Veterans Affairs

It takes a lot more than a bumper sticker to support the troops, says a crusty ex-Marine and best-selling author

The old man swings his dead right leg out of the car at the end of the cul-de-sac, grabs the cane with the carved tiger handle, and steadies himself under the shadow of a condominium at his back. The Symphony House reaches skyward 22 stories, handsomely terraced, tastefully bland in color — yet it seems no more permanent than the man, 76 years old, with wide shoulders, a bulbous nose, and a brambly white beard that has been there so long, he doesn't know what he would look like without it. With the sun obscured, the air holds a chill on a beautiful December afternoon along the New River in Fort Lauderdale.

Richard Winer walks his stiff, three-legged walk downstream a few yards, just at the monolith's cast penumbra, to a crouching bronze figure. Winer never knew the man in bronze, only knew of him. In fact, relatively few who knew the figure in life are here to tell about him, for Alexander "Sandy" Nininger was 23 years old when he died, 64 years ago last week, in the Philippines, in a pile with corpses he had made. Born in Georgia in 1918, the son of a theater manager, Nininger grew up in Fort Lauderdale's Sailboat Bend neighborhood, which meant he would pass this point on the river as he walked to Fort Lauderdale High School. Nininger was, as author John Hersey once eulogized him, "a friend to beauty." He was a lover of Tchaikovsky, a sincere son, a football letterman, five-foot-ten and 165 pounds, with a slender neck supporting a head of wavy hair. At West Point, the cadet established himself as a card, says John Alexander Patterson, a nephew of Nininger's.

World events turned matters serious. Nininger graduated from West Point in June 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor that December, and within a month, Nininger found himself in the Philippines, pinned along with other American and Philippine forces on the Bataan peninsula, plagued by Japanese sniper fire. Nininger requested permission to gather volunteers for a counterattack. He pressed forth with a submachine gun and grenades, blasting a sniper out of a tree, sustaining a leg wound, waving off medics, and, when his ammo was spent, charging foxholes with his bayonet. Thrice wounded, he died in a bunker with the bodies of three enemy soldiers. At Douglas MacArthur's recommendation, Franklin Roosevelt made Nininger the first recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Second World War.

istockphoto.com
Richard Winer's boat is named for his best-selling The Devil's Triangle
Colby Katz
Richard Winer's boat is named for his best-selling The Devil's Triangle

Winer, a World War II veteran himself and a best-selling author (he wrote The Devil's Triangle, about the strange history of mysterious shipwrecks in the so-called Bermuda Triangle), learned of Nininger in a newspaper story trumpeting a memorial service to mark the 50th anniversary of the soldier's death, in 1992. Certain that the War Memorial Auditorium service would be overflowing, Winer took care to arrive early.

"I thought there would be a mob of people," he says. "There were seven people there, including myself and one policeman. I thought then and there, such a great hero, the first American in World War II to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award this country can give for bravery, and he's a Fort Lauderdale boy, and there's nothing for him but a one-block street and a plaque in the grass that nobody except the man who takes care of the lawn even knows exists? Something's got to be done about this."

Winer set about gathering money and support for the bronze-and-marble memorial just four blocks from Winer's own Sailboat Bend bungalow. The bronze Nininger is frozen in a crouch, one arm reaching to an invisible something. Explaining the choice of pose, Winer says: "Forward, onward, forward."

What is Nininger to him? "I served in both the Navy and the Marines, and I'm prouder of this [the statue] than my military service," he says. It was not the first time nor the last that the old man with one leg had stuck up for the fallen.

His has not always been a winning battle: One of his life's great disappointments, he says, was failing to win support to bring a World War II ship to dock beside the Nininger statue, an effort that he says was undercut by the performing arts center and opera house flourishing in the Sailboat Bend neighborhood that Winer fought to clean up 25 years ago, at the price of his right leg. He is a living anachronism, one of the staves of Fort Lauderdale's history; in an era of condo colonies and gas-glutton SUVs sporting "Support the Troops" magnets and a federal government that never seems to have enough to pay for veterans' benefits, he is also something of a conscience.

"He's a legend in this city," says former City Commissioner Tim Smith, who has known Winer for about ten years. "He's very odd, but he's a real go-getter when there's something he wants. If he was another 30 or 40 years old, I bet he would have been Hemingway's friend or something. He's that type of guy."

Since the Nininger statue's dedication in 1993, Winer has organized services at the site for Broward soldiers slain in action, installing an engraved brick for each of 270 of them. Each Memorial Day, Winer and a few others, maybe a couple of dozen, gather at the statue to honor the dead. He arrives early, to make sure the flag hasn't been stolen, as he says it was the morning of the statue's dedication. The 82nd Airborne Division sends an honor guard; the bricklayers union Local 1 supplies the bricks.

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