‘Always doing work,’ proud first-generation American WWII veteran remembers

Weekly visits to the naval base in South Philadelphia set a course for young Simon Zayon, who would later join the Navy in 1944. Zayon’s parents immigrated in the early 1900s from the Ukraine. They met and married in Philadelphia establishing a strong American pride in their five boys; a pride that remains instilled in the 91-year-old, youngest brother, and only surviving first-generation American Zayon.
All five brothers served in the military during World War II to honor their country and parents who had five stars proudly displayed in the front window of their home. In 1938, when Zayon’s oldest brother joined the Navy, their mother said, “He belongs to Uncle Sam now.”
When the dream of being in the Navy became reality for Zayon, it was more work than his young mind thought.
“Always doing work,” says Zayon. “Cleaning guns, oiling something, chipping paint, checking lights and phones to see if they work. Always doing something, no breaks.”
It was the checking of the phones that saved Zayon from mental agony. Zayon and another sailor had been locked in an ammunition room for days with no clocks or watches. The time passed without knowledge of when or how they would escape until days later when the one-way phone in the small room finally rang.
“I answered it and told them we were in general quarters,” he said. “No one was supposed to be there. They were only testing the phone.”
Once the war ended, Zayon’s trip did not. “They didn’t know what to do with us,” he joked. “So, they sent us from Pearl Harbor to New Zealand, was there for 30 days, picked up 400 Japanese to take back to Japan, about 5,500 miles for over another month with New Zealand officers.” Zayon then went to Okinawa and Philippines before returning to San Francisco to be discharged, sent home, and started school at the University of Miami in Florida, where he played football.
However, these are not what proud American Zayon remembers about his time in the Navy. “His most historic tour of duty was when the USS Savanah escorted President Franklin Roosevelt on the USS Quincy to Malta in January-February, 1945,” says daughter Marci Zayon. “The USS Savanah then waited in Alexandria, Egypt, to escort the president back to the U.S. on the USS Quincy.”
It is this memory that led Zayon to meet a lady in his aqua rehab class in 2016. She was going to Malta with her son to visit family. Zayon asked them to say a prayer for him. The young man did more than that for Zayon taking photos the duration of their trip that became the basis for his student documentary featuring Zayon.
In 2017, the Zayon family from South Philadelphia continues to serve in the military and was written into the Congressional Record in Washington, D.C., for serving 100 years in the U.S. armed forces. “I feel my government gave me so much for what I gave to them,” says Zayon, who serves by passing on his experiences in the Navy and as a first-generation American. “Made me the person I am.”
Zayon considers it his responsibility to educate people about the flag, the honor, and the loyalty he has for his homeland. He frequently speaks at schools and receives follow-up letters from children saying they want to join the Navy and letters from adults thanking Zayon. This is something he feels can’t happen unless groups like The American Legion continue to do something about it. Zayon recalls being a child and The American Legion coming to speak at schools. “We had people still living from World War I that were very old and came to speak showing what the Legion did, giving out information. One generation must take care of another.”
Zayon is gratified when someone thanks him for his service. “When they do, they are honoring my mother and father and my brothers and others in the service. When you salute an officer, you’re saluting the USA. When you salute him, it is because what he represents – every generation has to take care of the next.”
To view Antony Post’s student documentary, ‘Kaddish’ to go: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nveqskb2J-g&t=236s.

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