Now, 68 years after World War II ended, only one remains to preserve the legacy.
Lewis Brunick joined the Navy at age 18 with his brother Wayne in 1943 in their hometown of Vermillion, S.D. Brother Homer then joined the Navy. Clifton joined the Army, and Robert joined the Army Air Corps.
Oldest brother, Marvin, was way ahead of them. A member of the South Dakota National Guard, his unit already had been ordered on active duty in the summer of 1941 and absorbed into the 24th Infantry Division. The division was on its way to the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Philippine Islands and most of Southeast Asia. It was diverted to Australia to join thousands of Marines and soldiers and begin an island-hopping charge north to Japan.
World War II was far different than the single deployments in wars today.
There was a draft and young men flooded enlistment offices after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Almost everyone had a relative or friend fighting in the war, and some, as in the case of the Brunicks, included nearly whole families.
“My mother kept her banner with six blue stars displayed throughout the war,” said Lewis Brunick, now 89 and a resident of Lakeland. Each blue star represented a family member in the war.
Brunick left school after the eighth grade, went to work and later married. He and wife, Melvie, had a son, Ron, at the time he left for basic training.
“They took me in for my interview and asked me if I knew how to type. I said, ‘No.’ Then the interviewer said, ‘Have you seen a typewriter?’ and I answered, ‘Yes.’
” ‘OK, you are going to radioman school and learn to type and use the radio,’ ” Brunick said with a laugh.
After he completed radio school, Brunick was assigned to what would become one of the great historical vessels of World War II, the battleship USS West Virginia.
The West Virginia was heavily damaged at the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but she was repaired and refitted with more powerful armaments and even improved and modernized by the time Brunick arrived in late 1943.
After several months of getting the ship in order and making trial runs, the USS West Virginia, escorted by two destroyers, headed to Hawaii and then on to participate in the invasion of the Philippine Islands.
LAST BATTLE OF ITS KIND
The force was so effective, the Japanese sent a fleet, pretty much its last organized fleet, to overtake the U.S. naval task force.
As the Japanese fleet entered the Surigao Strait, the American fleet, under Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, had six battleships, eight cruisers and 28 destroyers, and it crossed into the path of the Japanese fleet — “crossing the T,” Brunick said in naval terminology.
Thus began history’s final ship-of-the-line battle, a sort of naval duel in which fleets lined up facing each other and fired until one was defeated. For hundreds of years, ships fought like that, but there hasn’t been another battle like that since.
The West Virginia led a line of six battleships, followed by the rest of the fleet, and opened fire shortly before 4 a.m. Oct. 25, 1944, attacking the lead battleship, Yamashiro. The West Virginia pounded the Japanese opponent with eight 16-inch guns and sank her, according to naval records.
“We hit ‘em direct. We lost two escort carriers. I saw one catch fire and a chief go into the flames twice pulling his men out. He went in a third time and never came out. That man deserves the Medal of Honor,” he said.
The battered Japanese fleet retreated, and the American 3rd Fleet returned to Leyte.
“We continued to fight in the Leyte Gulf, where we got a lot of kamikaze attacks until February (1945) when we headed for Iwo Jima,” Brunick said.
“We were in so close to the island and softened it up, but it was a battle that should never been fought,” he said. Brunick said the island could have been passed over for Okinawa and the thousands of Japanese soldiers left to starve.
“I looked over the side as the landing craft passed us so close you could see the faces of those Marines. Not a single expression. Their faces were all blank,” he said.
After Iwo Jima, the West Virginia proceeded to Okinawa and for its darkest days since being repaired after Pearl Harbor.
The ship was there for three months, two with almost no food. Naval journals praise its performance there.
During the invasion of Okinawa, the fleet came under heavy attack from kamikazes, the Japanese’s infamous suicide aircraft attacks. Brunick was in the compartment next door to where a plane struck the West Virginia. The explosion took out the galley of the battleship.
The ship could not be taken off station because of the need for its heavy guns.
With no kitchen, the crew had to eat the supplies it had.
“At one point, we got a cookie, and they marked your hand to show you had gotten it. After that (the kamikaze attack), I said I am never going to get close to any of my shipmates again,” he said.
Losing close friends wasn’t the only thing that troubled him during the days in battle and the almost constant suicide plane attacks.
“Late into the afternoon and evening, you’d have pilots calling ‘I don’t have a home. I’m looking for a home.’ They came off those escort carriers that would practically sink if you sneezed hard, and they’d get sunk and pilots would have no place to land,” Brunick said.
Escort carriers were smaller than the large, purposefully built carriers. They basically were transport ships with a flat deck built on top.
“I’d try to calm them down and then tell them where to ditch so someone could pick them up,” he said.
Lack of food became so bad, the West Virginia was finally pulled off duty and repaired.
VICTORY OVER JAPAN
The ship was in Tokyo Harbor for the signing of the Japanese surrender.
“I was on the stern watching on the (USS) Missouri (where the signing occurred). The newsreel and movies make it seem short, but the ceremony took most of the day. It was very diplomatic,” he said.
Returning home in 1946, Brunick managed a grain elevator and later dairy delivery trucks before becoming a civilian employee of the Army Material Command, where he spent most of his career. He and Melvie had three more sons.
In 1973, he had to retire because of spine problems. He and his wife came to Florida regularly and later settled in Lakeland
In 2001, his wife passed away. Brunick remarried five years ago, but he never goes north with her to Michigan in the summer months. It is still too cold, he said.
Looking back at his war days and all those who served in that war, Brunick said he is glad for the part he played.
“There are some wonderful people who didn’t survive. We all went primarily because it had to be done,” he said.
Each Veterans Day is a sad day for him, Brunick said. “It is a day of remembrance. As long as you survive, you remember those events all your life.”
Unfortunately, he said, today people take peace for granted.
“Now, there are some things today I would not serve for, but if I had to do what we did in World War II, I would gladly serve again,” he said.
[ Bill Rufty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7523. ]