Share this article

print logo

Memory of little-known naval hero who grew up in Lackawanna will be honored with a ship in his name

Joseph Tezanos, 1920 – 1985

Birthplace: Santander, Spain

Hometown: Lackawanna

Branch: Coast Guard

Rank: Ensign

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1942-46

Most prominent honors: Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Coast Guard cutter named in his memory

Specialty: Gunner’s mate

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Nearly 2½ years after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, there was another deadly event at the naval station in Hawaii. But the enemy had nothing to do with the second tragedy.

An accidental explosion killed 163 naval personnel and injured 396 from an armada preparing to do battle in the Pacific.

At 3 p.m. Sunday, May 21, 1944, in what came to be known as the West Loch Disaster, a mortar round exploded on one of the Navy ships, setting off a chain reaction that fueled an inferno. Thick clouds of smoke fueled by munitions and gasoline billowed skyward. Sailors leaped into the water, while others took their chances on blazing ships in hopes of rescue.

Joseph Tezanos – a native of northern Spain who was raised in Lackawanna and enlisted in the Coast Guard at 22 – shook off the shock of what he was witnessing and sprang into action, leading a rescue team that saved more than 40 sailors.

“Tezanos scrambled on board a rescue boat along with a gang of several other hastily assembled volunteers. The small boat and its intrepid crew steamed into harm’s way despite the risk of being burned alive or blown up. Tezanos and his shipmates rescued men from the water in danger of drowning and evacuated others from the burning ships,” Coast Guard historian William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., wrote in a narrative about the tragedy.

Yet few knew about what occurred that day until years later. In fact, it was classified as a military secret until 1960. But by that time, recognition of his heroism would not have mattered to Tezanos. He was a quiet man, not given to bragging, according to his relatives.

But the Coast Guard, all these years later – Saturday will mark the 72nd anniversary of the catastrophe – has recognized the importance of Tezanos’ actions that day and has named a Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter in his memory – the USCGC Joseph Tezanos. Sometime in August, the vessel will be officially commissioned in Puerto Rico. Several members of his family will be there representing Tezanos, who died in 1985 at age 64 and is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

“My Uncle Joe was a very modest man. He never spoke of what happened at Pearl Harbor and his heroism, or any of his military service, not even to my father, his only brother,” says Jodi Burvid, an Eden resident.

Even before the explosion, Tezanos’ service had taken him into the thick of war. He was a member of an all-Coast Guard crew operating LST 20, a landing ship tank, and had participated in the Aleutian Islands Campaign to dislodge Japanese forces from what was then the Alaska Territory.

Then it was on to warmer waters in the Pacific, where the fighting was intense.

At the Tarawa atoll in the Gilbert Islands, Tezanos’ LST “supported Marines as they slugged their way through what noted World War II Coast Guard historian Malcolm Willoughby termed ‘one of the most intensely fought amphibious operations of the entire war,’ ” according to the Coast Guard narrative.

“Tezanos saw action and managed to survive some of the bloodiest amphibious landings of World War II.”

Several weeks after returning from the Gilbert Islands and in the midst of readying for the Battle of Saipan, the Pearl Harbor explosion occurred, and that was when the military’s top brass realized just how valuable Tezanos was to the war effort. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest noncombat honor for heroism that those two services bestow.

Coast Guard Commandant Russell R. Waesche Sr. sent him a letter of commendation and Navy Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz signed a citation lauding Tezanos for his actions that were “in keeping with the highest traditions of naval service.”

Tezanos’ bravery also paved the way for his admission to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., where he completed four months of reserve officer training and was commissioned as an ensign. His transition from enlisted man to officer made him one of the first Hispanic-American officers in the modern Coast Guard.

Yet when he left the service, he never shared details of his heroism and accomplishments with his brother, George, or their six sisters back on Modern Avenue in Lackawanna.

Instead, he pushed forward, earning a degree in management and accounting at Syracuse University, where he met and married another graduate, Jean Allan. As an international businessman, he lived and worked in South America, Africa and the Middle East. His intelligence and ability to speak different languages secured his success.

“He and his wife and daughter and son moved around with him and lived in Africa for years,” Burvid says. “But family was very important to my Uncle Joe, and they would come home every year for a visit.”

Tezanos’ widow lives in Florida, and their daughter, Susanne Landis, and her family, split their time between Connecticut and Florida. The plan is for them to attend the ship commissioning ceremony in Puerto Rico, Burvid says, adding that other relatives from Western New York and elsewhere also plan to attend and can hardly wait.

“My God, the pride is just unbelievable, especially because Uncle Joe never spoke of his service,” Burvid says. “He had a quiet demeanor. He kept to himself. He never flaunted anything.”