Information on The Bridge to Victory

Jay Howard Dakelman was twenty years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. A Junior at Panzer College of Physical Education and Health, Jay convinced several of his buddies to cut a deal with the Draft Board of the United States Army,  allowing them to enlist as medics in early January 1942, but to defer induction into the armed forces until the fall of that year, thus allowing them to graduate from college  before entering the military.

After basic training in Georgia, Jay was assigned to the 86th Pontoon Battalion of the First Army Corps of Engineers. Part I of the biography, Bridges, details the vital role that the Engineers played in moving, not only millions of troops needed to win the war, but all the vehicles, machinery, and materials that were essential for combat victory.

Landing on Omaha Beach in June 1944, the 86th Pontoon Battalion received five battle stars for serving in five major campaigns on the European front, including the invasion of Normandy, the Battle of St. Lo, the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle at Remagen, and the invasion of Germany. Details from many of his harrowing experiences are recounted through letters that Jay wrote home to a young redhead from Newark, NJ, who would one day become his wife.

Through their harrowing journey, Jay triaged those wounded in battle, denying his mother’s wishes that he become a doctor after the war. Jay had other dreams; he yearned to coach football, the sport about which he was passionate. He wanted to mold young men into becoming academic scholars as well as outstanding athletes.

However, during their odyssey throughout Europe the 86th took part in liberating the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Nordhausen. Jay’s dreams of glory on the gridiron turned into chronic nightmares from which this brave, young man would not escape for the rest of his life. As a Jewish soldier, the horror of what he had witnessed in the camps would haunt him forever.

The incredible details of this story come from four sources that made it possible to put the pieces together. The first source is the book on the 86th Pontoon Battalion, written by its commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Robert Haas. The Lt. Colonel kept meticulous data on the movements of the three companies in his group, A, B, and H & S. The second source was the letters from Jay to Thelma, mentioned previously. Through the missives that Jay wrote, we see the changes in his attitude as the war progresses into a longer and more protracted nightmare, from which Jay will suffer much of his life. The third source used to create Part I of the biography is the collection of over 1000 photographs that Jay took during the war. These unique pictures illustrate the vital work of the engineers who created the critical pathways from the shores of Normandy into the heart of Germany. The final source material used in putting together the book is the many conversations that the author shared over the years with her father as he detailed his experiences during World War II for her.

Upon returning to the states in November of 1945, Jay became a hero in the domain of sports. Part 2, Victory, recounts Jay’s role as a visionary in national and state athletics. Refusing to accept defeat on the battlefield, Jay was equally tenacious on the football field, amassing an .802 winning record as the Head Football Coach of Highland Park High School as well as having his teams capture 16 out of the 19 NJ State Track and Field Championships during his tenure as Head Track and Field coach.

Part II, Victory, provides a window into the hearts and souls of the tenacious teams that Jay worked with over the years. We meet many of the dedicated athletes who grew to admire and love Jay, and who still remember the life’s lessons that he imparted to them on and off the field of play.

Jay’s dedication to ensuring the evolution of women’s athletics in New Jersey and his commitment to students of color achieving higher social status by furthering their education in colleges and universities, secured Jay’s selection as the 1982 National Athletic Director of the Year, the only Athletic Director from New Jersey to have won this coveted award.

Despite the fact that Jay Dakelman has been gone for over three decades, his larger than life personality, his commitment to the youth of America, and his passion for athletics allow his reputation to continue to shine as a beacon for other educators. As one of “the greatest generation,” the story of Jay’s incredible life is inspirational as well as innately human.