Captain Leon H Schneider, USMMA ’44, master of vessels, all ships, diesel or steam, of any size, upon any ocean, decorated with the Merchant Marine Mariner’s Medal, Merchant Marine Defense Bar, Merchant Marine Combat Bar, Atlantic War Zone Bar, Pacific War Zone Bar, Mediterranean Middle East War Zone Bar, Victory Bar, Korean Service Bar, and Vietnam Service Bar, and two-time member of the Torpedo Club, died on the evening of November 7, 2020. A resident of Verona, N.J., he was 98.
Leon grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. He dropped out of high school to hitchhike around the country. He shipped out to Hawaii in 1941 on an oil tanker, returning one week before Pearl Harbor. He joined the United States Merchant Marine, was the first American seaman to land in Melbourne, and survived being torpedoed twice by Nazi U-Boats.
He became a ship’s officer at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point and went to London during the Blitz on behalf of the War Shipping Administration. He then spent the next 23 years as a ship’s officer, including several voyages supplying troops during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He retired after attaining the rank of captain to raise a family.
LEON: A LIFE recounts his amazing life, in his own words, as told to his son Ivan Schneider.
This is a wonderful book and a fun read! Leon has such a distinct voice and it feels so authentic, while at the same time having this quality of larger-than-life storytelling that made me think of the German term Seemannsgarn, or seaman’s yarn, meaning that sailors spin stories that might be a bit exaggerated. And his wife, Tamara, sounds like a fierce pioneer in her own right. What a great job preserving these stories of such an adventurous life! There are some amazing lines that just made me stop to let them sink in, and some historical aspects that were so interesting to see through his eyes. And of course I laughed a lot!
Dr. Joela Jacobs Assistant Professor of German Studies University of Arizona
LEON: A LIFE is really many lives packed into one freewheeling memoir: the irrepressible Leon Schneider as everything from a busboy and a construction worker to a merchant mariner and an actor—and always ready for another adventure. From running after nickels during the Depression to swimming away from U-Boats in World War II: it’s all here and all told in a rapid-fire patter that gives us the essence of the man.
David Galef Creative Writing Program Director Montclair State University Author of My Date with Neanderthal Woman
LEON: A LIFE springs from a labor of love: Ivan Schneider, Leon’s son, in collaboration with Tamara Schneider, Leon’s wife, faithfully recorded the wealth of rollicking memoirs recounted by the 97-year-old Leon. It did not require cajoling: Leon’s story bursts forth eagerly, with riveting humor, raunchy resilience and originality in the face of circumstances which might have easily defeated others. In addition, there is a nuanced implicit undercurrent of decrying the consequences of ethnic and economic discrimination. For the reader, the book is a treat, with much to admire and to enjoy.
Lora Heims Tessman Author of The Analyst’s Analyst Within and Children of Parting Parents
Introduction—Leon on screen. Acknowledgements—A family project. Content warnings. Miss Koral—The couple’s engagement. Koral–Schneider—Announcement of a simple wedding. Aground and dismasted—West New York. Kingston. Jobs ashore.
Overheard—Earliest memories. Arnold—The biggest schmuck in the entire family. The little momzer—Pennies from Pop. Florence—A musical education. Seeing—The eye patch. Mr. Fishman the optician. Craps—The neighborhood game with Cockeyed Sam the newspaper man. Nickels—Stealing and hustling for small change. The neighborhood—Jews and Italians. The bicycle gonif—Leon’s new bicycle. The Great Depression—WPA. Selling potatoes and onions. Bar-mitzvah—Three brothers, two bar-mitzvahs. Mom—Leon’s yiddishe momme. Mary Gordon—Honoring our Scottish benefactor. Uncle Max—The family matchmaker. The family’s first divorce. Kosher Sam—The Orthodox cousins keep their distance. Sonia—Leon’s little sister. Muriel—Leon’s first crush. Harlem—Leon the jitterbug. Clubhouse—Spin the records, spin the bottle.
The overcoat—High-school dropout hitchhikes to Florida. Miami Beach—Beach jobs. Milton Berle’s jokes. Homeward—A driver’s license and a gas can. The hunchback—Delivering dresses. A job for Pop. Chickens—Plucking pinfeathers. Brookside Manor—Waiting tables in the Catskills. Up the ranks—The neighborhood kids join the Navy. Leon goes upstate. Hollywood and Vine—Driving to Las Vegas. Anti-Semitism in Los Angeles. Busboy—Eat at the theater. Dancing girls. Bessie and Anna—Leon’s L.A. aunts and their husbands.
World War II
Wiper—San Francisco. Leon’s first ocean voyages. Hawaii. Riding the rails—Leon the hobo. A cold night outside Sparks. Salt Lake City. Fireman—Troop transport. First in Melbourne. Set loose in the sweet shop. Caribbean Sinkings—Twice torpedoed. Trinidad—A hospital stay. Torpedo Club—Leon makes it into LIFE magazine. Tests—Communists. Getting into Kings Point. Rules of the Road—Life at the academy. Officer—A diploma for a high-school dropout. Eleanor—Leon’s celebrity crush. The Blitz—A War Bond rally in D.C., and a bit of a do in London. War Shipping Administration—The keys to the kingdom.
