Agriculture Department. He died in 1997. Lappert designed and sold furniture before his retirement. He was 87 when he passed away last Friday, at his home in Florida.

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