Family will remember one of last WWII ‘Tin Can sailors’ on Memorial Day

SHARE Family will remember one of last WWII ‘Tin Can sailors’ on Memorial Day

In his later years, Vic Kubelsky shared his World War II experiences with students at Downers Grove North High School. He’s seen here during a visit to Washington, D.C., in 2004 for the dedication of the World War II Memorial. | Provided photo

After serving on a ship that went through five major battles in World War II, Vic Kubelsky raised a family and shared his war stories with anyone who wanted to listen.

But sometimes when he slept the kamikazes and bombs came back.

His family plans to hoist a few toasts in his honor at a Memorial Day party at which they’ll remember Mr. Kubelsky, a well-known raconteur at the Downers Grove VFW hall. He died at 97 in January in Lombard.

He was one of the last surviving sailors from the USS Foreman, which earned five battle stars — one for each major battle it participated in.

The Foreman bristled with weapons. It was among the destroyer escorts that did anti-submarine duty and accompanied troop, supply and combat ships. His boat was at Pacific hot spots including the Battle of Okinawa, the Solomon Islands and Leyte Island in the Philippines.

Young Vic Kubelsky enlisted in the Navy after the Pearl Harbor attacks. | Provided photo

Young Vic Kubelsky enlisted in the Navy after the Pearl Harbor attacks. | Provided photo

“It was dangerous duty,” said Paul Taylor, a spokesman for the Naval History and Heritage Command. “It earned those five battle stars.”

Considering that the Foreman wasn’t launched till August of 1943 — 20 months after America entered the war — “that was a lot of action,’’ said Terry Miller, executive director of the National Association of Destroyer Veterans.

When he was stationed on the ship’s bridge, Mr. Kubelsky, who was a petty officer second class, learned to scan the horizon, never relaxing for fear that kamikazes were on their way.

Kamikaze meant “divine wind.” As the war started to turn against Japan, some of its elite soldiers trained to fly their aircraft directly into Allied ships. The self-immolation created conflagrations of fuel and ammunition that could make metal melt like wax.

The Foreman was attacked on March 27, 1945, when a lone Japanese plane crashed close to her bow. Three months later, the Foreman shot down another kamikaze. Mr. Kubelsky sustained burns in one of the skirmishes.

“We got hit with a suicide plane,” he recalled in a Veterans History Project interview. “It bounced off the bridge, blew me off to the deck below.’’

“He said they used to scare the hell out of them,” his son said. “All he could do was keep firing. He stopped shooting at the pilots and started shooting at the wings because, if you killed the pilot, the plane was still coming at you.”

A bombing in April 1945 took a toll.

“We got hit with a bomb that went through the ship and then exploded,” Mr. Kubelsky said in his interview. “It went right through the center of the ship, through the main deck, and boiler exploded. It went through the bottom, and it didn’t break us in half. Then, they patched us up. . . and we were right back in combat.”

“It’s lucky she didn’t sink,” Taylor said. “They took on water in the fire room up to the waterline.

“That’s a LOT of water, and it’s in one of the most important spaces of the ship — where they light off one of their boilers,” he said. “They would have had to seal off those sections of the ship, then patch the hole, then de-water the space. In the meantime, they’re a sitting duck. If another bomber had found them, they would have been finished.”

The only thing separating Mr. Kubelsky and other crew members from the ocean was a quarter inch of steel. Destroyer escorts were nicknamed “tin cans” for how light they were, but they cut through waves with speed and ease.

“The shell plating on the ship [was] only a quarter inch at the water line — you can actually see dents at the water line from the wave action,” said Timothy Rizzuto, executive director of the Destroyer Escort Historical Museum in Albany, New York.

Those who served aboard these ships were known as “Tin Can sailors.”

Shortly after returning from the war, a passing aircraft touched off something inside Mr. Kubelsky.

“I was only home about a week, and a plane flew over, and I start shaking,” he told the Veterans History Project. “I couldn’t stop shaking, and I was in the hospital about six months.

“They call it something like postwar trauma,” he said. “They thought I had Parkinson’s.”

Vic Kubelsky. | Provided photo

Vic Kubelsky. | Provided photo

Mr. Kubelsky kept the memories of combat at bay with companionship, the love of his family and fried baloney sandwiches.

“When I was a kid, my dad would get up in the middle of the night, and we’d make baloney sandwiches,” said his son Greg. “He said he’d had a nightmare. I know the kamikazes were something he hated. He loved fried baloney.”

In his later years, Mr. Kubelsky shared his wartime experiences with history students at Downers Grove North High School.

“I hate war, you know, I really do,” he told the Veterans History Project. “I seen people get killed. I seen enough of it. To me, avoiding war is the greatest thing you could have if you can.”

Young Vic was born into a coal-mining family in Century, West Virginia. His parents, born in Lithuania, had moved from outside Vilnius. When he was in grade school, his family, drawn by plentiful jobs at Midwestern steel mills, moved to the Chicago area.

He went to grade school in Cicero and graduated from Morton East High School. In the summers, “He and his buddies used to go and work on ranches in South Dakota,” said his son, who remembers seeing a photo of his dad with friends at Mount Rushmore when the carvings weren’t yet complete. “Only one face” — George Washington — “was finished on it.”

When the attack on Pearl Harbor came, Vic and his buddies enlisted.

“My dad chose the Navy,” his son said. ” He wanted to go to Pearl Harbor. He wanted to see what happened there.”

Vic and Jean Kubelsky on their wedding day. | Provided photo

Vic and Jean Kubelsky on their wedding day. | Provided photo

After the war, Mr. Kubelsky got married. He’d met his future wife Jean at a dance.

He worked for Kropp, which made landing gear for Boeing and parts for locomotives, according to his son, and also operated a corner bar, Vic’s Lounge, in Cicero for 20 years.

He became an officer at the Downers Grove VFW, where “he was important to all of us,” said Wally Maciejewski, 72, a Vietnam vet.

Mr. Kubelsky is also survived by daughters Donna Ware and JoAnn Barbour and four grandchildren. Services have been held.

On Father’s Day, “We’d always open a bottle of Jack [Daniels] and go fishing,” his son said. “He was a pretty special guy, never mean. He loved the United States of America, and he loved the Armed Forces.”

Vic Kubelsky and family on his 97th birthday. | Provided photo

Vic Kubelsky and family on his 97th birthday. | Provided photo

Vic Kubelsky. | Provided photo

Vic Kubelsky. | Provided photo

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