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
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.

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.

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."


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.


Today, Winer's home sits on the New River, close enough to the Seventh Avenue drawbridge that the tenor sigh of tires on mesh wafts to his property. In the corner of the yard sits what appears to be a small shed; Winer says it is in fact Broward's first realty office, built in 1914, rescued from demolition. Near that is parked a red train caboose that Winer uses as a hurricane shelter, figuring that with 20 of the car's 25 tons situated beneath its floor, wind stands little chance of dislodging it. Beside the caboose is the house itself, a stout slab of a home that looks like a three-story pink birthday cake. He purchased the two-thirds-acre lot in 1972 for $18,000; the county's latest assessment values it at more than $1 million. Call him from the street and he answers his phone: "Hold on. I'll be down in as long as it takes for me to hobble down."

It takes the better part of ten minutes, as he takes short steps with his left leg and forces his fake right leg forward.

For all of Winer's adventures, daring death and courting calamity, he lost the leg in the service of Sailboat Bend. Soon after he moved to the neighborhood, he ran for City Council, finishing sixth, one place out of a seat. In those days, it was a citywide election, instead of by district, and he had the disadvantage of coming from an area without a great voting history, he says. As a charter member of the Sailboat Bend neighborhood association and its original president, he made no secret of his loathing of the pimps he says would use drugs to lure girls into prostitution.

"There was drugs and prostitution and all kinds of negative things happening with the running down of the neighborhood," says Chuck Willard, an 80-year-old Sailboat Bend resident. "It is combative when you're trying to displace the drug dealers who stand as close as a dance partner and say, 'I own your neighborhood, and you can't do anything about it. '"

One apartment building and a bar called the Rusty Anchor, on the grounds now home to the Broward County Performing Arts Center and the Symphony House condo, were particularly nefarious. "That bar was the wildest, nastiest bar in the city," says Smith, the former commissioner. "Constant dope deals, heroin addicts lying around the perimeter. People getting shot in there every other week. Winer just decided, one-man show, he wasn't going to take it any more.

"Before you know it, they put a bomb in his car."

Soon after leading what Winer says was an army of angry little old ladies from the neighborhood in demonstrations against the unsavory elements, in July of 1980, Winer clambered into his pickup truck, started the engine — and blew up. At the Broward General Medical Center, police read him his last rites. Winer decided this would be a lousy time and place to die; he just implored the doctors to keep his knee. They couldn't. He figures it was a pipe bomb stuck in the skid plate, beneath the transmission. No arrests were made.

Thus was christened Winer's third act, which so far has covered the past third of his life. A man whose leg has been forcibly removed in the service of his city need take no more guff than before; if anything, he is entitled to take less. "If I saved just one young woman from a life of prostitution...," he says today, trailing off. Though he had a more traditional prosthetic leg, he would, when feeling saucy, wear a wooden peg leg, like a pirate's, and keep the company of a dog named Tripod, who also was minus one leg.

He had earned enough from his documentary work and books to collect a few classic autos and railroad cars. Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle recalls this peg-legged raconteur's going before the county commissioners over an ice cream parlor in downtown Fort Lauderdale that he had fashioned out of a railroad car. To comply with county codes, he fitted ramps on the car to make it wheelchair-accessible. Problem was, the car's doorways were so narrow that they wouldn't fit a regular wheelchair. Undeterred, Winer found a small, antique wheelchair that the bulkhead could accommodate. "One of the county commissioners challenged him on it: 'Well what if someone can't fit in the wheelchair?'" Naugle recalls, practically guffawing. "He said, 'Madam if someone can't fit into my wheelchair, they shouldn't be eating my ice cream. '" He ran the parlor until the county sold the land where he had it stationed.

Other clashes with elected officials were starker. In 1992, with his efforts for the Nininger statue seemingly stalled, Winer invited a retired brigadier general named Joseph McCarthy, a resident of Delray Beach, to address the City Commission in February. The man who had won a Congressional Medal of Honor for assembling and leading a demolitions and flamethrower team into enemy fortifications at the battle of Iwo Jima told the commission that he would have been proud to have had Nininger fighting beside him that day. As tears flowed around the room, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the statue. Winer spent the next 15 months drumming up donations for the project, mostly from elderly women who had lost a son or husband in the war. The dedication, on Memorial Day, featured a parade, a flyover by WWII bombers, the whole nine.

It was a civic enthusiasm short-lived. In 1999, along with five other cities around the country, Fort Lauderdale made a bid for the U.S.S. Hoga, an antique tugboat that remains one of the last floating vessels to have survived the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The charge was led by a not-for-profit organization Winer headed. The old man garnered support from several corners: the City of Fort Lauderdale, which agreed to offer a mooring spot beside the Nininger statue; the Broward County School Board, which offered the services of marine industry students, who would learn by helping to maintain the tug; the county's historical commission; the county's visitor's bureau; a towing company that offered to donate a tow from the Panama Canal, assuming another company would tow it that far from California; Port Everglades, which offered temporary dockage during repairs; the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association; and Bob Hope, who wrote a letter in support. All that stood in the way was cash: The Navy would want to see at least a million dollars on hand guaranteeing that the boat would be maintained.

Then, backlash. The Performing Arts Center Authority thought better of the plan and asked the city to find another spot for the Hoga; President and CEO Mark Nerenhausen sent a letter saying that "public facilities, parking and the pristine and unimpeded view of the New River" should take precedence. Others followed suit.

