Veterans Affairs

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

This year's ceremony will mark the death of Adam Cann, a 23-year-old Marine from Davie, who died earlier this month when a suicide bomber exploded in a line of police recruits in Ramadi, Iraq. "We're going to have another service on Memorial Day," Winer says. "I'm sure we're going to have more by then. We always do.

"This war — I don't know how to put it — we're fighting for big oil. The guys over there aren't fighting for their country. The men who give their lives over there are just as brave as those in World War II. They give just as much. The difference is the cause, which they have no control over. You have to give them just as much honor and glory and gratitude."

His lasting legacy in Fort Lauderdale may be ensuring that dead veterans get their due at the Sandy Nininger statue.
His lasting legacy in Fort Lauderdale may be ensuring that dead veterans get their due at the Sandy Nininger statue.
With a 50-year-old caboose in his yard and a 70-year-old Packard in his garage, Winer is part freelance preservationist, part incorrigible pack rat.
With a 50-year-old caboose in his yard and a 70-year-old Packard in his garage, Winer is part freelance preservationist, part incorrigible pack rat.

A strong case could be made that there are too few statues in the world. At least Nininger, a revered if minor historical figure, warranted a statue, as Winer saw it. "The statue of my uncle never would have happened without him," says Patterson, a retired foreign service officer and a former Rhode Island state senator. "It was his show, his initiative, his persistence."

The trend started early for Winer. Armed with his older brother's draft card, the young man lashed himself to the top of a box car for a trip to Spokane, Washington. Already nearly six feet tall, he was able to wangle his way into boot camp in Idaho. Machinists were in short supply — buried in the bowels of boats, they were the last ones out of a sinking ship — so the Navy shipped him to machinists' school in Kansas for four months before stowing him in the engine room of a tanker in the Pacific in 1945.

The war ended, and for a time, he helped ferry servicemen from Pearl Harbor to San Francisco aboard the Saratoga before the Navy decommissioned the carrier.

After he returned stateside himself, Winer, a nonpracticing Jew, joined efforts in 1948 to transport displaced European Jews to the nascent state of Israel. Winer worked aboard a 273-foot yacht, the onetime Mayflower, that the Navy had converted for the Spanish-American War in 1898 before it became the plaything of presidents Roosevelt through Hoover. It was eventually sold to Zionists and renamed the Malla. Flying a Panamanian flag, it set out from Marseilles, France, for Haifa, 60 miles north of Tel Aviv. Winer, a member of the crew, remembers Italian fishermen cheering the vessel as it slid past Sicily. When Mount Carmel came into view, the hundreds of migrants began to sing "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem. "I never was a Jew before," says Winer, citing as proof his high school scholarship to run track for St. Thomas Academy in St. Paul. "That was a pretty proud moment in my life. It was a heart-stirring experience."

Upon the vessel's return to France, an American consulate official forbade Winer from participating in any more mercenary adventures for other countries. He returned stateside, attended college in New York, joined the Marines, and shipped out for Korea, where his service was blessedly, regrettably bland — running a motor pool of tanks and towing disabled vehicles. Back in Minnesota, he made a living "chasing ambulances" and selling photographs to newspapers. A particularly timely shot of a kid who fell, harmlessly, while trying to scale a bridge helped him land a gig with a television station, where he found he was pretty good.

In the winters, he and friends would scuba-dive by carving portals in the six-inch-thick ice atop the Mississippi River, having filled their wetsuits with warm water before slipping into the cold. One day under the ice, he realized that he could no longer find the hole. Figuring he had been dragged downriver, he turned into the current, pulling himself along the bottom rock by rock. His air ran low. "I thought to myself, 'I've got to stay cool. If I don't, I'm going to die,'" he recalls. A memory of Tony Curtis in similar straits in the 1953 movie Houdini saved his hide: He ditched his weight belt and bobbed to the water's surface, he says, to breathe the sheet of air trapped just beneath the ice. Gradually, he felt his way back to the hole. Then he resolved to move to Florida.

The first job he landed was as a television cameraman at WCKT, in Miami. He lived in Cocoa Beach for a few years, working at Cape Canaveral as a photographer, capturing the early Mercury program rockets. The weather allowed him to begin dabbling in underwater photography, and in 1972, he joined a crew filming the underwater aftermath of the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. One of the boats left in the path of the blast was his old carrier, the Saratoga, which he dove around and through. As a seaman, he had been entombed in the huge ship's engine room, a place given to such din that he couldn't even hear kamikaze attacks above the motors and the anti-aircraft fire. "A lot of ghosts," he says of the dive. "Guys I knew. Guys I didn't know."

Lost craft became a theme for the photographer. His Vincent Price-narrated documentary about the various craft lost in the titular Devil's Triangle was enough of a success that publishing houses contacted him about putting it all in print. The Devil's Triangle, published in 1974, became a bestseller. In it, he did his best to trace the human and mechanical mishaps of the lost planes and boats, along the way asking enough answerless questions to make the book ammunition for paranormal theories. Winer indicated at the end that he was writing a second book, titled Cyclops, about the U.S.S. Cyclops, a coaling ship that dragged 308 crewmen to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea in 1918. Though Winer has since published a half-dozen other nonfiction books, most recently Ghost Ships, he hasn't yet been able to complete the story of the Cyclops, 30 years after the lost ship piqued his attention.

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