Veteran Salute: Richard Palczewski
The only one of four brothers to “see action” in World War II, Richard Palczewski, 91, said his ranch background gave him an advantage in the U.S. Navy.
“I got to run this landing craft and I only had an eighth grade education.” Palczewski said when he mentioned his limited education to one of his superiors, the response was “I know, but you have common sense.”
One brother, Carl, also served in the Navy during the second World War but he never left home soil, working as a mechanic stationed in Florida.
Palczewski spent his young years helping his family on the farm-ranch west of Haley, North Dakota in the extreme southwest corner of the state.
At the age of twelve, he was hired to herd sheep for a big outfit south of Ralph, South Dakota.
“I was supposed to keep the yearling ewes away from the lambing ewes. I didn’t have a horse or a dog, just my feet.” The job paid a dollar per day plus “room and board.” Meals, Palczewski said, consisted of beans from a can, as there was no ranch cook.
Those meager meals and laborious days probably prepared him well for two years of service beginning with a draft notice and ending with the conclusion of the war.
“I think the head honchos, they kind of favored the farm and ranch guys. They seemed to have more intelligence.”
Palczewski chose the Navy simply because “I didn’t want to be in the Army.”
Upon receipt of his draft notice, he traveled to Idaho for basic training, then to a base in Florida where he learned to operate a landing craft – something he was to spend the rest of his service doing.
From Florida he went to New York City and then after a short delay, he and his crew took off for the West Coast – through the Panama Canal.
The landing craft that would be his station followed a bigger ship on the journey.
After a short stay on the West Coast, his fleet sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, destined for the Philippines, where he would remain until the war’s end.
A quick google search reveals that the Lingayan Gulf is today a tourist trap, but Palczewski remembers the destruction and casualties that marked its existence in the mid 1940s.
After being occupied for a little more than 3 years by the Japanese, the U.S. landed on the gulf with 68,000 troops, in January of 1945, driving the Japanese off.
But kamikaze attacks by the Japanese let the Americans know they weren’t leaving without a fight.
While the main responsibility of his landing craft was to take Marines off ships and land them safely on shore, Palcewski said he and his fellow crew members also picked up wounded soldiers and delivered them to the hospital. “That was the worst job.”
A Japanese suicide plane knocked a hole in the side of the ship that traveled alongside his, Palzcewski remembers. The plane blew a hole out of the ship where the mess hall had been, right at breakfast time.
“The never told us about the casualties,” he said, but the ship was repaired by the next morning.
Two times kamikaze planes dived at his own ship but missed. The American soldiers would then rescue the Japanese pilots as the planes sank out of sight.
“They didn’t really want to be rescued,” he remembers, and said that the Japanese soldiers would be transferred after just a few days on board the American ships. He remembers them speaking fluent English.
A bomb once landed on his plane. They soldiers could tell by the clanging and banging. But “It was a dud. If it had gone off, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
Besides the kamikaze planes, Japanese submarines were a real threat.
After the official end to the war, the Japanese sunk a cruiser just next to Palczewski’s, and 900 Americans died. “It could have been us,” he said, adding that the American soldiers were not on guard because the end of the war had been announced, and he assumed that the Japanese who attacked were unaware of the recent declaration.
“That was a bad disaster.”
Being anxious wasn’t an option. “You had to take it the way it came or it would drive you nuts,” Palczewski recalls.
Simple comforts didn’t abound, even on home soil. Palczewski remembers riding a clackety train from Chicago to Minneapolis that was “about as bad as fighting the war.” The bathroom, he said, consisted of a hole in the floor and the soldiers learned quickly not to use it when the train was moving as “everything would blow back in your face.”
Palczewski returned home the day before Christmas and by March was farming and ranching on his own. He said one rancher that he had worked for before his deployment talked with him about his plans, and “he pulled out his checkbook and wrote a check for $2,500 to help me buy land.” Palczewski later paid the man back.
“I had to borrow everything to get started,” he said, but he bought a section of land first, and then added to it. Raising cattle and sheep and also farming, he made things work. He liked sheep the best because they were the most economical. “They like short grass so they do better than cattle on a dry year.”
Pelts from mink and coyote that he trapped or hunted provided a significant second income.
Phyllis Thune, who had traveled with a friend to Florida while he was stationed there, returned home Mrs. Palczewski, but wouldn’t see her husband for 2 years.
The two made a life together back in North Dakota, though, raising two daughters Mildred and Debbie, and two sons Dennis and Dale. He remembers working hard and enjoying the independence. “I did a lot of custom combining in the summer to put my daughters through college.”
Palczewski’s grandson John Palczewski and his young family now operate the place he put together east of tiny Haley, North Dakota.
“If I had to do it over again, I’d do the same damn thing,” Palczewski said.
“I still have a good feeling about my service. I helped my country when they needed me.”