Joseph Iscovitz picked up a machine gun to defend his country against attacking Japanese planes on a date that lives in infamy — Dec. 7, 1941.
It was still a defining moment in his 103-year life when he died Tuesday.
Iscovitz was among the oldest survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack that brought the United States into World War II, a 25-year-old Army Air Corps sergeant stationed at Fort Shafter on the island the morning of the surprise attack.
“He could see the faces of the Japanese pilots,” his son Doug Iscovitz said of his dad’s view of the low-flying assault.
“Everybody was scared,” he said, and they weren’t sure if an invasion was coming next.
“That night, after the Japanese attacked, my dad was part of the group that put barbed wire along Waikiki Beach,” he said. “They were so unprepared.”
Iscovitz was one of nine children born to Jewish immigrants from Russia who settled in Bayside, Queens, in New York. He roamed the country after the Great Depression hit.
“He went into the service in 1934 because he was hopping freight trains. He had nowhere to live and nothing to eat,” his son said. The Army paid him $25 a month and provided him a uniform.
He was stationed in Bataan in the Philippines before being transferred to Hawaii in 1939.
“He probably would have been in the death march at the start of World War II had he not transferred,” his son said.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, Iscovitz was sent to the mainland where he became a training sergeant. He later served in the Korean War and retired from Air Force in 1958 after 24 years of service.
He worked security for the Great Neck public schools in New York before moving to Florida in 1973. He became a Fort Lauderdale bridge tender, operating the Third Avenue bridge over the New River for about five years before retiring.
As the years passed, Iscovitz got more involved in a Pearl Harbor survivors organization and the Jewish War Veterans, traveling to the veterans hospital in Miami to visit with patients there.
His service during the Pearl Harbor attack became a source of pride in his later years. He was overwhelmed by the attention he received at commemoration events — from attending the 60th anniversary events in Hawaii in 2001 to being the center of attention at the Coast Guard station ceremonies in Fort Lauderdale the past three years.
“It’s deeply saddening that we are losing so many of what we call Our Greatest Generation,” said Mary Ann Gray, executive director of Broward Navy Days that puts on the annual local remembrance.
“I think I’m always honored in the presence of those people who have served our country so selflessly,” Gray said. “Even though he may have been the last Pearl Harbor survivor that we have had at our event, we will always continue to acknowledge (the day) each year.”
Fewer than 2,000 Pearl Harbor survivors are believed to be still living.
Iscovitz didn’t consider himself a hero and, like a lot of veterans of his day, didn’t talk much with his family about his war experiences.
“When we were young, we didn’t even know he served in Pearl Harbor,” said his son, a former principal at Indian Ridge Middle School in Davie. “He felt that it was the people that did not survive that were the real heroes. The people that came back were lucky.”
Iscovitz was married for 56 years to the former Diane Lewis, who died in 2000. He is survived by four sons: Doug of Weston, Steven of Coconut Creek, Dennis of Fort Lauderdale, and Elliott of Plantation; and five grandchildren.
Iscovitz will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in full formal military uniform and medals, but that ceremony could be a year away because of a backlog there, his son said. No local services are planned.
But even in death, Iscovitz continued to receive respect.
Four Coconut Creek police officers stood at attention and saluted as his body was placed in a van and taken away from his nursing home Tuesday.
Doug Iscovitz described his dad as a righteous man who believed in always doing the right thing.
“He loved the service. He loved his family. He loved his country,” his son said. “He had a great life.”
© 2019 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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