2018-08-01 / Local News

WWII veteran is on a mission to pass on his story to others


AGE: 91

FAMILY: Wife Zelda (z’l), daughters Lori (Joe DiMilto), Lisa (Danny Morrow) and Marci; grandchildren Zachary and Trevor

HOMETOWN: Cherry Hill

Hobbies: Civil War history, aquatic class at the JCC

FAVORITE MOVIES: “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind”

Like many U.S. veterans of the Silent Generation, South Philadelphia native Simon Zayon rarely spoke about the two years he spent serving in the Navy during the tail end of World War II.

It didn’t seem all that remarkable that the youngest son of Ukrainian immigrants would leave high school following his junior year, following in the footsteps of four older brothers, to join the nation’s wartime efforts. After all, members of his extended family have been serving in the U.S. armed forces since 1917.

And like countless other young adults, he put his battle ship experiences in both the Mediterranean and Pacific theaters behind him upon his return to civilian life. The more worldly almost 20-year-old finished high school and graduated from the University of Miami before settling down with a career and family life in South Jersey. He was a private person after all.

As late as 2014, when asked to participate in a documentary about WWII veterans, Zayon initially declined the invitation. However, upon thinking it over, he considered how the stories of Civil War veterans — some of whom were still alive when he was young — died with them lest they were documented. And he changed his mind. He is one of six Camden County veterans featured in a film created by the Rutgers Oral History Archive that is available to scholars and students alike.

This was a changing point for Zayon. The interview not only brought back a flood of memories; it led to the realization that his story could help today’s young adults gain an appreciation for what life was like just a few generations back (when kids swam in the Delaware River for fun, made their own toys and never talked back to adults) and perhaps appreciate the sacrifices citizens made to safeguard today’s democratic freedoms. Ever since then, Zayon has been speaking wherever and whenever he can to groups.

“I don’t talk about war but, if they ask questions, I will answer,” he said. “What I do is talk about how we were in the service and what we did (after the service) with our lives. In the military, we were doing things you wouldn’t do in civilian life. But we came out, were good citizens and lived our lives.”

The Rutgers film is not the only record of his service. Zayon’s desire to honor U.S. soldiers who died defending Malta, a strategically important island nation, inspired “Kaddish,” a documentary by teenager Antony Post which debuted in 2017 in the Cherry Hill Volvo Cars Jewish Film Festival.

Zayon connected with Antony through his mother Suzanne Post, the Katz Jewish Community Center’s program coordinator of adult services and whose family is from Malta.

Zayon had previously told Suzanne about his fond memories of Malta in the months he was stationed there with the USS Savannah, which escorted President Roosevelt on the USS Quincy to Malta for important war-ending conferences with other world leaders in 1945.

When the Posts went to Malta for a family vacation in 2016, Antony filmed himself singing the Mourner’s Kaddish at sea for Zayon to honor the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Since then, Zayon has been a guest speaker at military, community and school events. In 2017, his family was honored by the U.S. House of Representatives for 100 years of service to the nation in the U.S. Armed Forces. The commendation reflects the fact that members of his family are currently serving. There have been other local honors as late, including a certificate of appreciation in May from the Cherry Hill Education Foundation for his service.

Zayon said he is happy to talk to any groups that are interested. A former teacher, he said he feels a special bond with young adults.

“I thought kids would want to know about their grandparents’ generations and they are,” he said. “They’re like sponges soaking up information.” 

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