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Saying Farewell to a Veteran

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St. Peter’s Chapel at Mare Island

On this Veterans Day in 2014, I’m remembering a veteran whose memorial service I attended last week.

Ninety year-old Chet Bienkowski led a long and successful life, starting when America went to war in December 1941. He enlisted in the Navy  a month later and served out of Hawai’i on diesel submarines.

Some of you will remember 20% of American submarines left Pacific ports never to return.

I knew Chet  years ago when he’d visit his family, my neighbors, on O’ahu. We’d chat on the banks of Pearl Harbor about his experiences–hair raising and detailed. I loved talking with a man who had first hand knowledge of life during the war, not far from where we lived.

Chet stayed in the Navy after the war and continued riding submarines and fixing them. Once he retired, he went to work at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, still fixing subs, and in his free time overhauled the USS Pampanito (SS-383), which tourists can visit in San Francisco. A friend of his told me last week that Chet’s proudest moment was when they got the boat’s diesel engines to run again after years of inactivation. (The Pampanito was used in the film Down Periscope–I movie I do not recommend if you are looking for accuracy about submarine life.).

The services took place at St. Peter’s Chapel at Mare Island. My husband and I lived there at the start of his military career and that jewel of a chapel–filled with Tiffany stained glass windows–was our church home. We were excited to return, having not been in the chapel for a very long time.veteran

Like many military chapels, it’s designed to accommodate both the Catholic mass and Protestant worship services. The window’s stories are taken from the Bible and gleamed bright on that sunny Saturday.

I’d forgotten how beautiful the chapel was, and arrived early to take photos.

We weren’t the only people arriving early, Chet was active in the local Submarine Veteran’s Association, and many of his friends were there in their distinctive blue vests bearing patches and pins of the various boats. I hadn’t seen the vest since Hawai’i and it gave me pause. These “dolphin wearers” never forget the submariners who did not return from the sea.

The A-frame ceiling of the chapel remembers them as well. I’ve written other posts about the loss of both The USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion. The Submarine Veteran’s Association has placed plaques remembering those nuclear veteransubmarines still “plowing the seas.”

I had to blink back tears when I took the photos.

But more tears flowed during the service, when several veterans rang a ships bell and named each WWII submarine “still on patrol.”  As the list went on and on, the enormity of the loss hit me all over again. Fifty-two submarines never returned from operations in the Pacific.

(The naval chapel at Pearl Harbor remembers one submarine each Sunday).

Because my husband wears dolphins, too, submarines losses are tough for me to think about. (Indeed, when I read Tom Clancy‘s novel Red Storm Rising, I had to set the book aside for a couple days when the USS Boston was sunk in the story. I knew the CO’s wife of the USS Boston and it felt way too close to home, even in a fictional story).

The older sub vets told stories about Chet, remembering his good humor, dedication to the job and hard work. It was fun to hear their stories.

But it was sobering to realize how few of them are left.

Of the 16 million men and women who fought during World War II, only a little more than a million of them are still alive; 555 die every day. The US census department expects the last one to die by 2036. (The last American veteran of WWI died in 2012 at the age of 110).

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Chet and Rosemarie Bienkowski, and son

If we want to hear their stories, we need to hurry.

I like to remember how much Chet enjoyed his military life. He traveled to Hawai’i to visit his grandchildren and always flew Space-A (Space Available) out of Travis Air Force Base. On one of his final visits, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ending of World War II, Chet flew on a refueling tanker plane escorting the Blue Angels across the Pacific Ocean. He grinned when he described how he looked out the porthole to watch the pipe reach out to refuel the Blue Angels in flight.

He loved telling the story and I loved hearing about it from him.

This veterans day, make sure you stop and listen to the veterans that surround you. You don’t have to overwhelm them with gratitude–most veterans I know considered their service just part of their life.

But listen to their stories before they’re gone.

I’m glad I heard Chet’s.

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Tweetables

Saying good bye to a veteran at a beautiful Navy chapel. Click to Tweet

This Veterans Day listen to their stories before they’re gone. Click to Tweet

52 submarines never returned from WWII patrols. Click to Tweet

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. So glad you could hear his story, Michelle. My uncles, all of whom were in WWII, were always reluctant to talk about it–for good reasons, I’m sure. Thanks for the sacrifices your husband and you and your family have made for all of us!

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  November 11, 2014

      We’ve seen the same thing with other relatives. One out-law played in an Army band in the South Pacific throughout the war. He never said a word about his auxiliary duties–which was picking up and burying the dead following a battle. Too horrible to contemplate, but he did return to Fiji after the war and served in ministry there. He preferred to focus on the living, not the dead.

      Reply
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