IN MEMORY… Remembering area war veterans

Editor’s note: This is part two of two parts

A sailor’s choice

February, March, April and June 1945 were filled with fierce battles with the Japanese Fleet. Walter Lazarczyk and his shipmates got little sleep and no peace. Just as the proverbial dust settled from one skirmish, the Japanese would be spotted again and another battle would begin.

Living and working under that pressure would fray the nerves of many men, but that kind of heat is just what Lazarczyk and his fellow sailors trained for. They may have been weary and on edge, but they were always ready.

During one such attack by the Japanese fleet, Lazarczyk’s gun mount was hit by enemy aircraft fire. The gun mount was jammed with a live round inside, ready to fire. It could have exploded at any moment, killing the entire crew. This was not small ammunition. It was designed to do damage. The trigger had already been pulled; the round was set in the tube, and Lazarczyk had to make a decision.

With his crew – his friends and brothers-in-arms – in harm’s immediate path, Lazarczyk made the selfless choice to jump inside the gun and knock the trigger assembly off the breach. He knew it was risky, and accepted that his choice would likely mean his death. With a serviceman’s logic, he thought trading his life for the lives of his fellow sailors was worth it.

Lazarczyk didn’t die that day. He successfully discharged the round and saved his crew, but he did not escape unharmed. The recoil hit him in the face, knocking out three teeth and cracking his jaw bone. It also damaged his ear drum. The force threw him sideways, right into the splinter shield of a gun casing, causing a lower back injury as well. For a moment he lied there stunned, battered and bleeding.

But a United States sailor won’t stay down for long. Lazarczyk, his injuries shooting pain through his head and down his back, got up and stayed with the gun crew. He fired at the Japanese planes that were relentlessly assaulting his ship, not willing to give in to his enemies or the bodily damage they had caused him. Lazarczyk’s ship is credited with shooting down many Japanese war planes that day and others, as well as doing extensive damage to the enemy’s fleet and equipment.

Happy days

On Sept. 15, 1945, Lazarczyk received his Honorable Discharge papers, finishing his service with the proud title of Gunner’s Mate First Class. Lazarczyk earned this title, answering the call of duty and serving his country both in the freezing, enemy submarine-infested waters of the Atlantic and then spending as much time patrolling and participating in Naval operations in the Pacific, living all those months under the threat of Japanese aggression.

Lazarczyk met his future wife, then known as Helen Mucha, in summer 1942. After dating, the couple exchanged their wedding vows in a military-style wedding on Jan. 6, 1945. The groom’s entire wedding party consisted of Navy sailors, shipmates of Lazarczyk who served alongside him in World War II. The United States heroes were distinguished in their Navy dress uniforms. Among them was Edward Pryll, ship fitter first class, who was rescued from the sea by Lazarczyk during a conflict with Japanese military forces.

Also, standing tall at the wedding was Seaman First Class Herman Faruzel, Seaman First Class Leonard Pryll, Gunner’s Mate Second Class Walter Krzakala, Seaman First Class Frank Lentz, Ship’s Cook Second Class Henry Dobek and Seaman First Class Frank Bebak. Also with the men was James Poweski, the groom’s nephew, who served as ring bearer.

A legacy of service

Lazarczyk’s brothers also proudly served their country. Stanley Lazarczyk, Jr., also known as “Cap,” was a U.S. Navy Coxswain and Boatswain Mate, and also served in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Older brother William Lazarczyk was a U.S. Army Sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps. who served with the 32nd Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron. He was a radio operator and radar mechanic, and deployed air offensives in Europe including France, Italy, the North Apennines and the Rhineland. He was in North Africa.

The Lazarczyk family has continued to answer the call of duty to their country. Son Richard served in the U.S. Navy on the U.S.S. Orion (AS-18) during Vietnam. Nephews Jerry and John, sons of Stanley Lazarczyk, also served during the Vietnam War. Jerry was a Lieutenant in the Navy and John was a Lieutenant in the Army. Both completed their tours of duty.

Life back home

Lazarczyk and Helen made their home on Main Street in Dunkirk. They had three children: Richard, Lorraine and Cindy. An avid hunter and fisherman, Lazarczyk spent as much time as he could enjoying his favorite activities with his family. When he could find free time, he headed out to the woods or took his boat out on the lake to see if the fish were biting. Eventually, the Lazarczyks became grandparents, and great-grandchildren have also joined the family tree.

Lazarczyk was always very active in his community. He and Helen were members of St. Hyacinth’s Parish and attended church activities. Lazarczyk also enjoyed being a member of the First Ward Falcon Club, the Kosciuszko Club and the Northern Chautauqua Conservation Club. He was a lifelong member of the American Legion Post 62 and of the John T. Murray Post 1017. He was also a lifetime member of the Chas Tinney Chapter of the Disabled American Veterans.

Prior to his enlistment, Lazarczyk was employed with the American Locomotive Co. of Dunkirk, where he was trained on the boring mill, universal grinder, drill press, shaper and lathe. After he completed his duty in the service, he worked at the ALCO company until it closed its doors. He worked in construction after that, running water and sewer lines. One of Lazarczyk’s last jobs was to construct the breakwall pipes along Lake Front Boulevard running from Main Street to the Wright Park beach.

Lazarczyk kept close to his Navy buddies, and one could often find him in the company of Tony Fedyszyn, Frank Bebak, Herman Faruzel, Ed Pryll, Henry Dobek, Walter Krzakala and Frank Lentz.

Remembering a hero

Walter Lazarczyk is another hero of World War II whom we have lost to time and age, which comes for all men, great and small. With all of our World War II heroes, we are in danger of losing their stories when they pass on. I myself, like most veterans, enjoy listening to the stories of those who have served our country, whether those stories are on television or we hear them right from the veterans themselves.

There is no way we could fully understand a war, or even one battle, unless we had the perspective of every Army soldier, Navy sailor, Marine, and Airman there. Each person has a different story – each lived through the smoke and fire of battle and saw things through his or her own eyes, thinking his or her own thoughts.

I know things now that I never could have without talking to these amazing veterans. I have heard stories of men walking through Japanese streets just days after we dropped the atomic bombs, of soldiers fighting in the freezing weather of the Battle of the Bulge, of sailors scrambling to make sense of the chaos that overcame Pearl Harbor when we were blind-sided by the Japanese. I got to hear the thoughts of an 18-year-old man as he jumped out of a plane and into occupied France during World War I.

If you know a veteran, of any age, ask him or her to share service stories. When I was a child in the 1950s, if veterans were talking about the war and noticed me – my father, my uncle, they were all the same – they would get quiet. They didn’t share their stories. It’s time we started asking for them. Don’t let these stories go untold. Start with an easy question. If you ask “How did you get to boot camp?” most will open up and keep talking.

We are losing our World War II vets every day. We have already lost our World War I vets, and most of their stories along with them. Now we are also losing our Korean War veterans and our Vietnam veterans are close behind. These men and women were heroes, and we need their histories to inspire and inform the generations that came after them.

Walter Lazarczyk, a Gunner’s Mate First Class on a Combat Naval Destroyer, a man who fought in some of the fiercest battles of the Pacific in World War II, a man ready to sacrifice his own life to save the lives of his shipmates, is a true hero indeed. Yet so much of his story is gone with him. All we had to do was stop and get it while we had the chance, and now that chance is gone.

To the Lazarczyk family, your father and grandfather was a real American hero. He was the kind of man that young sailors aspire to be like. He was a model of patriotism and selflessness. Be proud that you can call this hero of the week yours.