When he was 18, Joseph A. “Fritz” Siewierski wanted to save the world from tyrants in Europe and Asia.
The Navy provided him with that opportunity, he said. He quit East High School and enlisted to serve in World War II.
His first assignment on the USS Nevada, a battleship, took him up to the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska. The Nevada and three other battleships shelled the islands of Attu and Kiska, the only American land the Japanese occupied during World War II.
The Army landed ground troops, and the Japanese were soon routed.
“It got to be a losing battle for the Japanese, and they evacuated those islands,” the 91-year-old Siewierski said.
After that, the Nevada sailed south and through the Panama Canal to the Atlantic Ocean, where the vessel provided protection for convoys of supply and troop transport ships crossing the Atlantic in the buildup for the D-Day Invasion of Normandy.
“On D-Day, we were part of the naval bombardment group. The Germans had fortified entrenchments and we fired 14-inch shells. We stayed off shore providing support for about 10 days,” Siewierski recalled, adding that he was grateful to be on a ship rather than part of the invading forces.
“It was the Army troops that in a big way were the unsung heroes of the day,” he said in paying tribute to the many who made the ultimate sacrifice on the beaches of Normandy.
After that, the Nevada cruised into the Mediterranean Sea to provide support for the invasion of southern France.
“That invasion wasn’t as big as Normandy. We were there for about 15 days.”
Then it was on to Algeria in northern Africa to replenish the ship’s supplies.
“We were given four hours of liberty, and we went ashore and saw this Arabian guy with a camel and you could get your picture taken aboard the camel. There were three of us on top of the camel. We put our heels into the camel’s side and it took off with us down the street. The Arab was running after us. We were hanging on for dear life and eventually jumped off the camel and it kept running,” Siewierski said.
He does not know if the camel and its owner were ever reunited.
“We done our deed and took off.”
After Africa, it was back to the United States, where Siewierski was transferred to the USS Shelby, an attack transport ship.
“We went through the Panama Canal and over to San Diego where we loaded up with troops. Then we took the troops to the battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.”
Unlike the Battle of Normandy, where he was ostensibly safe off shore, that was not the case in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater.
“We got a taste of kamikaze planes. They never hit my ship but they hit enough of our ships,” he said of the Japanese suicide pilots. “To see a ship 300 feet away from you and everything on it thrown up in the air, I’ll tell you, you never forget that moment.”
The brash teenager who wanted to save the world had gained a new perspective with death so close at hand.
“I wasn’t cocky anymore. That was all gone when you saw those other ships blown up.”
In August 1945, the war ended and he recalls being offered different incentives to re-enlist, but he decided that he would return to civilian life that December.
“I’d grown up,” he said, “and had enough.”
Joseph A. “Fritz” Siewierski, 91
Rank: signalman 2nd class
War zone: World War II, Atlantic Theater, European Theater, Pacific Theater
Years of service: enlisted, 1942–45
Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Medal, European Theater Medal, World War II Victory Medal