A precious memento is lost and recovered, a new friend is found

Ted Mogil, at his Island apartment last week, shows the prayer book he lost in 1948 that Wil Beach found recently in Omaha.   - Elizabeth Celms/Mercer Island Reporter
Ted Mogil, at his Island apartment last week, shows the prayer book he lost in 1948 that Wil Beach found recently in Omaha.
— image credit: Elizabeth Celms/Mercer Island Reporter

It was an ordinary afternoon a couple of weeks ago when the phone rang in an Island Square apartment. A young boy’s voice asked the man who answered if he was Ted Mogil from Omaha, Neb. Mogil, 85, puzzled by the young voice, said yes, and then listened as the boy turned from the phone and said excitedly, “Dad, Dad, this is him!”

Wil Beach, 12, had found something that belonged to Mogil, something he had last held in his hands more than 60 years ago. It was a tiny prayer book that he carried with him daily when he was in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II in the South Pacific.

The tiny book was written in both Hebrew and English. It had both daily prayers and those for High Holy Days. Inside the cover, Mogil had written:

Nov. 5, 1942

The book was given to him by the New York-based Jewish Welfare Board on the day in Des Moines, Iowa, when Mogil took the oath to serve his country. From there he moved with his unit to San Diego and Camp Kearny, now NAS Miramar, before shipping out to the South Pacific. He was trained to be an aircraft electrician.

“But there were no airplanes for us quite yet,” he laughed. There were some soon after, but by then Mogil had been assigned to the infantry.

The book became part of his uniform, he said. He carried it, carefully wrapped, in the left breast pocket of his uniform “so it wouldn’t get wet.” But it did anyway, he remembered. The book appears no worse for the wear, its orange paper cloth cover only worn a bit. The pages are clean and the font is clear.

He was the only Jew in his unit, Mogil said.

Due to a good deal of anti-Semitism, he was naturally wary around his comrades. While he wasn’t afraid, he said he did not mix too much with the other Marines. But there were two young men, both Southern Baptists, who took it upon themselves to look after Mogil. They pledged that they would protect him if anyone looked the wrong way at him.

When asked why he took such care to keep the little book with him, Mogil — a matter-of-fact former building contractor — paused. “Well, for comfort,” he said. “It was for luck.”

After the war, Mogil returned to Omaha and married his childhood sweetheart, Etta. After a brief stay in Omaha, they moved west, eventually living for several years in California, then in Hawaii. They never returned to the Midwest.

Mogil and his wife believe that the book was lost when they moved from Nebraska in 1948.

Wil Beach and his family live in the small community of Harlan, Iowa, about an hour away from Omaha, where they attend Temple Israel. Beach, who will start seventh grade in the fall, is already beginning his studies toward his Bar Mitzvah next year.

Earlier this spring, he was at the annual book fair with his father at the temple, where his eye fell upon the tiny orange book. He saw the imprint on the cover and the handwritten inscription inside. He called for his father, “Dad, we have to find the man this book belongs to.”

He picked it up, he said, because “it looked really cool. It was small and old.”

When asked if he could read the Hebrew, he said well, no — not enough vowels.

The boy, who just turned 12 on May 9, paid 15 dollars of his own money for the book. It is money that he makes from mowing the lawn.

Beach’s father, Ron, said his son was not a collector of books. He is a busy middle schooler with many interests. He has an older sister, Dru, and a younger brother, Jack. There are three dogs, a hamster and a cat at home. He has been wrestling since he was six. He plans on running cross country next year in seventh grade. He likes to fish and hunt.

“Video games, texting and hanging out with his friends consumes much of his time,” his father said.

Ron Beach said that his son may have been drawn to the book because of his friends, Donald and Pearle Norgaard. Donald Norgaard, 84, was in the Army infantry. He was wounded and captured during WWII, but escaped via help from the French underground, then captured again. The Norgaards, who attend many games and events in Harlan, have become like surrogate grandparents to the family, Ron Beach said.

Like many families, war followed the Mogils for many years. The couple was introduced after a fashion by Etta Mogil’s brother, Sol Marcus, who was Mogil’s best friend. Mogil said that he fell in love with Etta the day they met. It wasn’t as quick for her. She was miffed that the two boys were late picking her up that evening from school.

Yet Sol Marcus died fighting in Italy in 1948. Etta Mogil’s other brother, Nate, was in WWII, as were Ted Mogil’s brothers, Charlie and Earl. The Mogils’ eldest son, Barry, served in Vietnam during the long and bloody Tet Offensive in South Vietnam in 1968.

The Mogils moved to the Island three years ago. They live in Island Square. Etta Mogil has Parkinson’s and has daily help from Mila, a caregiver, who is originally from Russia. Their son, Scott Mogil, and his family also live on the Island. Another son lives in Portland, Ore., and one in California. They have seven grandchildren and two great-grandsons. A fourth son died six years ago. They are happy here. They enjoy the leafy view from their living room window, and Mogil is pleased that he can walk everywhere.

Finding Mogil and returning the book seemed a bit unlikely after Beach and his dad found dozens of Ted Mogils on the Internet.

But the first call they made was the right one. His father, who overheard the conversation, noted that there was disbelief on both sides. First, from Mogil who was very surprised, and then his son, who was shocked that they had found the right person on the very first try.

Beach mailed the book to Mercer Island. And Mogil wrote back with photos of himself from the war and of his family. Mogil hopes to attend Beach’s Bar Mitzvah next May. Beach is planning a Mitzvah project which will involve WWII veterans or concentration camp survivors in some way.

Like many veterans, Mogil did not speak of his time in the service, his son Scott Mogil said. Yet the book did come up once.

“My father mentioned the book many years ago in passing when we were talking about what, if anything, he brought back from the war,” Scott Mogil said. “Most of his gear was lost in the ocean as he was boarding a ship for home. He was climbing a rope ladder from a troop transport to the ship when a Marine above him accidentally kicked him in the head. His duffel bag fell into the water. Yet the prayer book was tucked away in his uniform pocket, where he had always kept it during his tour.”

Ron Beach said that the book fair is held every year at the temple. At the end of each fair, the books are boxed up and stored to sell the next year, he explained.

“Who knows how many years the book had been put out and then stored at Temple Israel before Wil found it there?”

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