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First lead singer for ‘Charlie on the MTA,’ Sam Berman, 98, was honored for WWII heroism

Sam Berman; his wife, Vivian; and their son, David, in 2013.Pat Greenhouse

The navigator and bombardier in a B-25 during World War II, Sam Berman was on a November 1944 mission over Italy’s Po Valley when anti-aircraft fire struck the Army Air Forces bomber, sending it into a nose dive.

About to bail out, Mr. Berman paused and “thought, ‘Gee, nobody else is going,’ I’d better check and see the pilots,” he recalled in an interview last year that is posted on YouTube.

He revived the slumped, unconscious copilot, who brought the bomber out of the dive and awakened the injured pilot. As they flew with only one working engine, Mr. Berman charted a course back to their base in Corsica, France. For his heroism in saving the crew, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

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Mr. Berman, who five years later made history as the lead singer on the original recording of what became the popular song “Charlie on the MTA,” died May 3 in his Brookhaven at Lexington home of complications from a fall.

He was 98 and for decades had lived in Lexington, where he and his late wife, Vivian, were among the original residents of the Five Fields community.

Reluctant for many years to speak publicly about his World War II service, Mr. Berman agreed to give the keynote speech at Lexington’s Memorial Day ceremonies in 2016.

“I think there are very few wars worth fighting for,” he told the Patriot Ledger a few days before the gathering.

“The one I served in was worth it,” he said. “There was a maniac who wanted to rule the world and it was necessary to save people from that. Americans since then have been involved in all sorts of wars for no purpose that I consider worth having fought. As for the soldiers who are sent to fight in a war, these people deserve our respect. I honor them and I mourn their loss. Memorial Day is not to honor war; it is meant to honor the soldiers we have lost.”

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Politically progressive, he was part of the Boston People’s Artists folk group that recorded campaign music in 1949 for Boston mayoral candidate Walter A. O’Brien Jr.

Running on the Progressive Party ticket, O’Brien finished last in a historic election in which John B. Hynes defeated James Michael Curley.

“Charlie on the MTA” enjoyed a better fate than O’Brien’s campaign, though, becoming a 1959 hit for the Kingston Trio, whose reworked version jettisoned some of the song’s progressive political trappings.

But in Boston at the end of the 1940s, it was Mr. Berman’s lead vocals letting city voters know that Charlie “never returned/And his fate is still unlearned/He may ride forever, ‘neath the streets of Boston/ He’s the man who never returned.”

“We wrote seven songs for Wally in that election, and ‘Charlie on the MTA’ was one of them,” Mr. Berman told the Globe in 1998, not long after O’Brien died. “In those days, political campaigns culminated at a delicatessen in Dorchester, and different campaigns used to try and drown each other out with their sound trucks.”

Mr. Berman and his brother Arnold, who was part of the folk group, came up with the idea for a song that lampooned a decision by subway officials to charge riders an extra 5-cent fee if they exited a car above ground. O’Brien’s campaign platform opposed that move.

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“Arnold and I were saying that if you didn’t have a nickel, then you could never get off the subway and you’d never get home,” Mr. Berman once recalled.

The song was cowritten by two members of the group. Bess Lomax Hawes adapted the tune from two old songs, and Jacqueline Steiner, who for a time was married to Arnold, wrote most of the lyrics. Initially, she dubbed the rider Angus, a name the group changed because it called to mind stereotypes about Scottish frugality.

“I think it was Bess who came up with the name Charlie just out of the blue,” Steiner, who died in 2019, told the Globe in 2010.

Hawes contributed the song’s most memorable image — Charlie’s wife heading to Scollay Square Station every day to hand “Charlie a sandwich/As the train comes rumbling through.” The fictional Charlie later became the namesake of the MBTA’s current CharlieCard for fares.

“I still have my original sound truck record from that,” Mr. Berman said in the YouTube interview, conducted last year by Dan Fenn.

Samuel Berman was born in 1923 in Marathon, N.Y., the seventh of eight siblings. His parents were Isaac Berman, who ran the family’s trucking firm, and Sarah Small, a stay-at-home mother.

Mr. Berman grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., until his family moved to Roxbury.

After graduating from Roxbury Memorial High School, he went to the University of Wisconsin. When World War II began, he left to enlist in the Army Air Forces.

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His poor vision prevented him from becoming a pilot, “so I wound up doing everything else on a plane,” he told Fenn. “I was a gunner, a radio operator, a bombardier, a navigator.”

Along with the Distinguished Flying Cross, he was awarded the Air Medal multiple times, though no flight matched the mission in which anti-aircraft fire struck his bomber.

“The plane was in a nose dive toward the ground,” he later wrote of that moment.

For decades, Mr. Berman kept his medals tucked away in a drawer, said his son David of Lexington.

“He totally downplayed his participation in World War II because he was a pacifist,” David said, adding that his father had protested against the Vietnam War. “He was a very progressive protester and activist as it relates to any sort of equal rights. He was a big advocate of the underdog.”

Mr. Berman, who had run his family’s trucking firm, married Vivian Mutchnick in 1951.

“He lived for my mother,” David said. “She was an amazing artist.”

Mrs. Berman, a printmaker and designer whose work is in the permanent collections of institutions such as the Library of Congress, died in 2016. Their son Mark died in December of complications from a fall.

A multifaceted musician, Mr. Berman wrote and sang songs, along with playing guitar, banjo, and harmonica. In 1999, he and Steiner were among the musicians who sang “Charlie” with the original, progressive political lyrics at a State House ceremony honoring several Massachusetts women whose contributions had been excluded from history.

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By the end of the performance, even the Republican elected officials in the audience were standing and singing along.

“There was a pleasure in feeling that something that came out of our left-wing past is now part of Boston history,” Mr. Berman later said.

A memorial gathering will be announced for Mr. Berman, who in addition to David leaves two other sons, Jonas of Lexington and Michael of Cambridge; and nine grandchildren.

To the end, Mr. Berman kept a clear-eyed perspective about his World War II service, and the ravages of all wars.

“Veterans Day and Memorial Day are sort of an advertisement for the military,” he said in the interview with Fenn.

“We talk about the heroic things that happened,” Mr. Berman said, adding that such discussions are “kind of a lure to get young people to get in, and they want to be heroes, too. And in the end, nobody’s a hero.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.