Victory in Europe—Post-war Germany. Putting up the Ritz—Free to those who can afford it. Relief and Rehabilitation—Leon in charge. A deceitful date. Japan—Geisha girls and devastation. War Bride—A Frenchwoman on a freighter. Rosita—A romance in Buenos Aires with Rosie the dancer. Grrrrammi—On a Greek coal-burning freighter to Uruguay. Invention—Herr Schnapp. Rosie’s story. Refugee—A nice Jewish girl meets a peddler. Pesos—A rich American in Buenos Aires. Poor Alfredo—A high-class Uruguayan and his stunning girlfriend. Deckhand—The Philippines.
Exodus—Leon and the Jewish underground. Israel—Leon’s take on Israel-Palestine. Ireland—Queen Elizabeth’s linen napkins. Yugoslavia—The ballet dancer. Korea—A twenty-three-course meal. Convent—Encounter at the Palace. Law School—A tricky knot for Leon. GI Bill—Our ungrateful Congress. Suez Canal—Jewish sailors in Egypt. Anka—A message for the fans. Ocean Avenue—The pains of subletting. Flatbush—The floating craps game. Passings—Arnold. Pop.
The Old Convincer—The bridge tour. A day at the beach. That’s it—How I met your mother. Seventeen’s your point—A working woman and a stay-at-home dad. Extra—In the Screen Actors Guild. Pensioner—The secret to longevity.
Leon Schneider’s article in LIFE, August 24, 1942
The writer of this article is a 20-year-old member of the National Maritime Union from Brooklyn, N.Y. He had never been to sea before last October. Then, because he had three friends in Pearl Harbor whom he wanted to visit, he got a job as a wiper in the engine room of a Standard Oil tanker outbound for Honolulu. From the very first hour he loved the sea and the sense of adventure it brought. When his first trip was over, he signed on for a second and a third. He joined the union because “it could do something tangible for me.” He arrived in the U.S. on Dec. 7 but immediately shipped out again on an Army transport. He returned to the U.S. and took a month’s vacation. Then he went to the union hiring hall in New York.
by LEON SCHNEIDER
I hung around the hall for a week before a fireman’s job on a freighter came up. I threw my card in and got it, without much competition. The Blank One was old and slow but I was impatient to get off the beach.
We cleared the harbor, our decks loaded with tanks and a half-a-dozen medium bombers. The rumor was that we were headed for Trinidad. We made out pretty well for twelve days. All the ships scattered and we were soon zigzagging through the Caribbean.
It was 7:15 at night, less than a day off shore, when the torpedo hit. I had just come out of the shower and, wearing only a towel, was talking to some shipmates in the messroom. The terrific explosion rocked every plank on the ship. A second later, there was another explosion as the second torpedo hit. All the lights went out and the doors to the messroom slammed shut.
I dashed for the door, the towel dropping away leaving me stark naked. The door was locked and we could hear water pounding along the alley outside. Already the messroom was knee-deep in water. The air smelled of ammonia, smoke and cordite from exploding t orpedoes. Luckily, I got out another door and ran on deck where they were lowering away the No. 1 and 3 lifeboats on the starboard side. The boats to port had been smashed. Still naked, I rushed below to get my life preserver and a pair of pants.
By now the ship was listing badly and slowly sinking. I swung out over the side, climbed down a rope and into a lifeboat. Less than 30 seconds later the Blank One split in half and sank, nearly swamping our lifeboat.
The skipper, a fine old man who was due to be retired after this trip, could have saved himself but instead went down with his ship. The last we saw of him, just as we pulled away, he was standing on the deck with a life jacket over his shoulders. He said, “Is everything all right, boys?” We said, “Yes, come on, jump.” But he did not answer. Instead he turned slowly and walked away. A second later the ship split in two and we never saw him again.
That night in the lifeboat was cold. I don’t remember much else. Most men, having swallowed too much fuel oil and ammonia, were sick at their stomachs. I remember thinking that we were sure to be picked up and that now I would be a member of the Torpedo Club.
In the morning we saw the other lifeboat and one raft which had managed to stay afloat. We tied all three together and waited. Toward noon, we saw another lifeboat with a single dirty sail approaching us. Soon we saw that it was a boat from another one of our freighters, the Blank Two, which had likewise been torpedoed in the night.
About 2 o’clock a dirty gray freighter, the Blank Three, which we recognized as another ship of our original convoy, hove over the horizon. When she came alongside, we gratefully clambered aboard. Just about this time a Navy patrol ship came into view and stood by. Nobody will ever know how glad I was to see the Navy. About 4 we got underway once more with the Navy ship on our starboard quarter. At 6 our escort had to leave.
It was a bright tropical night with a moon and bright silver stars. I wouldn’t go below. Instead I tried to sleep on deck right next to a hatch and a life raft. I was ready for anything.
At 10 I waked suddenly, with somebody saying, “A ship has been torpedoed off our stern.” Over the horizon we could see flames, glowing brightly for a few minutes.
We did not have long to wait. “Wham. . . . Wham” went two torpedoes crashing into the Blank Three. A wave of water swept over the deck, nearly washing me over the side. After waiting two minutes for the ship to lose her way, I lowered the life raft near me. It was the only raft, in addition to two boats, which our ship was to get into the water. Among the three they had to accommodate 110 men. I jumped overboard and soon was hauled into one of these crowded boats.
Not everybody had left the Blank Three. The Navy gun crew stayed aboard and opened fire on the submarine as soon as it showed itself, gray and sleek and big, in the moonlit darkness. For three and a half hours the uneven battle went on, until at last the Blank Three caught on fire and sank.
Next morning at dawn a Navy ship came into view, picked us up and took us into port.