Thursday, May 26, 2016
By James Lomuscio
Longtime Westporter Joe Schachter, 90, is a sailor through and through, a World War II Navy ensign who served in the Pacific only to return to Westport to do battle years later to save Cockenoe Island from a seven-story high nuclear power plant.
A self-proclaimed water rat, Schachter is the quintessential old salt, though the term old doesn’t seem to fit so much. He becomes animated, youthful almost, talking about his buddies at the Y’s Men, their weekly luncheons at the VFW, his wife Irma of 50 years whom he married after his first wife Carol died in 1964 leaving him with three little boys.
He’s also big, barrel-chested, a presence that belies inner sensitivity.
“I was overwhelmed; tears came to my eyes,” he says about the phone call from William Vornkahl, president of the Westport Veterans Council, asking him to be this year’s grand marshal in the Memorial Day Parade on Monday.
“I’ve been involved in many good things over the years, and I’d like to think that I didn’t do it for ego,” he added. “I did it because people thought that I should because of what they thought of me.”
Born in Norwalk, Schachter’s love of the sea began at the Long Island Sound. As the storm clouds of war gathered, joining the U.S. Navy seemed natural for him.
“I was 16 and in Norwalk High School, and I knew when I graduated that year, 1943, I would be drafted into the Army,” he recalled. “And, having been a water rat and a sea Scout for the Boy Scouts, too, I took a test for the Naval officer program and passed the test.”
He joined the Navy July 1, 1943 as an apprentice seaman and was sent to Trinity College in Hartford where the Navy ran an officer training program. He came out an ensign. In 1945 he was assigned to the light cruiser, the USS Wilkes-Barre, which he boarded in the Marshall Islands, “which ultimately went to Tokyo Bay where the treaty was signed.”
It was supposed to be the calm after the war, but soon the Wilkes-Barre was sent to the upper China Sea.
“Chinese Communists up north in Manchuria were coming south, and they asked the United States to do something,” he said. “But, we weren’t going to send any troops, but we sent ships to create a presence, so they wouldn’t’ come south.
“It didn’t work,” he added. “My ship was attacked by small gun fire, and our marine detachment had two men wounded; one of them died,” he continued.
One of Schachter’s duties was to go to the China mainland to retrieve a sailor who had been left behind. As he was returning to the ship, “the Chinese Communists and the nationalists were firing at each other overhead, but we managed to make it back to the ship,” he said.
After his discharge in 1946, having been promoted to lieutenant junior grade in the peacetime Navy, Schachter and his wife, the former Carol Kagan of Hartford, moved into a home on Imperial Avenue in 1954, and a decade later moved to his current home on Mayflower Parkway.
Carol, a freelance writer whose work appeared in publications Look Magazine and Reader’s Digest, died shortly after they moved in, succumbing to a life-long, rheumatic heart problem at 35.
Two years later, he married the former Irma Klein, a Hartford native and a friend of Carol’s from Hartford College. Irma adopted his three boys, who are now married and have children of their own.
Like his first wife, Schacter was a wordsmith, too, starting out writing advertising copy for Connecticut’s only television station WNHC, now Channel 8, after the war.
From there his career took him to the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in Manhattan, where he spent 30 years, going from copywriter to vice president.
As one of the Dashing Dans who bemoaned poor train conditions, “ovens in the summer and refrigerators in the winter,” after the New Haven Rail Road went backrupt, he formed the Commuters Action Committee in the 1970s, a precursor of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council.
Ever the seaman, after studying concrete flotation systems on the West Coast, Schachter set course for his own business in 1977.
“I saw how well concrete floats worked in San Diego and Alaska, and I figured if they held up in Alaska, they would here, too,” he said.
His Norwalk-based business Concrete Flotation Systems, which he ran for 21 years, manufactured concrete floats used by the Coast Guard and the Air Force in Greenland, the New York Yacht Club, the dock yards in Bermuda—and much closer to home and to his heart, Compo Beach’s Ned Dimes Marina.
Getting the floats into what was then called the Compo Yacht Basin was no easy task, especially with some homeowners whose houses faced the water not wanting their views blocked.
But when it came to enhancing and protecting Westport’s waterfront, Schachter says he had already been steeled by the late 1960s battle to save Cockenoe Island from a seven-story nuclear power plant that Northeast utilities had planned.
In addition to the island, several acres of Saugatuck Shores would have been lost, too, he said. Schachter said he joined forces with Jo (Fox) Brosious, then editor of the Westport News, and others to stop the plan, saving Cockenoe as prime passive recreational space in perpetuity for boaters.
“It was really the greatest naval battle Westport ever faced,” he quipped.
According to town officials, the Memorial Day Parade will begin at 9 a.m. on Riverside Avenue, and immediately following it, memorial services will be held on Veterans Green.
If the parade is canceled due to inclement weather, services will be held at 10 a.m. in the Town Hall Auditorium, officials said.
Posted 05/26/16 at 01:00 PM Permalink