If you were fortunate enough to be a friend of Joel Kaplan than you know the phrase “short of words” did not apply to him. In fact, when he told me recently that his grandson was getting married and he might be asked to make a toast, I realized it might be the first time in history that newlyweds spent their first wedding anniversary at their own wedding reception.
The amazing thing about Joel’s well-known verbosity is that all those words that did come out of his mouth were well worth listening to. Mr. Kaplan was on this Earth of ours’ for 94 years and he did not waste a single one of them.
He was born in Brooklyn on July 6, 1921. He worked his way through St. John’s University manning the night shift at a New York City newsstand on one of the World’s busiest corners, Broadway and 42nd Street. After graduating from St. John’s, he served his country as a member of the US Army Air Force, becoming a Sergeant with the 365th Fighter Group which was known as the Hell Hawks. That unit became famous for its deadly accurate bombing of German troop and munitions trains throughout Europe during WWII. It was a horrific experience Kaplan underwent during his time with the Hell Hawks that ended up being a blessing for the City of Amsterdam and its people.
On Christmas Eve of 1944, the 365th had overrun and taken control of a German air base in Metz, France. Ordered to dig fox holes, Kaplan explained the ground was frozen and impossible to penetrate. One week later, German planes returned and conducted a vicious bombing and machine gun attack of the airfield, which Kaplan described as “ten minutes of hell that seemed to last an eternity.” With nowhere to take cover Kaplan and his comrades scattered as best they could. As he was hugging the ground, convinced that he was about to be killed, he made a promise that if God let him live he would spend the rest of his life trying to help others. Fortunately he was required to fulfill that promise…