It was almost 2 in the morning, 70 years ago, when trouble began at New York’s Pier 92.
Navy Ensign Ben Grenald, then 23, was stationed as officer of the deck on military vessel LST-319.
Nearby the Queen Mary was moored. Before the war, she could speed dignitaries, celebrities, royalty and the rich across the Atlantic, from Southampton in southern England, to New York. It took just five days.
But in World War II, the Queen Mary, one of the largest and fastest ocean liners built, was painted in camouflage with her portholes blacked out. For her military work she traveled more than 600,000 miles and carried 800,000 troops. She also transported thousands of German prisoners of war.
In the darkness of May 12, 1943, eight of them wriggled through those portholes, jumped and splashed into the Hudson River.
A sentry patrolling the dock heard them and young Grenald on deck was suddenly in charge of a situation.
“They brought me two of the escapees, soaking wet. They both had German-to-English dictionaries in their pockets,” Grenald, now 93, remembered. “But I had no trouble with the German and I asked them ‘ Woher kommen Sie?’ Where are you from?”
Eventually six more were brought aboard, all dripping, re-captured after their daring escape attempts.
“It was my first time on watch. That means you’re the boss of Pier 92. When they brought me the first two POWs we put men with guns trained on them, and separated them by 30 feet,” he said recently from his North Miami Cricket Club condo. “I didn’t know if they had explosives on them. I had to have them strip down.”
“They weren’t spies,” he said. “I called the Queen Mary and ordered a physical muster of the men. We had these eight guys all in this big room.”
The ship’s log records a return of the escapees to English authorities at military time 0335 (3:35 a.m.). The prisoners, all captured from German U-boats and the Luftwaffe German Air Force, had been rounded up through the U.S. Marines, Coast Guard, Army and Navy troops and the New York City Police.
Grenald kept a copy of the 1943 New York Post article headlined “Nazis’ Capture Thriller.” The story said the last man was found hiding under an Army truck. By the end of Grenald’s watch at 4 a.m., it was all over. He never had to be officer of the deck again.
Grenald and his sweetheart Selma were married in Miami Beach six weeks later. After the war he went on to become a pharmacist and owner of 30 South Florida drugstores, among them King Rexall 74th Street Drug Store, Meridian Apothecary and the Hotel Pharmacy on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.
Now approaching their own anniversary and the anniversary of the POW recapture, the couple make the excitement seem like just yesterday. Their condo is filled with 24 jumbo-size scrapbooks, some too heavy to lift.
“It’s not just about me. It’s my family and what happened during my life. I try to fill every page,” he said.
Their 70th anniversary is on June 23.
“I’m gonna give him 20 more years and then I’m gonna get myself a young one,” Selma joked.
Paintings and photographs cover their walls. They look like celebrities in their wedding portrait.
“Doesn’t she look like Elizabeth Taylor?” Grenald asked. Selma, who worked as a magazine journalist, is amazed at her husband’s memory.
“He can still remember the phone numbers from the old stores,” she said.
One of those old stores was at the corner of Red and Bird roads, the site of the current Allen’s. He called it Moderne Pharmacy 2 and ran it from 1948 to 1951 They kept a lending library and five phone booths on the second floor.
“We made Kentucky- style chili practically every day and issued 19,000 car license tags a year from that store. There would be 20 people in line each morning waiting,” he said.
Grenald also spent time in the 1980s serving as a Miami Beach city commissioner. His last election bid was in 1989 and he lost by 20-odd votes.
Born in Brooklyn with family roots in Kentucky, Grenald still works every day for his American Hygienic Laboratories, which sells fragrances and skincare products under the name D’Lanerg. That’s Grenald spelled backwards.
His Shuttle Lotion, which he created when he was 18 and a freshman at the Louisville College of Pharmacy, is still sold at Walgreen’s. It’s used to treat skin irritations like burns and insect bites. Grenald owns more than 150 patents, trademarks and copyrights and plans to add more.
But the night he helped round up the German prisoners remains his proudest moment.
Grenald was commended for his “meritorious service in the performance of his duty, showing exceptional vigilance, forehandedness and taking charge of a situation…He acted courageously, quickly and wisely,” wrote U.S. Navy Captain A.H. Pashley at the time. “The apprehension of these eight prisoners of war, all that had escaped, is very largely due to his actions.”
When asked the secret to his long and happy life, Grenald’s answer is simple and quick: “I’ve been blessed with a wonderful wife.”