Morton Tinslar Seligman:  Naval Hero, Part I

Midshipman Morton Tinslar Seligman c. 1918  Courtesy of Arthur Scott

Midshipman Morton Tinslar Seligman c. 1918
Courtesy of Arthur Scott

The story of Morton Tinslar Seligman is a fascinating one.  Morton, the son of James Leon and Ruth Seligman and my first cousin twice removed, was a decorated Navy hero in World War I and in World War II, but his name is also clouded by accusations that he leaked important classified information to a member of the press after the Battle of the Coral Sea during World War II.

Morton was born on July 1, 1895, in Salt Lake City, but grew up in Santa Fe, attended the University of New Mexico and then the US Naval Academy, from which he graduated in June, 1918, as described earlier.  After he graduated from Annapolis, he was commissioned as an ensign and was assigned to the U.S.S. Manchuria transport service.  By July, 1918, he was overseas engaged in submarine patrol off the coast of England and France.  After the war ended, he was promoted to lieutenant j.g., and from December, 1918, until October, 1919, he was engaged in an operation to clear the North Sea of mines.  He returned to New York in November, 1919, having overseen twenty subchasers in his command. Of those twenty, one was lost at sea due to explosions and fire, one was damaged so severely that it was not safe to sail it back to the US, and one was damaged but did eventually return.  No crew members were lost as a result of these damages, and his mission was completed successfully.

Morton Seligman WW 1 service history page 1

Morton Seligman WW1 service history

New Mexico Commission of Public Records, State Records Center and Archives; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Series Title: Service Reports; Series Number: 18.1.6; Box Number: 10899; Collection Name: New Mexico Adjutant General Records; Collection Number: 1973-019

For his service, Morton was awarded the Navy Cross for distinguished service.  (“Servicemen Cheer Hero at Canteen,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 21, 1943, p. 18)  His commendation read:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant, Junior Grade Morton Tinslar Seligman (NSN: 0-34590), United States Navy, for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. C-272, engaged in the important and hazardous duty of sweeping for and removing the mines of the North Sea Barrage during World War I.

I am not sure where Morton was stationed once he returned to the US, but as of August 19, 1925, he was stationed in Honolulu as part of the aviation corps, according to a wedding announcement in the San Francisco Chronicle.  On that date, Morton married Eleanor Reynolds, the daughter of Ziba Wells Reynolds, who had been a pay director in the Navy; her brother Lieutenant Stewart Reynolds was also serving in the Navy.  The article, reprinted below with a photograph of the bride, reported that Morton was assigned to Honolulu for the next three years.  (Another article stated that his Honolulu assignment was for two years, and that appears to have been more accurate.  “Sail from San Pedro,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 2, 1925, p. 14)

Morton Seligman marriage article 8 19 25

San Francisco Chronicle, August 10, 1925, page 14

On August 29, 1925, Morton and Eleanor sailed out of Los Angeles to Hawaii on the SS Calawaii, arriving in Honolulu on September 5, 1925. (National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Honolulu, Hawaii, compiled 02/13/1900 – 12/30/1953; National Archives Microfilm Publication: A3422; Roll: 083; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787 – 2004; Record Group Number: RG 85)

Two years later they returned to California on the SS City of Honolulu, departing June 18, 1927, for Wilmington, California, where Morton was assigned to V.F. Squadron 6, a fighter squadron, part of the US Navy Battle Fleet. ( U.S., Military Registers, 1862-1985[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013.)

Although he is listed as residing in San Diego in the 1929 San Diego city directory, he must have been reassigned during that year to Washington, DC, with the Bureau of Aeronautics. (“Mrs. Seligman Leaves for Washington, D.C.,” San Diego Union, September 23, 1929.)

