By Mary Lahaj and Sheila Omar Malasi
Like other American families, the eight founding families of the Islamic Center of New England in Quincy (the first mosque in New England-1964) sent their sons and daughters to fight in World War II. One came home with the Purple Heart for courage under fire, John Omar.
Before he became well-known as the first religion teacher at the mosque, a crackerjack mechanic, and the owner of Omar’s Garage, located first on Water Street in Quincy, and later, near the Burgin Parkway, John enlisted in the Army Air Corps and served his country from 1943-1945.
At eighteen, after graduating with honors from Quincy High School in 1943, John was the top turret gunner and flight engineer for a B-24 Liberator, dubbed by the crew, “She’s Our Gal.” Assigned to the 8th Air Force, 382nd Bomb Squadron 491st Bomb Group, John and the crew were stationed in Pickingham Air Field in Norfolk, England.
It was early in the war, when the enemy was eager to take down any Allied aircraft, before it could hit its target. But even before they started to fly missions, the crew had a couple of close calls during the training program, including a difficult landing that broke the nose wheel. Another time the hydraulics failed prompting a call from the pilot to “Omar” (the crew’s nickname for him) to manually crank down the landing gear so they could make an emergency landing. The plane landed without the brakes and skidded to within a few feet from the end of the runway.
During the Battle of the Bulge, a heavy snowstorm at the start of one mission caused their plane to crash shortly after takeoff. Eleven of the 500-pound bombs aboard were jettisoned into a field below. When the plane hit the ground, the 12th bomb came crashing through the cockpit bulkhead with its nose a few feet from Omar’s back. Moments after they crashed, Omar heard the pilot screaming for help and was able to help free the pilot from the burning wreckage so that they could both quickly escape from the plane in case of an explosion.
In a mission to Magdeburg Germany, they encountered a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft flak as they were approaching the target. They lost the #3 engine and the rudder cable was severed. Because the hydraulics system was damaged, they could not open the bomb bay doors to release the bombs.
In response, Omar disconnected his heated flight suit and straddled a 9″ catwalk that ran from the cockpit to the waste door to reach the cranks that opened the bomb bay doors. In 42 below zero temperatures, clinging precariously to the struts of the catwalk- the only thing between him and the earth below- Omar manually cranked open the doors so the bombs could be released. While performing this task, shrapnel wounded him in his right foot.
Once the bombs were released, he then turned his attention to repairing the severed rudder cables so that the plane could be turned around. With the #3 engine out, the plane kept losing altitude as they were leaving Germany. A “May Day” call was sent out and someone gave the pilot a heading. Miraculously they made the landing on a very short runway with no gas showing in the tanks. The plane’s fuselage had been hit 44 times. For his courageous actions in that mission, Omar was promoted to Sargent and awarded the Purple Heart. He flew a total of 29 missions, before the war ended.
Many of the young Muslim men in the founding families enlisted, including Sam Hassan (president of the Islamic Center of New England 12 times), his brothers (Ali, Abdu, Moe, and Albert) and sister, Zaida. In the Ameen family, Joey, Michael, and Sam joined up, and two daughters enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), formed in 1943. Jimmy Abraham, Moe Allie, the Derbes, and the Hassan Brothers were among the boys who enlisted in WW II and fought in subsequent wars as well.
Other patriots stayed home. My grandfather, for example, Mohamed Omar, the first Imam of the mosque in Quincy, trained as a welder and helped build warships for Bethlehem Steel at the Fore River Shipyard. Quincy Point, located near the mosque and the Shipyard, is the neighborhood where John Omar and my mother, Mary, grew up. Many in the Muslim community remember John fondly, as a religion teacher in the Quincy mosque, but very few have any knowledge of his heroic war efforts or his Purple Heart.
Meanwhile, John married and raised eight children of his own. Below is John’s wedding picture from 1946. Almost all eight of the Islamic Center founding family members attended his wedding.
FRONT ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT: Ramsey Ameen Hassan; Fadal Hassan; Mary Omar Hassan; Bride-Mary Omar; John Omar (groom); and Emma Hassan. BACK ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT: Sam Hassan; Carl Awad (Navy veteran); Ali Awad (bride’s father); Mohamad Omar (John’s father).