WWII Profile: Jack B. Weinstein
Q. Tell me about your life in the years before Pearl Harbor.
A. I came to New York at about 5 and we settled in Brooklyn. The years were fairly tough economically, so I held all kinds of jobs, acting on the stage, delivering groceries, delivering milk early in the morning, and working on trucks and docks while I went to college at night at Brooklyn College. When the war started for us at Pearl Harbor, I immediately attempted to enlist in the Naval Air Force but was rejected for health reasons, so I enlisted immediately in the Navy.
Q. Did you feel certain in your heart that you were part of an important cause from the very beginning?
A. Oh, yes. My family was very patriotic and I was too. I was proud to be part of this country, and to have an opportunity to participate in what I then considered, and still consider, a great war for freedom.
Q. Why did you volunteer for submarine service?
A. I was interested in technology at that time for a variety of reasons. … But in addition, I was interested in working in a small elite group. I didn’t consider myself elite, but I wanted to be with elite people, and the submarine force had that reputation. It also had the reputation for good food and companionship. For a young man of 20, that was advantageous, and I got submarine pay. Since I wanted to get married as soon as I got back, submarine pay was advantageous.
I was proud to be part of this country, and to have an opportunity to participate in what I then considered, and still consider, a great war for freedom.
Q. Tell me about your duties as a submarine officer.
A. Most of my service was in the Pacific. I had responsibility for some of the equipment, particularly the radar equipment, and I was a full deck officer ,so I stood regular watches, four on, eight off, and did whatever the small core of deck officers do on a submarine. We were assigned in a group north of the Philippines during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, to cut off what was apparently by that time a retreat by the remains of the Japanese fleet. My submarine picked up a small Japanese cruiser and sunk it one night. And then after sinking that ship, we turned north to pursue the main battle fleet of the Japanese, but we were never able to make contact with any of those remaining vessels.
Q. Can you tell me more about the sinking?
A. We picked up the Japanese cruiser at 33,000 yards, which was more than the radar was designed for, and I reported that to the captain. As we closed in, I noticed two pips on the radar. He asked what it was that we were picking up, and I had never seen that phenomenon, but I said, “Captain, it looks like a large destroyer or a small cruiser,” which was kind of nervy, I suppose. It turned out to be a small cruiser. … We made an attack, half-submerged with a spread of four torpedoes, as I recall, and the ship sunk immediately. It had about a thousand Japanese sailors aboard. I’ve since thought about those men and their deaths, and regretted it, as I regret war generally. Now I’ve had good relationships with Japanese judges and professors, but I’ve never confessed to them that I helped kill so many Japanese men.
Q. Your sub was later rammed by a Japanese ship. Can you tell me about that?
A. We were making an attack on a convoy. A destroyer picked us up, and before we could get down far enough, it came and knocked over one of our periscopes and bent it way out of shape. We were then depth-charged, but the destroyer captain, I think was more frightened than we were, because he skedaddled after dropping a dozen or so depth charges.
Q. Did you learn any lessons from the war that influenced in your later career?
A. I had learned how to command, which stood me in great, good stead when I was a professor at Columbia and when I worked in the courtroom. I was in full command of that courtroom and I have been since, just as I was when I was at the conning tower in the middle of the night standing watch. The ship was mine, the courtroom was mine, the classroom was mine. I had to make immediate decisions, and I knew they would be followed. I learned both discipline and assurance of command.
Q. How did you decide to enter the legal profession?
A. While I was abroad in the Navy, my mother sent me a book by Holmes, the Common Law, and she said, ”I think you ought to read this.” I could not understand it, but it was very interesting, and I decided law was probably the thing that was best for me, because I could use all the talents and all the various experiences I had in life. And it proved wonderful as an opportunity to do good for others, and to some extent for my family. When I decided to go to law school, I was admitted at Columbia and Yale and Harvard, because of my grades and work in the war. I had never met a lawyer, so far as I knew. The first lawyer I met was a professor at Columbia in class. It has been remarkable career and opportunity in so many different ways—much of it undeserved by me.
Q. You were involved in the Brown v. Board legal team. Tell me about that.
A. I was appointed to the faculty at Columbia in 1952, after a few years serving as a clerk to a judge in the state system and then opening my own practice, which was fairly successful. I wanted to teach. One of the professors asked me to come down to where they were having conferences with Thurgood Marshall on how to handle some of the technical, legal and other problems in Brown and the whole series of related cases. I was able to help in a way that I thought was of no great importance. But Thurgood and I got along well. I spent a good deal of time as a kind of a fly on the wall, doing the kind of work that a young associate would do: preparing briefs and research. My role was of the most minor degree. He was very gracious in putting my name on the briefs in the Brown case. Something I didn’t deserve, but I did spend a lot of time there, working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team while I was teaching.
Q. What are your memories of Thurgood Marshall?
A. He was, I thought, a magnificent human being. He understood the law. He had a grasp of the sociology involved, which was extremely complex. And he had a command of people that enabled him to bring together a huge group of sociologists, historians, legal authorities, and others and deal with many kinds of people who would be adversely affected in some ways. … It was an extremely complex case in which he enlisted the affection and the skills of so many people. I just thought he was a magnificent human being.
Q. Do you still work full-time, and why have you chosen not to retire?
A. Oh, yes, I carry a full load. I carry the same load as any active judge in this court, so when you say how many days I worked, it is seven days. How many days I work in court, it’s five. It’s a wonderfully exciting job. Every morning, when I get up, I can hardly wait to get into the courthouse. There are new questions of law, new questions of fact, many different kinds of people, strange situations. It’s a wonderful window on the world, and I’m in full command of in my courtroom. It’s not a very big area of command, but it enables me to try to improve the lives of people, individuals, that’s what counts. People count.
Q. Do you like the phrase “the Greatest Generation”?
A. It’s nonsensical. Every generation is great. We responded to difficulties of the depression and the war, and people I see today are responding to other problems. Every generation has greatness, and it has despair and has things that it should be ashamed of doing. For us, it was no different. I remember seeing things that were absolutely disgraceful—the way African Americans were treated and the way women were treated. Ours was not the greatest generation.
Q. Looking at all aspects of your career, in the military and beyond, what are you most proud of?
A. I’m still very proud of being an American, I think being a United States citizen, because we have the capacity to do great things for our own and other people, and we have. The world I knew when I joined the Navy in January 1942 was not a great world. People were treated terribly in many respects. We’ve helped with women. We’ve helped with African Americans. We’ve helped with the aging. We’ve helped with the disabled. We’ve provided health for retirees. We have provided medical help to many of the poor. We’ve made enormous strides. We have far to go. And we have the talent to go forward and continue to improve all our lives, with equality and justice.