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Sailor dismissed WWII encyclopedia -- then realized he was in it

Stanley T. Witczak wanted to do more than just build airplanes for World War II.

He wanted to fly and attack the enemy with them.

"I was 17 and told my father I wanted to join the Army Air Corps and he said, 'No, no. They'll get you soon enough.' So I continued working at Curtiss Wright ," he said of the warplane manufacturer.

The eighth of 13 children, Witczak had dropped out of South Park High School to work and help his parents pay the bills.

At Curtiss Wright, a foreman was impressed with Witczak's abilities.

"I could read blueprints and I made form blocks that were used to pound out all the different parts for the fighter planes," he said.

But soon enough his father's words were fulfilled.  Witczak received a draft notice on his 18th birthday in June 1942.

"When I told the foreman that I had been drafted, he was mad at me. He said he could have gotten me an exemption from serving because of my work at the war plant. But I wanted to go in the service. All of my friends were and I didn't want to stay behind," the 93-year-old explained.

At the draft office, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps to become a fighter pilot. When he has told there were no openings, he asked about the Marine Corps and got the same answer.

"I had a choice of going in the Army or the Navy and I picked the Navy. I loved being out on the ships. I served on two landing ship tanks with the amphibious force," he said.

After completing his training in 1943, he set sail aboard LST 140 for the Mediterranean Sea.

"We were all over the Mediterranean shuttling troops and supplies. We were in Tunis, Oran [Algeria], Sicily, Palermo,  all over," he said.

And it was only by an act of kindness that Witczak believes he was spared becoming a war fatality.

WWII Navy veteran Stanley T. Witczak wanted to be a pilot but ended up serving on a landing ship tank instead. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

While on their way to the January 1944 Battle of Anzio in Italy, he said a fellow seaman had complained about being assigned "KP" duty in the ship's galley.

"He said it was 'too hot in there,' and I said 'what the heck' and switched duties with him. At Anzio, he had taken my place and went aboard a smaller landing craft and it hit an underwater mine and he was killed," Witczak said. "I can still see the face and the red hair on that kid."

Months later when the British needed a landing ship tank, the Navy transferred LST 140 to them.

"That was my LST and my crew was sent back home to the United States for a month's leave and I got to visit my family," Witczak said of the unexpected break.

On St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1945, his crew set sail on LST 4, their new ship, and returned to the Mediterranean Sea. By now, the Germans were losing ground in the countries they had seized earlier in the war.

"We were shuttling Nazi prisoners from southern France," he said, explaining that they were delivered  to a camp in Africa.

Witczak also recalled the assistance his ship provided to Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army.

"We transported tanks for Old Blood and Guts," said Witczak, using Patton's nickname. "I never met him but I met some of his officers."

After the war in Europe was won in May 1945, Witczak said he spent time in Sicily and on the Italian peninsula. At one point, he was assigned to shore patrol duty guarding a rear admiral. But there was also time to relax and take in the sights.

"I watched the local people build fishing boats. They were glad that we came and freed them from the Germans.  I remember eating with this family. They fixed us spaghetti,"  he said.

Back home after the service, Witczak began a long career at National Aniline, a chemical plant on South Park Avenue.

"I can tell you exactly when I started and how long I worked there because I started in 1946 and worked 46 years before I retired in 1992," he said.

*******

Stanley T. Witczak, 93

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Hamburg

Branch: Navy

Rank: seaman 1st class

War zone: World War II, European Theater

Years of service: June 1942 – December 1945

Most prominent honors: European Theater Medal, 2 battle stars; World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: landing ship tank deck hand

*******

Witczak and his wife, the former Lillian Ayers, raised eight children and were married nearly 40 years before she died in 1986. He says he has "quit counting" how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren he has because the numbers keep growing.

But his daughter Nanette Taylor, who assisted him in the interview, says there are at least 17 grandchildren and 40 great-grandchildren.

About 25 years ago, Witczak's oldest son, Daniel, bought him a complete set of World War II encyclopedias for Fathers Day.

"I told him I wasn't interested in reading them because I lived it," Witczak said of the gift.

But five years ago, Taylor treated her father to a trip to Hawaii that included a visit to Pearl Harbor, where her son was stationed on a Navy ship. Before leaving for Hawaii, Witczak said he decided it was time to give the encyclopedias a looking over.

"I opened one of them up and saw a picture of an LST with the number 140 on it and said, 'Oh my gosh, that's my ship number. Oh my gosh, that's me on the ship.' I remember when they took that picture of me," Witczak said.

He was so taken by the picture that he took the book, Volume 10 of the encyclopedia set, with him to Pearl Harbor and showed it to his grandson's captain.

"When my dad showed him the photo, the captain immediately closed down the ship and gave us a private tour," said Taylor in recalling the special treatment they received because of Witczak's status as a WWII Navy veteran. "It was amazing."

Of his war service, Witczak says he has many memories and could tell stories all day long.

So how about one for the road?

He readily agrees and recalls the time when his LST was caught in a fierce storm on the Atlantic Ocean:

"We went through the Bermuda Triangle. We were going from New Orleans up towards Norfolk. We were going full speed, about 12 knots, and were going backwards because of the storm. I saw whitecaps being sucked up skyward. It looked like an up pour of rain instead of a down pour."

Now that's quite a story.

 

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