The first thing I ever read about Walter Sak Playground was in a city report stating it was “a forlorn park in a forlorn neighborhood”. Little evidence of a playground remained when I first rolled by. The surrounding neighborhood was a mixed bag of hope and blight with some new construction and steadfast neighbors just trying to keep it all together.
Lifsitz playground has seen some action since I first wrote about it in June 2013. The Canul family in Los Angeles contacted me to say ‘thanks’ for remembering Mortimer. That’s my favorite part .. connecting with the relatives. The old playground equipment was painted last year by a volunteer group; basketball players continue their workout on an antiquated court; it was getting mowed pretty regularly and even had a short commercial filmed there. In 2015, it’s been listed on the ‘for sale / reuse list’ by the city. When the perfect buyer appears, this memorial park will disappear. Mortimer’s memory will live on as an archival file and in the Jewish War Veteran’s Golden Book which features the Jewish Detroiters who were lost in WWII.
Dear Mrs. Lifsitz :
Your son, Private Mortimer N. Lifsitz a member of Company “B”, 116th Infantry Regiment, has been awarded the Silver Star posthumously for his outstanding actions against the enemy.
The citation for his heroic deed follows:
Private Mortimer N. Lifsitz, 116th Inf, U S Army for gallantry in action against the enemy in Germany. On 17 November 1944, the advance of Company ‘B’, 116th Infantry was suddenly halted by decimating enemy fire. Seeing that the majority of its leaders had become casualties, Private Lifsitz attempting to lead assault, jumped to his feet and calling on the men to follow, started forward on the run. While charging toward the enemy positions, Private Lifsitz fell mortally wounded by enemy fire. Private Lifsitz lost his life in this encounter but in doing so displayed such personal courage and tenacity in the face of great danger that he materially influenced the results of the encounter. His actions reflect great credit upon himself and the Military Service.
The officers and men of the 116th Infantry Regiment have lost not only an excellent soldier but a friend as well. It is for the comrades and officers of Private Lifsitz to carry on the fight which certainly must bring ultimate victory over an enemy which has for so long brought misery and destruction upon the world.
Private Lifsitz will not be forgotten, nor will the supreme sacrifice made by him. In all sincerity, the officers and men of the 116th Infantry Regiment extend their most heartfelt sympathy.
Sidney V. Bingham Jr.
Lt. Colonel Infantry Commanding
Mortimer Lifsitz was born on a Wednesday and died on a Friday. He was a Central High School graduate and worked in his father’s furniture business before enlisting. The only child of Max and Sophia. Military records show he was previously wounded twice before he met death in battle. His military decorations include: The Silver Star, Purple Heart and an Oak Leaf Cluster.
I have to check my notes but I do believe that at one point apartments were on the south side of the street and the park was just on the north side side of Gladstone.
SIGNS OF LIFE
The memorial playfield that commemorates Lifsitz’s leadership reaches down both sides of Gladstone Avenue west off Linwood in the heart of Detroit. No signage, fences, or markings remain at this site. The play area is marked by a few pieces of old equipment; a bit of the basketball court, and a makeshift brick bench. While visiting there in late winter/early spring, we ran into a few ring necked pheasants returning to their nest. A good sign. A few years back, neighborhood residents turned this block long park into a giant community garden; a bright spot in a somewhat hard place, just like Morty.
I appreciate your readership. thanks ag
Photo courtesy of Temple Beth El / Franklin Archives. Copyright 2013 – Andrea Gallucci. All Rights Reserved.
Tucked behind and to the side of Denby High School is the Lyle Maxton Skinner Memorial Playfield. Stocked with newer equipment, this playground is attractive and services the neighborhood off Duchess and Morang on Detroit’s eastside.
Lyle grew up on the west side of Michigan. Married to Jennie and living in Flint, he enlisted in the US Navy on June 15, 1937. During World War II he served aboard the Aircraft Carrier the USS Hornet. As a Watertender First Class, Lyle worked in the ship’s engine room / boiler room. October 26, 1942 marked the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands located in the Pacific Ocean north the Solomon Islands. In this battle, the US military was playing a game of catch-up against numerically superior Japanese forces. The Japanese were heavily bombing ships in the area. During the attack, the USS Hornet was being violently shaken by bursting bombs and Skinner was ordered to abandon ship. Instead, Lyle entered an oil-filled elevator pit and rescued a trapped shipmate who would have died otherwise. The USS Hornet later sunk.
Lyle’s courage and heroism earned him the honor and award of the Navy Cross. Unlike many war heroes, Lyle lived through this experience and was able to accept the medal personally. He returned to the west side of Michigan and died in the small village of Leroy, Michigan in 1984.
When you are traveling down Greenfield Road, turn west onto Margareta or Clarita Street and you will immediately stumble onto the Joe Bale Playfield. While a student at Michigan State University, “Little Joe” Bale enlisted for duty in World War II. He served with the Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment of the 3rd Division in the invasion of Anzio, Italy and Southern France. A few weeks after turning 21 years, Bale lost his life in the fierce Battle of Colmar Pocket on January 30, 1945 near Wihr-en-Plaine, France.
Bale’s battalion was attacked by enemy tanks. He fearlessly returned fire with his rocket launcher, ignoring shells exploding five yards away and machine gun bullets. Joe knocked out an enemy tank, forcing the Germans to withdraw. Later, the same morning his battalion was again attacked by another tank at 100 yards. Again, he braved shell fire in another single-handed attempt to destroy the tank; unfortunately he was mortally wounded. Joe Bale’s courage was posthumously honored with the Distinguished Service Cross.
Veterans, relatives and friends formed The Pfc. Joseph Bale Post 474 on June 9, 1946 – affiliated with the Jewish War Veterans Association of Michigan. Within two years, the post grew to over 100 members and eventually became the largest JWVA post in the Michigan. In 1953, Bale’s memory was honored with the dedication of this Detroit park. Mayor Albert Cobo, Rabbi Morris Adler, his parents and Post 474 members were in attendance for that Wednesday evening ceremony.
Joe was known as a superior athlete at Central High School in Detroit and at college. MSU named a dormitory building in his honor. [The building has since been renamed.] In 2011, the Michigan Jewish Sports Association honored both ‘Little’ Joe and his cousin ‘Big’ Joe Bale by hanging a plaque in their Hall of Fame to honor the memory of those students who served in war and for those who were never were able to fulfill their dream of competing in college sports.
As of this writing, the Joseph Bale Post 474 continues to hold monthly meetings. They remain a unified group who uphold the memory of all veterans through the fundraisers and attendance at religious and commemorative ceremonies. Importantly, they refuse to forget the simple story of an ‘average Joe’ that rose far above the ordinary. He gave his life fighting for his country and as a result, saved the lives of his buddies.
There are some things that are easily forgotten in 5 minutes and there are other events that can’t be forgotten across a life time. Joe’s memory lives on.
Military photo courtesy of The Rabbi Leo M. Franklin Archive