Carl Zeidler didn’t have to go to war. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor he was the mayor of Milwaukee, the nation’s 12th largest cityBut Zeidler felt a sense of duty and volunteered for the Navy Reserve. Seventy-five years ago this April, Zeidler was inducted into the military and left the city where he’d been mayor for just two years.
Handsome, blond, and charismatic – Zeidler charmed his constituents, especially female voters. And he could sing. Zeidler frequently broke into song at public events and on the radio – his signature song was “God Bless America.” He’d never run for public office when he decided to take on Milwaukee’s popular mayor Daniel Hoan. Zeidler ran an unorthodox campaign for the era, announcing his candidacy at a rally with a jazz band, two women playing accordions and balloons dropping from the ceiling. That sounds pretty standard for today’s elections but in 1940 that was unheard of.
Within months of the Pearl Harbor attack, Zeidler was in uniform like millions of other Americans. It was Zeidler’s misfortune to be assigned to the Merchant Marine at a time when German U-boats ruled the seas. In 1942 the German Wolfpack methodically picked off allied shipping, sending tons of equipment to the bottom of the ocean and thousands of sailors to their deaths.
In September 1942 Zeidler left on his first and what would turn out to be his only voyage, traveling from New York to Pakistan around the horn of Africa on a merchant ship filled with trucks, steel, ammunition and airplane parts. His vessel never arrived. Within weeks it was added to the growing list of ships lost at sea. In early December his parents received a telegram listing him as missing. A few years later he was declared dead.
His younger brother Frank, who would later serve 12 years as Milwaukee’s mayor, spent decades trying to learn Carl’s fate. Eventually in the mid-1970s he found out which U-boat had sunk his brother’s ship. That in turn led to the discovery of the U-159 commander’s logbook. It told in chilling and heartbreakingly matter-of-fact detail how the German submarine stalked Zeidler’s ship for eight hours near Cape Town, South Africa, and sunk it with one well-placed torpedo. The explosion was reportedly heard 300 miles away. The following summer, the U-159 was sunk by an American plane, killing everyone on board.
Zeidler was just 34 when he died. It was common knowledge among his family that when he returned from the war, he planned to run for higher office. Maybe governor. Maybe U.S. Senate. He would’ve been a popular candidate – a war hero who’d already made a name for himself as the Singing Mayor of Wisconsin’s largest city. Instead, the state Senate seat up for election in 1946 was won by another World War II veteran: Joseph McCarthy. We’ll never know if Carl Zeidler would have run for U.S. Senate or whether he would have beaten the man whose name became synonymous with the hateful practice of accusing someone of treason without evidence. But it’s interesting to consider that had it not been for one Nazi torpedo, McCarthyism might not be a word in our vocabulary.