Tonawanda News

August 16, 2013

Kamikaze survivor

By Michael Regan michael.regan@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — For perhaps the last time, a member of the nation’s “Greatest Generation” will meet today with fellow World War II veterans aboard the very vessel on which they served together decades ago. 

John Kaszubski, 89, traveled with family members to New York City Thursday for the 70th anniversary of the U.S.S. Intrepid, where about 50 surviving members will gather with him on the landmark aircraft carrier.

Kaszubski was only 19 and just days away from having his first child when a draft letter arrived in August 1943 at his North Tonawanda home. 

Relatives said until his conscription, he had never left the Lumber City, though within months he went to work on the flight deck crew of the carrier in the heart of the South Pacific. 

For the next two years he battled the Japanese in a series of attacks — most notably, he said, including the enemy suicide missions flown by pilots known as kamikazes. 

“I am a kamikaze survivor,” Kaszubski said this week, seated in the city home of his youngest son, Dan Kaszubski, and his daughter-in-law Liz Kaszubski, who drove him to the reunion and will board the ship for the first time with the war hero. “I do not know how I withstood it. I was pretty lucky. My parents and everyone else in the family didn’t know if they’d see me alive.”

The elder Kaszubski spent 20 years in the Navy and another 10 as a reservist, receiving the rank of chief petty officer. Upon returning to Western New York he worked at the Niagara Falls Airbase as a aviation mechanic, then moved on to employment at Roblin Steel. He lived in Arizona for a spell, before coming home yet again to spend his later years with his four children, nine grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and a great-great grandchild. 

With stacks of newspaper clippings, photos and honors Kaszubski received during his service in the 1940s, Dan and Liz Kaszubski said they have combed through his history, and in the 1980s recorded videos of his stories of war.  

The also toured the Intrepid themselves some years ago, though without Kaszubski, who told them of the wooden flight deck that caught fire during attacks and the trials of seeing his crew members killed and wounded. 

“They got messed up pretty bad,” Liz Kaszubski said. 

With many of the fading generation well into their 90s, Dan and Liz expect that the reunion may be Kaszubski’s last, with only about 100 of the roughly 3,000 original crew members still alive.

The U.S.S. Intrepid carries its own mystique. With its maiden voyage in 1943, the aircraft carrier survived five kamikaze strikes and another from a torpedo, while it was actively used through periods of the Vietnam and Cold wars, before being decommissioned in the 1970s. It now sits on the Hudson River and has become part of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, where the space shuttle Enterprise now rests, according to the organization’s website. 

Dan Kaszubski said it will be a momentous occasion for him to walk aboard the Intrepid with his father, one that heightens his emotions just thinking about it. 

“When we were growing up he never talked about it,” Dan said of his father. “I’m just looking forward to being on the ship with him.”

Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.