It seems that the marriage did not survive long thereafter because by April 3, 1930, the date of the 1930 census, Morton was divorced, and he was living with a fellow Navy aviator in Washington, DC.  He was still with the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1931, according to the Washington city directory of that year, although he was temporarily attached to the US Marine Corps as part of a special assignment to transport aircraft to Port au Prince, Haiti, in October, 1931. ( U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007.)  He returned from Haiti on November 2, 1931, giving the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington as his address. (Year: 1931; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 5067; Line: 7; Page Number: 64.)

Lt. Morton Seligman c. 1932  Courtesy of Arthur Scott

Lt. Morton Seligman c. 1932
Courtesy of Arthur Scott

By 1933, Morton was living in San Diego and was remarried to a woman named Adela.  I cannot find a marriage record or any other document that reveals Adela’s birth name, but she is listed with him as his wife on the 1933 San Diego city directory. He was now a Lieutenant Commander with the VF-1-B squadron, according to the U.S. Military Register for the year.  He and Adela were still living in San Diego as of 1939, according to that year’s directory, and Morton was still serving in the US Navy. According to the US Military Register for 1939, Morton was now a commander at the Naval Air Station in San Diego.  The 1940 census also has Morton and Adela living in San Diego, Morton’s occupation still as a naval aviator. By this time, Morton was 44, Adela was 41.   Morton had been serving in the Navy for over 20 years.  ( U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007.)

In October, 1941, Morton risked his life in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue two naval aviators who died when their plane crashed into the bay off the coast of San Diego.  According to the San Diego Union:

“Comdr. Morton T. Seligman, Naval Air station executive officer, made a dramatic attempt to rescue the fliers a few minutes after the crash.  Speeding to the scene of the accident in a crash boat, Cmdr. Seligman discovered that no one aboard was a diver.  Despite the fact that he had never donned a diving helmet in his entire navy career, the officer put on the helmet and diving suit, instructed the crew of the crash boat how to operate the air pumps and then dived overboard. 

“In 25 feet of water, Cmdr. Seligman discovered the bodies of the airmen in the smashed plane.  In trying to extricate them, Cmdr. Seligman suffered severe cuts on his left hand from jagged pieces of metal and wood.”  (“Two Fliers Die As Navy Plane Falls Into Bay,” San Diego Union, October 5, 1941, p. 1)

Two months later, the US would enter World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a place where Morton had once served.  Not long after, Morton was an officer on the USS Lexington, which was destroyed during the Battle of the Coral Sea, which took place from May 4 through May 8, 1942.  The battle was described as follows on the official US Navy website Naval History and Heritage Command:

“The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought in the waters southwest of the Solomon Islands and eastward from New Guinea, was the first of the Pacific War's six fights between opposing aircraft carrier forces. Though the Japanese could rightly claim a tactical victory on "points", it was an operational and strategic defeat for them, the first major check on the great offensive they had begun five months earlier at Pearl Harbor. The diversion of Japanese resources represented by the Coral Sea battle would also have immense consequences a month later, at the Battle of Midway.  ….. 

“Preliminary operations on 3-6 May and two days of active carrier combat on 7-8 May cost the United States one aircraft carrier, a destroyer and one of its very valuable fleet oilers, plus damage to the second carrier. However, the Japanese were forced to cancel their Port Moresby seaborne invasion. In the fighting, they lost a light carrier, a destroyer and some smaller ships. Shokaku received serious bomb damage and Zuikaku’s air group was badly depleted. Most importantly, those two carriers were eliminated from the upcoming Midway operation, contributing by their absence to that terrible Japanese defeat.”

English: Battle of the Coral Sea

English: Battle of the Coral Sea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The website also notes that “The U.S. Navy [was] tipped off to the enemy plans by superior communications intelligence” that helped them in their fight against the Japanese in this battle.

