In more than 50 years in Great Neck, 95-year-old Mort Zimmerman said, he has always made it to the annual Memorial Day parade to honor the sacrifice and service of his fellow veterans.
Now, the World War II veteran will be among its leaders on May 28 as grand marshal – and he feels honored.
“I know I used to wave as they went by,” Zimmerman, who still carries his military identification, said in an interview. “Now I’ll do the waving from the motorcade.”
Zimmerman, while attending Baruch College, enlisted on March 22, 1943, at 21 years old, joining the Army Air Corps. He was sent to Greeley, Colorado, and Montgomery, Alabama, for training.
During that time, Zimmerman said, he met an officer by happenstance who “didn’t know how to take a square root.” Zimmerman drew on his high school and college education to solve the problem.
“I quickly did it,” Zimmerman recalled. “He said, ‘you’re coming with me.'”
Zimmerman said he was soon on a train to Pennsylvania, before boarding a Liberty Ship to Liverpool, England, where he joined the newly formed – and the only – European civil affairs regiment.
This job would take Zimmerman through France, Belgium and Germany to administer towns taken by the Allied forces, take care of refugees and follow American troops as they swept through the Western Front.
“It was our responsibility to develop all of the necessary infrastructure that a city requires and of course we supervised it and made sure that it went in a straight line,” Zimmerman said.
The role put him in touch with many individuals, Zimmerman said. One of the topics often brought up would be the Holocaust, where people either “weren’t talking,” “didn’t know,” or “didn’t care.”
At the time, Zimmerman said, it was hard to tell whether or not they were being truthful.
“But we used to prod them because we were involved with them in administering the city, getting it organized after when you have sheer chaos,” Zimmerman said. “It takes awhile for things to get straightened out.”
Zimmerman said when they took one of the first cities in Germany, the area was flooded with reporters. They’d then read the names of the soldiers over the radio, which his father heard, Zimmerman said.
But naturally, the job carried risks. Zimmerman recalled the death of one of his men, who was killed by shrapnel while guarding a post office in a city that was half controlled by the Germans and half by the Americans.
He also remembered a horse had been hit with shrapnel that day, meaning he had to kill it.
“I did and within an hour it was food,” Zimmerman said. “They really didn’t have food in those days. You had sheer chaos.”
As they moved further into Germany, Zimmerman’s regiment administered “a very large city.” One of his responsibilities was feeding refugees who were in the barracks by securing food from the local bakers.
The war in Europe wound down sooner than in Japan, where Zimmerman said many men from the European front were transferred to fight.
When the end of World War II finally came, Zimmerman said that while he took pride in his work, he was happy to finally head home.
“In December ’45, they wanted me to stay but I’d been gone for three years – never been home once,” Zimmerman said.
After returning home, Zimmerman graduated from Baruch College to become a certified public accountant and later got a master’s degree in business administration from New York University.
Zimmerman married Annette, who lived in the same apartment house with him in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, two years after the war’s end. The two were together for nearly 68 years, until her death in 2015, and have two sons: Robert and John.
After he worked in New Jersey and Massachusetts, Zimmerman and his family moved to Great Neck in 1964. He served as the chief financial officer for Russ Togs Inc. for more than 20 years.
“I looked for a school for the kids because I was here [in New York] and Great Neck was the place to be,” said Zimmerman, whose sons both graduated from Great Neck North High School.
John became a cardiologist at Hackensack University Medical Center and married Ellen, and they had three children. Robert co-founded Zimmerman/Edelson, a Great Neck Plaza-based public relations firm, and has served as a national Democratic committeeman.
Mort Zimmerman also served as president of Temple Emanuel in Great Neck for many years, he said, and remains involved in the synagogue.
“This is a wonderful community. We enjoy being part of it,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a comfortable place, it’s secure, it’s a place you want to bring up your children.”
Louise McCann, the chair of the Great Neck Parade Committee, said Zimmerman’s dedication to the community and his service made him a great fit as the grand marshal.
“As a veteran who served valiantly throughout Europe during World War II and as a resident of Great Neck for more than half a century, Mr. Zimmerman truly embodies the spirit of the Annual Great Neck Memorial Day Parade,” McCann said.
The Memorial Day Parade, with a ceremony to follow, will begin at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, May 28, at South Middle Neck Road and Susquehanna Avenue. It is being led under the auspices of the Gilliar-Norwill Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 372; Charles A. Fowler Jr. American Legion Post No. 160; U.S. Merchant Marine Academy; Alert Engine, Hook, Ladder and Hose Co. No. 1 Inc.; and Vigilant Engine and Hook and Ladder Co. Inc., and U.S. Coast Guard Station, Kings Point.
Any U.S. military veterans from the Great Neck area are encouraged to participate in the parade and will get special seating at the ceremony at the village green. To reserve a seat for a veteran, register a group or get more information, contact Suzetta Gray at [email protected].
“The true meaning of Memorial Day is to honor members of the United States military who fought to protect the freedoms that we as Americans enjoy every day,” McCann said. “We are thrilled to honor [Zimmerman] as this year’s Grand Marshal and recognize his service.”