A life well lived

World War II veteran Simon Zayon, B.B.A. ’52, reflects on his time in the U.S. Navy.
A life well lived

In 1944, 17-year-old Simon Zayon, B.B.A. ’52, dropped out of high school, enlisted in the Navy, and embarked on a journey that would take him across the world and change his life forever.

Born and raised in South Philadelphia, Zayon was the son of immigrants from Kiev, Ukraine, and the youngest of five brothers who all served in the military. “We grew up in a Navy town, right by the Navy Yard,” Zayon recalls. “We would visit the Navy Yard every Sunday when it was open to the public and spent a lot of our time around there.”

When World War II broke out, Zayon was ready to enlist and play a role in the war effort like his four older brothers. He joined the Navy and was sent to bootcamp in Bainbridge, Maryland.

His first day on active duty was as memorable as every day that followed. Zayon remembers it vividly—he had just returned from a visit home after completing bootcamp when they told him ‘get ready, you’re shipping out!’ It was raining, and he and another young man were in the back of an open truck, sea bags in hand, nervous but ready for what was to come.

They were taken to the Chesapeake Bay, where they boarded a seagoing tugboat that took them out in the rain to the USS Savanah, the ship where Zayon would spend the next nine months. Rope ladders thrown over the side, Zayon and his fellow serviceman climbed up to begin their service.

The next morning, they were given a mop to clean the ship, a job Zayon held throughout his time on the Savanah. “We were the lowest people on the ship,” he says, “So we got the dirtiest jobs.” In battle stations, Zayon was either tasked with hoisting up gun powder or firing at airplanes coming in with smaller weapons.

But despite the harsh conditions, Zayon enjoyed his time in the Navy. “It was formal and tough, but it didn’t matter because we were kids, and for us, it was an adventure,” he said. 

Once, as they were sailing for hours, with Portugal and Spain on one side, and North Africa on the other, and so close that they could see trees on land, Zayon remembers looking around in awe. “I didn’t even finish high school, and the longest route I ever had ever taken was a 12-mile ride on trolley cars,” he shares. “And here I was going 5000 miles away from home, the ocean surrounding me, with everybody yelling at me to do this and to do that. It was quite a thing.”

His most significant memory was escorting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a conference in Malta to meet with Winston Churchill and then to another conference in Yalta, Roosevelt’s last before he died, to meet with Joseph Stalin and Churchill. The USS Savanah waited in Egypt to escort the president back to the U.S. 

When the ship returned from the Mediterranean, Zayon signed up for the Underwater Demolition Team and headed down to Fort Piece, Florida to begin training.

But training was interrupted as they were called back to duty with the United States at war with Japan. Zayon, along with 300 sailors, boarded a train to San Francisco, where he was assigned to the USS LST 275 and served as coxswain. On their way to Japan, the war ended, and the ship changed course.

They went to New Zealand to pick up Japanese prisoners of war, then became a part of the occupation of Japan. Later, they sailed to Guam and to the Philippines before finally making their way back to the United States. Zayon was discharged and left San Francisco to return home to Philadelphia.

His brother Sydney, who had survived two ship bombings, returned home as well and the two went back to finish their last year of high school together. Sydney became a firefighter, but Zayon had other plans: he was headed South to a small school in Miami where he would be a walk-on for the football team.

When Zayon arrived at the University of Miami, he became a part of the thousands of veterans who transformed the school as they filled classrooms after World War II. Between classes at the business school, football practice, and the friends that he made, Zayon cherished his time at the U. “It was a small school then. We were the ones that built it up,” he says. “We lived in the barracks and went to school in hangar decks. It was like going to camp.”

After an injury ended his football playing, he continued with classes and graduated in 1952. He worked various jobs until he became a real estate broker and built a successful career in Philadelphia.

In May 2017, the Zayon family was honored for their continued service in the Congressional Record, noting their 100 years in the armed forces. At 94 years of age, Zayon, who has been featured in two documentaries, continues to share his experiences in the military to bring awareness to what it means to serve your country.