WWII Army Veteran and local personality Joe Crews died Memorial Day at the age of 91. The retired chef at the now demolished Christian Admiral Hotel was the subject of an August 2009 profile by Bernie Haas in Cape May Magazine. Joe loved the ladies and we loved him right back. He will be missed. Funeral services were held Monday, June 4 at 11 a.m. at the Radzieta Funeral Home, 9 Hand Ave., Cape May Court House.
Susan Tischler, Editor
Joe Crews: Survivor
I met Joe Crews sitting at the Pilot House bar. He was talking with Jennifer Kopp, editor of the Star and Wave. It was happy hour on a Friday in the fall, and he had just finished working. I recalled seeing him earlier in the day, riding his bicycle past the post office. Biking is how Joe gets everywhere. Someone at the bar asked, “How old do you think Joe is?”
My guess was 73. I was off by a lot.
It turns out Joe Crews was born in 1920 and has lived over half of his life in Cape May, where he and his wife Mary raised five children. A World War II veteran, he almost died in the Pacific when the freighter he was on was bombed by the Japanese. Essentially a private man, Joe nevertheless agreed to be interviewed. Having lived in Cape May since just after the Nor’easter of 1962, he has truly seen it all.
How long have you been in Cape May?
I first came to Cape May in 1940. From Philadelphia. I came with two friends. I think it was $2 a round trip. I came in when the train station was back there – over where the Acme parking lot is now. My mother-in-law used to work here for some people down near Poverty Beach. [I moved here in] 1963 right after [the] 62 storm. We had five kids. They was young when I came here. My youngest one, she was about two years old. Now she is 40-some years old. I came here with nothing. I came here and built Cape May up.
All by yourself?
No, I had lots of help. I moved onto 817 Jefferson Street. Then I left there and moved to Elmira Street and been there ever since. When I got here there weren’t no motels yet. It was all rooming houses and hotels. The first motel that was in Cape May was right across the street from Cape Roc [today].
1963? You’ve had a lot of jobs since then.
I worked everywhere. I worked at the Washington Inn with David Van Horn. When I first got here I had done construction work in Philadelphia. Then I worked for an automobile dealer in Wildwood. I worked on the fish docks. I used to love them. On the fish docks, you’d get paid and get fish, too. I worked on Two Mile Island, Lund’s, Lobster House, A&J (Axelsson & Johnson). I worked them all. And I did construction work. The Maud Abrams School? I worked on that. I helped build that. I worked for the city.
What was the best job you’ve ever had?
Cape May County Highway Department. It was year-round. One day in the winter time we had a snow storm that was real bad. I left home on Sunday night, didn’t get back until Tuesday. It just snowed right around the clock. It snowed seven inches then it turned around and snowed seven [more] inches right on top of that. Sunset Boulevard was a county road. We couldn’t get up past Cape Avenue with the truck pushing snow. Then, over at the magnasite plant, we had to make a turn and before you could complete the turn, it was like you’d never been there it snowed so hard, wind blowing about 40 miles per hour.
Cape May’s a bit different than it was 40 years ago?
A hell of a lot different.
Better or worse?
It’s better. Years ago there wasn’t no work here in the winter time. Many at the Lafayette Hotel in summer time would bring help down with them. Labor Day ñ everything shut down. They all moved to Florida. After Labor Day you could lay out in the street. There was nothing to do.
The first person to give year-round work was Rev. Carl McIntire. Many started moving here when they started that college ñ Shelton College. Those were year-round jobs. That was about the first place that really gave work. It was the only thing open year-round. Everything else closed.
I worked at the Christian Admiral for 20 some years before they closed. I went there as a dishwasher. When I left [when they closed it down], I was a head cook. I cooked breakfast for 750 people at one time. Around lunchtime we would have something like 500. Dinner was anywhere from 800 to 1,000. That was when they would have the religious-whatchamacallit. People from all around the country [would come for it]. During that time we [Rev. McIntire] had Congress Hall, the Windsor, the Admiral and rooming houses: Morning Star, Evening Star. I helped build those. We poured out the foundation. I helped build the GW room, the dining room up on top of the Admiral Hotel.
Any ghosts in the Admiral Hotel?
Ghosts? Ahh, come on. I’ll tell you what. When I was in the kitchen we’d have pots and pans hanging up there. Sometimes they would start clanging (ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling). You know, I don’t know what it was. That would be during the day. I don’t know if it was from the wind or what. I don’t know if there were ghosts in there or not. But it used to be a hospital, you know. Lots of people died in that hospital.
