Mike Zippert served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War for exactly three years and 11-and-a-half months. Now, he uses his experience to protect history for future generations by working with other volunteers to restore and maintain historic ships from the Vietnam era.
Zippert, 69, was raised in Baltimore, the son of two Holocaust survivors. Growing up, he attended the Isaac Davidson Hebrew School and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Petach Tikvah Congregation on Denmore Avenue in 1965.
He married his wife, Beth Zippert, in 1977. They have a daughter, Helena Thomas, and a 4-year-old grandson.
The Zipperts (he being a seasoned mechanic during the war) travel up to Massachusetts twice a year to help maintain the U.S.S. Joseph P. Kennedy, named after the eldest son of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy — and the brother of President John F. Kennedy — a bomber pilot killed in action in World War II. The two are both part of the battleship renovation crew.
“We’re a bunch of military guys and volunteers. We get no money except for lunches and other assignments; all of our money is from grants and donations,” explained Zippert.
His commitment to restoring the ship comes in part from his bond with a similar vessel, which he served on himself, the U.S.S. Warrington — a Gearing-class destroyer that served the U.S. Navy from the end of World War II to the Vietnam War, when it was damaged by two underwater explosions that caused it to be listed as “beyond repair.”
As for the Kennedy, it is maintained and on display. A recent repair was the patching of a rust hole that measured three inches in diameter in the back of the ship’s forward gun mount. According to Zippert, even small details like this being kept up to speed is critical to historical accuracy.
“That hole bothered me,” he stated.
He explained the significance of even a small hole. He collects antique model trains, which are scaled down but remarkably accurate replicas of the original piece of equipment. When models of ships such as the Kennedy or other historically important equipment are made, small errors could end up on scale replicas as well.
Zippert is an active member of the Jewish War Veterans (JWV) of the U.S.A., which provides comradeship, support and a place to discuss the shared experiences of other Jewish vets. Such company is welcomed by Zippert, who recalled times in his life where he encountered people who were unaware that Jews served in the U.S. military. Veterans also regularly participate in community events and programs such as Scouting and JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps).
He is also a member of the Holocaust Committee of Baltimore, which brings in speakers to make people aware of history, antisemitism and “what goes on — that it starts out with prejudice against Jews and then it spreads,” he said.
During his career, Zippert recalled one man asking him, referring to Jews: “What are you doing as a mechanic? Aren’t you guys accountants and lawyers?”
Zippert has always taken pride in his mechanical knowledge, saying, “I was a mechanic and a good one. I made E5 in just under three years.”
‘I only remember the first explosion’
The continued upkeep of historic ships allows Zippert to apply his mechanical knowledge and practical experience to something meaningful, educating younger generations about the realities of war. He said he hopes that people of all ages learn from these restored vessels.
“The military is there for a reason, and this is what we had to deal with when we were in the service. It wasn’t parties all the time; it was maintaining our freedom,” he said.
He recalled a harrowing event during the Vietnam War where his skills as a mechanic were tested — the one that brought the ship to rest.
In mid-July of 1972, the Warrington hit two American Mark 36 mines, as the location of the mines was not recorded.
“I only remember the first explosion,” said Zippert, describing the chaos that descended sharply on the ship that night.
Even afterwards, the danger was far from over, as water started flooding the ship, steam pipes were compromised, and they were forced to rely on generator power to try to keep the vessel afloat. Through the chaos, Zippert worked with his fellow mechanic and carried a massive backup battery down multiple long, steep ladders to restore some power.
Later, he would learn that the hole in the ship was 8 feet long.