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World War II Coast Guard veterans share memories at reunion

June 18, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • Crew members of the USS Wakefield gather Saturday at the Ramada Plaza for their annual reunion. They are, from left, Marvin Hattaway, John Hanisak, Stan Godlesky, Robert McGinty and Danny Springer. The Wakefield was a World War II transport ship.
By Marie Gilbert

At times this weekend, they were 18 years old again — young men, some fresh out of high school, heading off to war.

There was good-natured ribbing, occasional pranks and acknowledgment of a special bond.

It might have seemed like only yesterday that the six Coast Guard veterans served on the USS Wakefield, transporting troops and supplies during World War II.

But it's been almost 70 years.

Today, their hair is grayer, their walk is a little slower, but their wits are sharp, as noted in the stories they love to tell of the time they spent sailing the open waters as silent heroes.

They were participants in history.

"But when you're a teenager, you don't realize the importance of the moment," said Danny Springer, 84, of Hagerstown. "It's the passage of time that helps you develop a pride for what you accomplished."

Now in their 80s and 90s, former crew members of the USS Wakefield come together each year to renew their friendships and reflect on their years of service.

"We've met continuously for the past 62 years," Springer said.

This year's reunion was held this weekend in Hagerstown.

At one time, about 500 people attended the reunions, which have been held in various parts of the country, Springer said.

Only a half-dozen veterans, some accompanied by family members, were on hand this year, meeting at the Ramada Plaza.

"We don't have the number of people we once did," said John Hanisak, 86, of Pittsburgh. "We've lost quite a few and others no longer drive and can't attend. Some are 91, 92 years old. We're now down to a few."

Attending this year's reunion were Springer and Hanisak, as well as Robert McGinty, 84, of Pennsylvania; Marvin Hattaway, 86, of Georgia; Stan Godlesky, 84, of New Jersey; and Herbert Dehnert, 84, of Virginia.

While dwindling numbers, age and infirmity have taken their toll, those who regularly attend the reunions said it's an opportunity to get together with people who have become like family.

"When you're confined on a ship, friendships really develop — friendships that last a lifetime," Hanisak said.

Hanisak said he and Marvin Hattaway have stayed in touch with each other over the years, regularly picking up the telephone to converse.

But for most of the men, the reunions are the time when they "hash it all out again," Hanisak said. "We forget what we said last year and repeat it."

McGinty said the role of the Wakefield crew was to deliver military personnel — as many as 8,000 to 10,000 troops — and supplies, including food, to the war front.

"We carried the 8th Air Force to Normandy," he said.

Most trips were made to England, France and Italy, and later to the Pacific and Africa, Hattaway said.

The Wakefield, named for the home of George Washington, originally was a luxury liner, the USS Manhattan, the men noted. In 1941, the name was changed and the ship was turned over to the U.S. Navy.

In 1942, the ship sustained a direct bomb hit by the Japanese while taking troops to Singapore. It was rebuilt and several years later became ready for transport duty. It was scrapped in 1964.

Though they usually sailed the oceans alone, the men said they seldom felt in danger.

"Once again, maybe it was because we were so young," Springer said. "But it was something we didn't think about."

"The storms in the North Atlantic were the biggest dangers," Hanisak said. "They could be horrendous."

Each man said they enlisted in the Coast Guard for different reasons.

"I was 17 and didn't know what I wanted to do," Springer said. "So I joined the Coast Guard. I knew I would be drafted and wanted to pick a branch of the service I knew I would like."

The men also has individual memories of their time while serving on the Wakefield.

For Hattaway, "I remember that we carried boxer Jack Dempsey overseas. We each got our picture taken with him and he invited us to go to New York and have a drink on him at his restaurant. He kept his promise."

Godlesky remembers "being in China with a couple of crew members and walking down the street. We came across a Chinese man who was reading an American-Chinese dictionary. It was kind of funny because he asked us the meaning of a word and we didn't know it."

Springer said his most important memory is when he heard the war was over in Europe.

"My birthday was May 7, and they declared the end of the war on May 9, 1945," he said. "I had just turned 18. So I'll never forget that."

At the end of World War II, the men said they returned home to more normal routines.

"I went back to high school," Springer said.

But over the years, he has continued to attend reunions to recall his time in the Coast Guard.

"The more you get together, the more you learn about the past," he said. "Plus, we were a loyal group. That's why we do this every year."

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