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Purity of Arms

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Walter “Heavy” Greaves  E-mail

Walter “Heavy” Greaves was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to a family that had fished out of that port for several generations. He left home at the age of sixteen because he did not get along with his stepmother, and the rest of his life was spent either in construction work or at sea. He lived the life of a typical sailor and soon knew the location of every back-alley bar and brothel in most of the seaports of the world.

During World War II he sailed in the Merchant Marine and survived three torpedo attacks. He had lost his closest friend in one of them, and would think that he was with him when he got very drunk. Under his rough exterior breathed a very sensitive man.

Even he had difficulty in explaining what motivated him to come to the aid of Jewish displaced persons in Europe. Seeing one of the newspaper adverts in the New York papers seeking contributions for the Jewish cause, he proceeded to contact the office indicated. Within 24 hours he was on board the “Abril” – later the “Ben Hecht” – and was soon joined by David Gutman. They were the first two on board. Soon after they were joined by Lou Brettschneider, the third man in the triumvirate; he served as 3rd engineer, and “Heavy” as bosun.

The voyage of the “Ben Hecht” was made in the glare of world-wide publicity with rather mixed results. “Heavy” described it to the captain of his second ship, Rudolf Patzert, in these words: “A lousy trip. The whole thing was loused up. And when we did get there we had only 600 people aboard. When the British grabbed us, the skipper invited them into his cabin for a drink and the crew surrendered to them. It was a bum deal all around.”

The crewmen were imprisoned for a month in the Akko Prison fortress, alongside members of Etzel. “Heavy” noted that he was “… amazed to find his cellmates defying the pressures of prison life by organizing entire schools where they studied languages, mathematics, and how to handle explosives.”

“Heavy” was released and shipped home on the “Marine Carp.” Before “Heavy” was released he was warned: “We’re letting you off lightly this time, Yank, but if we should ever capture you again, it will likely go hard on you. You’ll probably get 10 years, you know. You can’t say you haven’t been fairly warned.”

But in spite of the warning, on return to New York he began looking for another refugee ship to join. He met members of a Haganah cell at a synagogue in the Bronx, preparing a boat called the “Paducah,” later renamed the “Geula.” “Heavy” recalls “… the Geula organizers at first hesitated to accept me because of my ties to the Irgun-affiliated “Ben Hecht,” but I managed to win them over.”

To his pleasure and surprise, both of his buddies from the “Ben Hecht” reappeared. Also among the crew were two friends from Seattle who had just completed their undergraduate studies at the University of Washington. “Heavy” almost despaired of ever converting Elihu Bergman and Bailey Neider into able-bodied seamen, but eventually managed to whip them into a reasonable semblance of deckhands.

“Heavy” weighed nearly 300 pounds and enjoyed a bar-room brawl with the best of them. While the “Paducah” was being fitted out for the journey with displaced persons, the crewmen were based in Bayonne, France. The gambling casinos of Biarritz were nearby and the crewmen made good use of their facilities. On one occasion “Heavy,” having won quite a considerable amount of money, decided to spend the night at the Grand Hotel. When the desk clerk made a remark in French he asked him to repeat it in English. The clerk said, “We have no room for Jews.” “Heavy” floored him with one punch. He then proceeded to take all the room keys from behind the desk and scatter them all over the street. By this time the clerk had recovered and shouted for the police. When “Heavy” tried to explain that he was the one insulted, the policemen, who probably didn’t understand English, tried to arrest him. It took four of them to finally subdue him. He managed to convince them to take him back to the “Paducah” where Patzert paid his fine. “Heavy”’s only comment about the fight was, “It was a beaut while is lasted, the only thing I’m sorry about is the way that clerk went down fast. I would like to have worked him over.”

When the contract officers of the crew were released in Bayonne, “Heavy” was promoted to first mate. Three Spanish Republican seamen were added to the crew and the ship departed for the Mediterranean where it would pick up its passengers. The ship developed a mechanical problem and the captain for a time feared that they might have to put in to a Spanish port. He feared for the lives of the Spanish crewmen who would probably be shot if they were returned to Spain. He also feared for “Heavy” if he were to fall into British hands. Fortunately a temporary repair saved them from having to put in to either Spain or Gibraltar.

After quite a long delay in Varna, Bulgaria, they managed to load the “Paducah” with almost 1,400 passengers and head out via the Bosporus and the Dardanelles for the Aegean Sea. Escorted by British naval vessels, they made their way to the coast of Palestine where it was seized by the British. The attempt to hide the crew members from detection was successful for all but “Heavy.” When all on board were strip- searched after they were deported to Cyprus, “Heavy,” covered with tattoos including the American flag, could not be concealed. He was handcuffed and led away.

Later he was confined in a part of the camp under the watchful eye of one of the posted guards. It was an attempt to find some of the other crew members who might come to see him. Instead, some of the Jewish nurses in the camp were alerted to take care of him and none of the men even approached him.

The other crewmen were released to Palestine after about two months, but “Heavy” was kept for nine months and wasn’t released until the British departure from Israel.

After his release, “Heavy” made his way to France, where he spent the next year refurbishing other refugee ships which were no longer illegal.

“Heavy” returned to Israel and trained crewmen for Israel’s merchant marine, the Zim Line. He returned to the United States when there was a marine strike in Israel.

In the U.S. he continued to work for Jewish causes and wound up as a “Shabbes Goy” for an orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn. He died quite young, his health damaged by the long stay in the camp in Cyprus.

Link to Paducah story

Author: Mike Finegood.

Source: American Veterans of Israel Newsletter: April 1993