As for Morton’s role, a US Navy Cruise Book described the battle and the USS Lexington’s role in that battle in great detail.  According to this source, on the morning of May 7, 1942, the aircraft carrier was hit by five torpedoes and numerous bombs.  Although seriously damaged, the ship did not sink, and by 1 pm it was on even keel and only had one fire burning.  Then another major explosion occurred, caused by gasoline vapors igniting below the deck.  Several fires started, and by 5 pm the commanding office of the ship, Admiral Fitch, ordered the crew to abandon ship.  After the admiral and the crew had left, “Captain Sherman and his Executive Office, Commander Morton T. Seligman made a final inspection of their vessel amid flying debris, smoke and flames.  They then slid down a line, with the commanding officer being the last to leave—just as the torpedo head locker exploded, shaking both from the line and into the sea.  All but 26 officers and 190 men were rescued (including seven brothers aboard named Patten), and it is thought that none of these casualties occurred by drowning after abandoning ship.”

( U.S. Navy Cruise Books, 1918-2009 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2011. Original data: United States Navy. Various U.S. Navy Cruise Books. Navy Department Library, Washington, D.C.)

English: USS Lexington (CV-2), burning and sin...

English: USS Lexington (CV-2), burning and sinking after her crew abandoned ship during the Battle of Coral Sea, 8 May 1942. Note planes parked aft, where fires have not yet reached. Removed caption read: Photo # NH 51382 USS Lexington burning during the Battle of Coral Sea, May 1942 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For his service and heroism aboard the Lexington, Seligman was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Navy Cross.  His citation read:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Navy Cross to Commander Morton Tinslar Seligman (NSN: 0-34590), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of this profession as Executive Officer of the Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. LEXINGTON (CV-2), in action on 7 and 8 May 1942, during the Battle of the Coral Sea. During and after that battle Commander Morton directed the damage control and fire fighting parties, inspecting and visiting all critical parts of the ship. He personally assisted in removing all the wounded in many places. His distinguished leadership and timely decisions contributed greatly to the success of our forces and was largely responsible for the small loss of life that occurred when the ship was abandoned. Commander Seligman’s conduct throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Navy of the United States.

Navy Cross

Navy Cross

A month later, Morton Seligman would be caught up in a controversy involving another major Pacific battle, the Battle of Midway.  More on that in Part II.

Jonas Cohen, Sr., 1863-1902:  Another Tragic Accident and a Life Cut Short

The twelfth child of Jacob and Sarah Cohen was Jonas Cohen, sharing the name with his uncle, Jonas H. Cohen.  Jonas was born on August 15, 1863, and spent his childhood at 136 South Street.  When he was sixteen, he was already working as a clerk in the pawnshop, according to the 1880 census.

On February 21, 1892, he married Sarah Weil in New York City.[1]  Jonas and Sarah were living at 776 South 20th Street in 1895, and Jonas was working as a pawnbroker.  Their son, Jonas Cohen, Jr., was born on June 28 that same year.  In 1900, Jonas, Sarah, and their son were living at 2216 North Carmac Street; Sarah’s older brother Henry, who was also a pawnbroker and apparently in business with Jonas, was also living with them at that address.

Less than two years later, tragedy struck the family.

jonas news article

(“Untouched by Passing Train,” Sunday, October 20, 1901, Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA)   Volume: 145   Issue: 112   Section: Third   Page: 11)

Although the paper reported that Weil’s injuries were more serious, Henry Weil survived the accident.  Unfortunately, his business partner and brother-in-law, my great-granduncle Jonas Cohen, ultimately did not.  Over three months later, on February 10, 1902, Jonas Cohen died from “traumatic delirium from injuries” sustained from an accident with the Pennsylvania Railroad, according to his death certificate.  He would have been 36 years old just eleven days after he died.  He left behind his young wife Sarah and his son Jonas, Jr., who was not yet seven years old.

Jonas Cohen death certificate 1902

Jonas Cohen death certificate 1902

Sarah apparently never remarried and lived with her father and/or her brothers for most of the rest of her life.  In 1910, she and Jonas, Jr., were living with Simon Weil, her father, and three of her brothers, Henry, Aaron, and Monroe, and Monroe’s wife Maude at 2524 Broad Street.  Sarah had been born and married in New York City, but at some point her father and at least several of her siblings had all moved to Philadelphia.  Sarah’s brothers Henry, Aaron, and Monroe were all pawnbrokers by 1910.  Her father had been in the dry goods business in New York.  Had Sarah’s husband Jonas lured them all to Philadelphia by offering to go into the pawn business with them?