[The Admiral Hotel served as a hospital during World War I and as a convalescent home during World War II. Joe Crews began to quietly tell me his war story. By way of background, being black in the military during World War II was not the same as being white. When the Dutch freighter s'Jacob was abandoned and the waters were filled with black U.S. soldiers, a Malaysian crew, and the white officer in charge, it was American soldier George Watson who took it upon himself to help those who could not swim get into life rafts. Weakened by his efforts, he was dragged down by the suction of the sinking ship and drowned. Watson's heroics went unrecognized for 54 years until 1997, when he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously by President Bill Clinton. The Medal of Honor was awarded to only seven African-American World War II veterans out of a total of 854 recipients.]
So, you were on-board a ship that set out from Australia in 1943?
I don’t know where it was going. They never told you where you was going. You’d line up. They’d call your name, then get over there. Forty-seven of us went to Australia [for] special training. They put us up in a combat hospital. It was portable. We stayed there for three weeks in Sydney. They took us out of there. I don’t know how I got out of there, I know I was on the ship, a Dutch ship, the s’Jacob. It sank on March 8, 1943 at two in the afternoon.
There was gasoline drums on deck, had to keep the fridges running [contained blood for the troops fighting in the South Pacific] 24 hours a day. One gasoline engine. Damn lucky the gasoline drums didn’t blow up. They said the ship was bombed, but I ain’t seen no planes. I think the ship was sabotaged. They said if I said that again I could be put in jail. They don’t wanna hear me say that.
Weren’t no other Americans around. On the ship you couldn’t understand nothing nobody said. Only the Americans [GIs]. They were all Dutch or Portuguese. I don’t know what the hell they were.
The ship went down in 12 minutes. Lost three guys out of the 47. One guy jumped off with a life preserver. Never knew what happened to him. Another guy jumped off and got a lot of guys with him swimming away from the ship. One of the refrigerators broke loose, hit him. The other guy was standing on the deck crying for help. I tell him, “Jump.” I said, “Jump, buddy, jump.” He was holding onto the railing hollering, “Help.” One refrigerator busted loose and skidded right down and crushed him. He went down with the boat. At that time the whole top of the mast was burning. Never understood that. Why it was burning. The mast started falling.
I was holding off of the side of the life preserver. I put my hand on (something) and said, “Lord have mercy.” I thought I was gone. But all the sudden there come to be a big splash. And it knocked the lifeboat and everything away from us. All of a sudden there was a big hole in the water. [I heard], “boom, boom, boom, boom.” All of a sudden – gone. Boat sank right down there in the water. Nothing around. Nobody around. There was one refrigerator floating right there on the water. Some guy was holding onto to it. I had a life preserver, but I never put it on. Never got in the lifeboat. Couldn’t get in it. There were too many. They wouldn’t let me in. I tried getting in and they kept saying, “No, no, no!” They made a hole in the boat. You know, with everyone getting in all excited? It poked a hole. Then, everyone was getting water out with their shoes. I had my life preserver so I was just hanging on to it. You know, laid on it. You know if the enemy comes around and they see you, they’ll shoot you. If you put the life preserver on, you’re floating. You can’t go under the water. You’re a target. So I just held my life preserver. I could get off of it any time I wanted. I was looking around all the time. If they came by, I could just lift my life preserver and go down. You can go down about two feet. A bullet can’t get you. A bomb could knock you out. Luckily, it didn’t happen. They didn’t come back.
How did you manage to survive?
When the ship got hit I was in Combat Area – that’s what it’s called, Combat Area. The Australians picked us up. After that they dumped us on a little island called Gilli Gilli. We didn’t have no clothes, all we had was on our back. No guns, no nothing. You see, they couldn’t keep us on their boat. It was small, something like a destroyer. So they needed all the room they could get on that boat. They told us they had to drop us off. They would tell the Americans where we were.
Soon as the American got there, he [the officer in charge] wanted to know how the hell we got there. He’d never been there. When I got outta there I had what’s called a skin rot and athlete’s foot. It was wet all the time, in between my toes. All up my legs. When I went to the dispensary, the doctor put some kind of cream on them. The skin came off. I don’t know how I got off that island, [but] I went to another island.
Joe Crews came home at the end of the war in 1945 and went back to work in Philadelphia until he and his family moved to Cape May. On July 18, 2009, surrounded by scores of friends and family, Joe celebrated his 89th birthday at the Cape May VFW.