Asked about the campaign against the Hoga's Riverwalk mooring, Naugle is conciliatory. "There are some in the community that only want the gleaming white yachts and don't appreciate the character," he says.

To this day, Winer remains borderline distraught at the way his neighborhood shifted beneath him. (North Little Rock, Arkansas, claimed the tug.) "We could have had a national treasure here, and they fought it," he laments. "Where's the patriotism they're supposed to have?"

Says Willard: "Dick was a doer; he wasn't a talker. Dick is always controversial. Anybody who stands up and fights for their rights in today's atmosphere is controversial. Only the profiteers want to move into our neighborhood. They want to buy cheap, sell to the max, make money, and move on. Like all politicians and developers, they piss in your ear and make you think you're dreaming."


The "fort" in Fort Lauderdale was a fortification built in the 1830s so Maj. William Lauderdale could lead a group of Tennessee Volunteers into battle against the Seminole Indians. The current mayor's uncle, Tex Ellison, taught George H.W. Bush to fly in Fort Lauderdale, and his father, Bill Naugle, went to high school with Sandy Nininger. Today, in addition to the statue, Nininger's name graces a West Point library room, a park at Fort Knox, a Fort Lauderdale Army Reserve training center, a military cargo ship, and the 800-odd-foot street that leads from Federal Highway to the War Memorial Auditorium. In anticipation of the statue's arrival, Gold Coast magazine also noted, among Nininger's memorials, "a plaque across from War Memorial Auditorium, which only someone addicted to plaques would bother to read."

Since then, the state has also named a veterans nursing home in Pembroke Pines after Nininger. All of these are quite nice, certainly, though it is difficult to say a man is remembered when most of those who remember him are themselves forgotten.

In talking about Nininger one afternoon, Winer, wearing a black West Point sweatshirt and a cap with the Spruce Goose emblazoned on it, settles into a deck chair. The railing around the porch he says used to be on the Andrews Avenue bridge; he bought the 500-pound rail sections as scrap, figuring they must have historic value. Under the patio table is a huge Kerry-Edwards campaign sign that Winer's moving around the deck to try to pinpoint a leak. Kerry got his vote in 2004, though he would rather have voted for John McCain.

When time takes Winer, his name will not appear on a brick or a statue. In all likelihood, his home will be looted by well-meaning friends and family members (twice divorced, he has two grown children) who won't know what to do with the Smithsonian-like collection he has hoarded over the years. The first floor alone, which is nothing but a ten-car garage, will require an excavation. What will become of the improbable harmony of bulges and edges that is his 1933 Packard Super 8 or of the 9,000-pound, seven-foot-tall, 12-cylinder 1936 Packard towncar in which media magnates Robert McCormick and William Randolph Hearst used to cruise the streets of Chicago? They, like Winer, are packed into so much classic clutter as to be rendered almost inextricable from their resting places.

Winer has kept a boilerplate from the Mayflower-cum-Malla and a soap dish from the admiral's sea cabin of the sunken Saratoga. He scraped off the sea growth and taped it to the inside of his thigh, to hide it from snoopy Marshall Islands customs officials.

Around the walls of his living room are hung portraits of seafarers battling oceans in all states of fury, boats landing beneath brilliant sunrises, all manner of clocks and steering wheels from ships, old lanterns and diving helmets, and other oceanic artifacts. The very shelves are hatch covers from World War II ships.

Atop the old rolltop desk sits a photo of him with Orson Welles; on another shelf, a photo of Winer, legs crossed, playing an instrument that looks like a clarinet made from a gourd, charming a cobra out of a basket.

Atop the turntable, under a cracked frame, is a letter dated January 24, 2005, thanking Winer for his service to Israel aboard the Malla. It is signed by Israeli Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz.

Upstairs, in his computer: the unfinished manuscript about the Cyclops. He thinks he knows what happened to the lost ship, but he is not certain, so the account of its final days will be his first novel. After decades, he has about 500 pages.

"You'll find that as you get older, you procrastinate," he says. "'I can't be bothered with this, I can't be bothered with that.' I have too many irons in the fire. I just don't have the time anymore. I've got to cut some things loose."

He has given some thought to what his legacy will be, when he finally joins the ranks of the departed. One frontrunner for his estate is the Wildlife Care Center, a clinic not for dogs and cats but for the multitudes of unnamed animals — birds and reptiles and whatnot. There was a spell, some years back, of commuting to Tampa to ogle and haggle over railroad cars, when Winer would along the way see injured turtles. He would stop, pack them into a chest of dry ice he kept in his car, bring them home, repair their shells with fiberglass, and nurse them back to health in a terrarium. "People called me a turtle nut," he says. "I didn't care. I thought I was helping some of God's little creatures. Nobody else cared. The worst thing about that was when I'd pull over to get one or see one struggling across the road and, wham, a truck comes along and crushes it before I can reach it."

He still takes animals to the Fort Lauderdale wildlife clinic, a turtle here, a snake there. The prospect that such a clinic somehow could relocate to Sailboat Bend does not thrill his neighbors, Winer says, but he could give a damn. He vows that if he gets any guff, he may stipulate that his house be provided to a family of welfare recipients — specifically, whichever single mother on the county dole has the most children.

"And there's not a thing they can do about it," Winer says, delighted at the prospect that his upstart neighborhood will in either case have one last act of charity by which to remember him.

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