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Enlisting in Navy at 17 in time for D-Day, local veteran and buddy shared lifelong bond

As young boy, Leonard J. Pawlowski dreamed of being a sailor.

There was something intriguing about the line “Join the Navy, See the World.”

So in his senior year at Emerson Vocational High School, the 17-year-old told his buddy Chester Budziszewski of his plans to quit school and enlist. The idea of seeing the world appealed so much to Budziszewski that he begged Pawlowski to wait a few weeks until he, too, turned 17.

The fact that America was fighting World War II hadn’t really crossed either teenager’s mind.

“We were a little too young to understand what the hell was going on in the world,” Pawlowski recalls.

Budziszewski managed to persuade his parents to sign the early enlistment papers allowing him to join at 17, but Pawlowski says he took no such chance.

“I forged my mother’s signature,” he says, “and when I told her I was leaving for the Navy, she didn’t say anything.”

After basic training at Sampson Naval Training Base on Seneca Lake, Pawlowski was assigned to LST-981 – a landing ship, tank – while Budziszewski served on a Liberty ship as part of the gun crew protecting the vessel, which transported supplies to Europe.

Pawlowski’s assignment put him at center stage for what would be the biggest amphibious invasion in history – D-Day on June 6, 1944, at the beaches of Normandy.

“I’d been reassigned to LST-521,” Pawlowski says, “and it was one of the biggest LSTs we had. We transported in tanks, trucks, jeeps, personnel plus whatever went with it – food, ammo. That first time we landed at high tide in the pre-dawn. You couldn’t see anything.

“We were under orders not to fire because there were German planes flying overhead looking for us. They didn’t want us to give away our location. There was one German plane that flew so low over the beach I actually could make out the outline of the pilot sitting in the cockpit. The ship next to us opened fire, which it shouldn’t have.

“Every third bullet was usually a tracer. It’s like a stream of red light, and these were going over my head. There were suddenly tracers all over the place. The other ships had started shooting, but as far as I know, the plane got away. It disappeared into the dark.”

At daybreak, the crew of LST-521 unloaded its cargo of troops and trucks and headed back to England expecting to be reloaded and return.

“On our way back to England, somebody noticed we were taking on water,” Pawlowski says. “When we got back, we were put in dry dock. We had 19 holes in the bottom of our ship. We must have hit some debris when we landed on the beach. We were in dry dock well over a week. I still have a photo I took of the ship in dry dock.”

After the repairs, the crew was back in business, sailing to Normandy and elsewhere with supplies. In total, LST-521 made 25 deliveries to beaches and ports.

And on occasion, the crew got the chance to go ashore.

“We went up Seine River to Rouen where the captain let us off the ship for five hours liberty,” Pawlowski says. “We hitchhiked into the city and got picked up by an Army jeep. We were looking for a gin mill. At that time, I drank anything and everything. We found a gin mill, and it was the first time I ever drank Calvados. It was very powerful. They served it in a glass as big as the tip of my pinky.”

Pawlowski says he and his buddies may have gone a bit overboard on the apple brandy, but they managed to return to the ship within the five hours allotted.

Another of his most memorable moments occurred on the first day after the war in Europe ended in May 1945.

His ship was part of a flotilla of six LSTs sent to Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, to collect German prisoners,

“We’re going straight for the beach, and civilians were sitting on a brick wall watching us,” he recalls. “Once we hit the beach, they saw our bow doors open and the ramps go down. We walked off the ships onto shore. People waved and yelled.”

And, once again, the captain of LST-521 gave crew members a five-hour liberty.

“Naturally, we were walking down the street looking for a gin mill. What was amazing was that we were on one side of the street and the Germans, our enemy, were walking down the other side of the street. They had already surrendered their weapons, but it sort of gave you goose bumps.”

The sight, though, was not enough to derail the sailors from the task at hand.

“We found a bar, and the people in it saw we were United States Navy and they loved us,” he says. “They gave us anything we wanted. Every time we put out a cigarette in the ashtray, they’d take what was left of the butt. So we started offering them cigarettes.”

Pawlowski recalls sitting atop the bar and after finishing his first glass of beer, reaching behind to the keg tap and pouring another.

“My glass,” he says, “was never empty.”

But after he got out of the Navy, his habits changed.

“After the war, I lost all taste for alcohol, except maybe a beer on a hot day,” he says, “and there’s not too many hot days around here.”

Returning to civilian life, he tried his hand at several jobs but decided in 1947 to return to the military, this time enlisting in the Air Force.

“I took an aptitude test and wound up working as a printer in the Air Force on Governors Island,” he says. “The Statue of Liberty was in my backyard.”

A year later, after marrying, he was granted a hardship discharge from the Air Force and moved back to Buffalo. For 43 years, Pawlowski worked as a bookbinder and later as a bindery supervisor at Manhardt-Alexander. He and his wife, the former Patricia Budziszewski, raised three children.

Patricia is the sister of Chester Budziszewski, who had joined the Navy with Pawlowski.

As veterans, brothers-in-law and close friends, they shared a special bond. And in a way, they even returned to their military maritime roots. Both were scuba divers with the Erie County Sheriff’s Underwater Recovery Team.

And though Budziszewski passed away in 1999, he remains alive in Pawlowski’s memories.

“Chet and I did a lot of things together after the war,” Pawlowski says. “We went hunting together. We bowled together. It was a family thing.”

Leonard J. Pawlowski, 88

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Collins Center

Branch: Navy

Rank: Seaman first class

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1944-46

Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with battle star; World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal

Specialty: Deckhand