IN?MEMORY… Remembering area war veterans

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts.

Service: World War II, USS Gatling (DD-671) and USS Pollux

Medals and Awards: Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Medal with XXX Fleet Class, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Tactical Area of Responsibility: Marshall Islands, Japanese base at Truk, Marianas and Saipan.

Stanley and Katherine (Doros) Lazarczyk welcomed their son, Walter, into the world on June 2, 1920, in Dunkirk. After a lengthy illness and a long stay in the Veterans Hospital in Buffalo, we lost this Navy hero on Sept. 26, 1990. Between his birth and death, however, is the story of a life nobly lived.

Joining the U.S. Navy

Walter Lazarczyk enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the youthful age of 18. It was Dec. 24, 1938. His service to his country brought him to the Atlantic Ocean, where he was a gunner’s mate. He patrolled the waters off Casablanca before joining Admiral Halsey and Admiral Spruance in the Pacific. Those admirals would prove to be victorious in the major sea battle of Midway during early June of 1942, and Lazarczyk was proud to have served under them.

Lazarczyk spent much of his Naval career aboard the USS Gatling (DD-671), sailing across the Equator several times. He made these crossings on two different ships: the USS Gatling and the USS Pollux. He crossed that line so many times that he earned the nickname “Shellback.”

Aboard the Gatling, Lazarczyk was involved in constant combat duty, participating in assaults on enemy ships and enemy aircrafts. During one particularly harrowing fire exchange near the Marshall Islands in the north Pacific, Lazarczyk and his shipmates fired upon numerous enemy planes hellbent on killing Allied sailors. Lazarczyk and his fellow servicemen put many Japanese zeros (fighter planes) at the bottom of the Pacific, but not before the Japanese left their mark: they riddled the Gatling with machine gun bullets and showered the Allies with sharp shrapnel.

‘Operation Hailstorm’

After this close call, Lazarczyk was headed for Truk Island to be a part of “Operation Hailstorm.” Truk Island was a large Japanese naval and air base located in the Caroline Islands, a pre-war Japanese territory. Damaging the Japanese base at Truk would be a major feat for the Allies; Truk was where the Japanese kept their supplies for their island holdings. Putting the Truk base out of commission meant that the Japanese wouldn’t be able to get food, ammunition and supplies to the Axis soldiers trying to sink every Allied ship floating in the Pacific.

In addition to being the home base for the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet, Truk was also a major Japanese logistical base. In size and importance, Truk was equivalent to the United States’ base at Pearl Harbor. It was the only Japanese airbase for miles around, and the Japanese depended on it for support all of their smaller holdings in the central and south Pacific.

In mid February of 1944, Admiral Raymond Spruance ordered the attack. The Allies didn’t go in half-cocked; their offensive strike involved five fleet carriers and four light carriers, embarking more than 500 planes. Supporting those carriers were battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and other support ships. Among them was the U.S.S. Gatling.

The Japanese were taken by surprise. Over two days, the Allies hit them with continuous bombings and airstrikes, ground offensives, submarine attacks and around-the-clock raids. When they tried to escape, U.S. watercrafts blocked their exits.

The Japanese suffered great losses, both in equipment and lives. The Allies sunk their cruisers, blew up hundreds of their aircrafts, and destroyed dozens of their merchant ships. Few Japanese aboard the sunken ships survived; they refused rescue by the Allies, not wanting to be taken prisoner. Little of their cargo could be recovered; it sank in slow revolutions to the sandy ocean bottom.

At the time, it wasn’t known just how instrumental taking the base at Truk was to slowing Japanese aggression. Now, we know that Operation Hailstorm would be equivalent to the enemy completely taking out Pearl Harbor. We also know that there are several Japanese ships laid to rest in the Pacific graveyard, strapped and loaded with Japanese trucks, tanks, ammunition and war supplies still in their crates. Those were weapons that were set to be used on Allied forces, and because of Lazarczyk and the brave servicemen like him, they never came near their targets.

But Lazarczyk’s efforts didn’t stop at Truk. After an interval, the Gatling, Lazarczyk aboard, headed to Marianas to participate in the attack on Saipan known as “Operation Forager,” part of a steady advancement of Allied forces to Japan’s mainland.

Destroyer duty

Doing “destroyer duty” demanded much from a sailor. Some World War II destroyers were top-heavy, mainly due to newly added radar and anti-submarine equipment. Because of this, sailing could be unsteady – the sailors aboard a destroyer rarely experienced smooth rides.

Another challenge of being a gunner on a destroyer was the high demand for those watercrafts. Destroyers were always being called up for double-duty, and their crews barely got to rest. They escorted convoys, picked up downed Navy and Marine pilots, and offered support to their fellow servicemen in any way they could. Life aboard a destroyer was uncertain at best and perilous at worst.

A concern for the crews of older destroyers were the early-designed four stackers. They were especially heavy, once the radar and other electronics were added to their towers. A strong wind tipping the ship over was a frightening possibility, and menacing ocean swells had every sailor holding tighter to the ropes.

After many different ideas, the Navy found a simple answer to the problem. Salt water is lighter than the fuel they were using, so it was safe to put the two liquids in the same tank. They would stay separate, like oil and water. So when the fuel tanks on the destroyers were close to half-empty, sailors would add salt water to weight down the ship’s bottom. The destroyers might bob and sway, but like a Weeble person, they didn’t fall down. Of course, the more permanent and more effective solution was to build a new class of destroyer that was not top heavy.

Next week: Part two.