In 1917 Sarah and her son were still living at 2524 Broad Street, and Jonas, Jr., had joined the pawnbroker business, now called Weil Brothers, located at 16th Street and Jackson, according to his World War I draft registration.  His uncle Monroe was also working for Weil Brothers, though at a different address.  The city directory for 1918 lists both Henry and Aaron Weil also as working for Weil Brothers and living at 2524 Broad Street.

The same was true in 1920.  Sarah and her son were living at 2524 Broad Street with her father Simon and her brothers Henry and Aaron. (Monroe and his wife had moved on and had a place of their own.)  Her brothers were working as pawnbrokers, and her son Jonas was a seaman in the United States Navy.

By 1930, Simon Weil had died, but his children Henry, Aaron, and Sarah continued to live together at the same address, and Jonas, Jr., now 36 years old and out of the Navy, continued to live with them as well.  All three men described their occupation as “money lender.”  By 1940, Jonas had married and moved out, but Henry, Aaron and Sarah, now all around 70 years old, were still living together at 2524 Broad Street.  Henry and Aaron had never married; Sarah had never remarried.  They had been living together as adults since at least 1910, and probably from the time Jonas, Sr., had died in 1902.  Had the awful accident that had led to Jonas’ death also scarred all of them in some way, making it hard for any of them to separate and move on with their adult lives?

The Weil Siblings 1940 census

The Weil Siblings 1940 census

Jonas, Jr., however, did leave and start a life of his own.  In 1936, he married Sally Coleman.  In 1940, they were living at 2201 Venango Street[2], and Jonas was still working as a pawnbroker.

Jonas, Jr. and Sally Cohen 1940 census

Jonas, Jr. and Sally Cohen 1940 census

On his World War II draft registration he was living at 5929 Springfield Avenue, and his emergency contact was Sarah Cohen of the same address.  Unless Sally’s real name was Sarah, this would seem to refer to Jonas’ mother, not his wife, but I cannot be sure. Perhaps both his mother and his wife were living with him at that address.

Jonas Cohen, Jr. World War II draft registraiton

Jonas Cohen, Jr. World War II draft registraiton

Henry Weil died in 1945, or at least that is the date on the funeral bill paid by his brother Aaron.  It looks like he was cremated.  I could not find a death record for Aaron, but presumably he lived at least until 1945 since he paid that bill and since his death certificate is not in the database that runs up through 1944.  Neither Aaron nor Henry is buried at Mt. Sinai; their brother Monroe and his wife Maude Weil lived until 1953 and 1959, respectively, and are buried at Mt. Sinai. Perhaps Aaron and Henry were buried in New York at Union Field Cemetery like their father and presumably their mother.

Sarah died on June 18, 1959, and was buried at Mt Sinai next to Jonas, her husband of only ten years who had died almost 60 years earlier.  She was 89 years old, according to burial records.  Her sister Florence Weil Blaufeld had ordered her interment.

Sarah and Jonas Cohen’s son, Jonas, Jr., lived to be 90 years old.  He died on March 3, 1986, and is buried next to his parents at Mt. Sinai.  I could not find an obituary to help determine whether he ever had children or what he did from 1942 until 1986.  However, his interment order was authorized by someone named Sally Cohen.



[1] I thought that perhaps Sarah Weil was somehow related to Lewis Weil, who had married Jonas’ sister Rachel, but I cannot find a connection.  Even though Sarah’s father was named Simon, and Lewis’ brother was named Simon, even though both had ancestral roots in Germany, I could not find any definitive familial tie.

[2] My father was also living on Venango Street in 1940 with his mother and sister, according to the 1940 census.  I wonder if he knew that his father’s first cousin Jonas was living down the street.