On the advice of his older brother, Bill Sorokes enlisted in the Navy before Uncle Sam could draft him into the Army for service in World War II.
"My older brother John told me it was a better life in the Navy," the 90-year-old Sorokes said of those long-ago words of wisdom.
But the Navy was no cake walk. Sorokes recalled his cousin Sonny Kocak, who had also offered the same advice, but who lost his life while completing his naval service in the Pacific Theater in the months after WWII had ended.
"My cousin was a chief petty officer on a small landing craft, and during a rough storm a wave caused the craft to roll and Sonny was lost at sea," said Sorokes, whose brother John served on a destroyer in the Pacific and fought in two battles before making it home safely.
Sorokes' service took place on two repair ships, the USS Palawan and later the USS Delta.
"At night the escort ships we were with surrounded us to keep us from getting hit," Sorokes said, explaining that if the repair ship was sunk there was little hope of saving warships badly damaged in combat.
Bill Sorokes, 90
Hometown: McKeesport, Pa.
Rank: 3rd class petty officer
War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater
Years of service: 1945 – 1946; called up from inactive reserve in 1950 and served in Korean War
Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Korean Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal
Specialty: navigation instrument repairman
The enemy, he said, was keenly aware of the strategic importance of the repair ships. He offered the following example:
"One morning this enemy reconnaissance plane had flown over us. That night we traded places with another ship and the enemy came back and dropped two bombs where we had been that morning.
"If we hadn't changed places, we might have been sunk. The bombs landed on either side of the ship we'd traded place with."
As for repair work, he said, it was nonstop.
"Our repair ships were like a floating factory. We had machine shops, carpentry shops, we could reline the boilers on other ships, anything you could think of," said Sorokes, whose specialty was fixing navigation instruments and related equipment.
"I worked on telescopes, gyrocompasses, gun sights, range finders, periscopes and binoculars," he said.
But suddenly in August 1945, the heated assembly-line pace of work slowed down. Sorokes and his fellow crew members learned that the world's first atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"We were about 100 miles off the coast of Nagasaki, but not close enough that we could see the bomb when it went off," Sorokes said.
When he returned home from the service in July 1946, he attended a technical school in Michigan where he trained to be an electrician. While earning his degree, he and a friend made a trip to Olean to visit the friend's relatives.
And that's when lightning struck the aspiring electrician. He met the former Helen M. Chokrach, an Olean native, whom he started courting.
"I was visiting my grandfather who was a relative of Bill's friend and that's how Bill and I met. I thought he had the most beautiful blue eyes," said Helen Sorokes, who assisted her husband in telling his military service story.
Love and war are both a part of their love story.
Sorokes was called up to active duty in 1950 for the Korean War and sent back to the Pacific on the USS Missouri, the ship on which the Japanese had formally surrendered in WWII.
He was then transferred to the USS Piedmont, another repair ship. But unlike his service in WWII, there were no close calls with the enemy.
During a short leave in December 1950, Sorokes had rushed back to Olean and married his fiancée.
"He likes to tell people that after we married, he left me five days later," Helen Sorokes said, adding they have been married 66 years.
Trained as an electrician, Sorokes took a different career path and worked most of his years as a machinist, supporting the six children he and Helen raised.
These days, he enjoys sharing his war experiences with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"The grandchildren just adore him," his wife said. "He tells them about the wars and focuses on the good things – the people he served with, where they went and what happened on the ships."