Howard Silberstein 'quiet' war hero

Howard Silberstein didn't often talk about his war experiences, which began with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

His children didn't even know the career Naval officer was at Pearl Harbor until a grandson asked him about it point-blank. "He was a quiet hero," Eric Silberstein said of his father, who never boasted of his exploits as a World War II fighter pilot or his role in stopping Soviet ships en route to Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis.

Mill Creek resident Howard Silberstein, who flew a biplane at the start of his 25-year Naval career and later flew jets and helped develop guided missiles, died of congestive heart failure Oct. 22. He was 82.

Born in New York City on Jan. 24, 1919, Mr. Silberstein fell in love with aviation when he won a model-airplane contest in the town where he grew up, Huntington, W.Va. The prize was a flight with barnstorming pilot Roscoe Turner and a lioness that traveled with Turner.

Mr. Silberstein was attending the University of Southern California on a football scholarship as the clouds of war gathered. He dropped out in 1941 to enlist in the Navy and was sent to flight school in Pensacola, Fla.

Mr. Silberstein was in Pearl Harbor as the pilot of a catapult-launched biplane aboard the battleship USS Tennessee when the Japanese navy launched its attack.

He shared details about the experience only when asked by his 10-year-old grandson, Cameron. The boy's father and mother, Eric Silberstein and Dana Middleton, listened in amazement as Mr. Silberstein recalled how he and his crewmates had fished sailors out of the water — some badly burned by flaming fuel.

Mr. Silberstein was stationed at Seattle's Sand Point Naval Base when he met his future wife, Shirley Rae Myers, on a double date. They were married in San Francisco on June 26, 1942.

During the Battle of Midway, Mr. Silberstein was shot down by an American ship as he and other U.S. pilots were chasing a disabled Japanese plane headed for the ship. The Japanese plane also crashed into the sea. Mr. Silberstein escaped without a scratch.

In the 1950s, he was assigned to the Bureau of Weapons, where he worked with German missile designers on forerunners of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile.

When President John F. Kennedy confronted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over the Soviets' deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba, Mr. Silberstein developed an operational plan for the Naval task force led by the aircraft carrier USS Lexington.

He was on the first crew to board a Soviet cargo ship as part of the U.S. quarantine of Cuba.

After retiring from the Navy in 1966, Mr. Silberstein became president of Marquardt, an aerospace defense contractor. A painter and lover of jazz, he took up needlepoint after retirement and won California's Golden Thimble award.

Howard and Shirley Rae Silberstein had agreed he could decide where they would live for 20 years after his Navy retirement, and she would decide where they would live for the next 20.

They were living in California when he came home from golfing exactly 20 years to the day following retirement, and she told him, "We've got something to discuss."

They moved back to the Seattle area to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Silberstein is survived by sons Howard Julian Silberstein and Eric Charles Silberstein; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

At Mr. Silberstein's request, no services are planned. His ashes will be scattered at Arlington National Cemetery. The family suggests gifts to the University of Washington Medical Foundation.

Keith Ervin can be reached at 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com.