Family touched to learn of late father’s heroics

WWII guardsman from E.B. pulled sailors to safety

BY MARY ANNE ROSS Correspondent


Walter C. DanilewiczWalter C. Danilewicz Bill Daniels never knew his dad was a war hero.Nine months ago, he was browsing through a box of his mother’s old photos and papers when he came across a letter of commendation addressed to his father, Walter C. Danilewicz. The letter, signed by Rear Adm. Stanley V. Parker of the U.S. Coast Guard, stated in part, “I wish to commend you for your performance of duty on 3 January, 1944 in connection with rescuing survivors from the USS Turner after that vessel exploded and while it was burning off New York Harbor.”

“I was shocked. My father never talked about the war, and of course I never asked him about it,” said Daniels, an East Brunswick native now residing in South Brunswick.

Walter C. Danilewicz, who would later change his name to Daniels, was a second class gunner’s mate in the Coast Guard.

He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1968 when Bill was 19, without ever telling his family of his heroic actions rescuing wounded crewmen following an explosion in the frigid waters of New York Harbor.

“Like most kids of that generation and age, I was just too self-absorbed to find out about my father’s life,” Bill Daniels said.

He is now making up for that.

“It became a quest. Here he had made this terrible sacrifice and none of us knew about it. I felt I had to find out what had happened,” Bill said.

His mother, Alice, never learned the details of the her husband’s experience.

“He never talked about the war,” she said. “I think he saw some awful things. He pulled bodies out of the water. I think he just wanted to forget about it and take care of his family.”

Bill began reaching out to other family members including his aunt, brother, cousins and sisters Elizabeth Daniels, Carol Karlowski and Alice Cisto, all of East Brunswick. Only Alice had a bit of information, having come across the commendation as a child. Her father had told her simply that it was for jumping into the water to rescue some sailors.

Daniels contacted the Coast Guard and began doing research online. He found a Web site dedicated to the destroyer USS Turner. One section of the site featured survivor accounts about what it was like to be on the Turner on Jan. 3, 1944, when an accident caused an explosion that led to the deaths of 153 of the ship’s 226 men.

Survivors also described the heroic efforts of the Coast Guard in rescuing the wounded. One sailor noted that the guardsmen brought a 60-foot boat up to the port side of the burning Turner and threw lines up so he and other survivors could board and get safely away.

“Those Coast Guardsmen were extremely courageous,” the survivor wrote. “They spent 20-30 minutes alongside the ship rescuing us, knowing of the imminence of the next explosion, and realizing that they had hundreds of gallons of gasoline on board the boat. However, they stayed alongside until the last man was taken off. The U.S. Coast Guard deserves a great deal of credit for their part of the rescue.”

When that Coast Guard boat got about 30 yards away, the second major explosion occurred, and the Turner quickly sank.

The survivor wondered if the guardsmen had ever received any recognition.

Daniels was so touched by the note that he had to respond. In the name of his father and his family he sent in a copy of his father’s commendation. A short time later, he received a note from the USS Turner historian, who gave a specific account of Walter Danilewicz’ actions that day.

Danilewicz was aboard the USS Gulfport, which was stationed nearby at Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, N.Y., and rushed to the scene of the explosion. Danilewicz, seeing that many of the wounded crewmen were not able to swim to the lifeboats, jumped into the icy water, swam out and pulled the sailors back to the hull, where they were lifted up by others. He then swam back out to help more of the wounded.

“It is not known how many Turner crewmen owe their lives to Walter C. Danilewicz. However, if it was just one life he saved, we are still most grateful and deeply indebted to him,” Parker wrote.

Daniels had the account framed and presented it to his mother on her 85th birthday last month.

“I was totally shocked,” Alice said of the birthday gift. “I didn’t realize he had so many medals. We have 16 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, but our oldest granddaughter was only 1 when my husband died in 1969, so they never knew him.”

They’ll now know of their grandfather’s heroic deed.

“I grew up not realizing what my father was willing to sacrifice so that we could have a good life,” Bill Daniels said. “I never thanked him. Now my children and nieces and nephews and their children will all know, and I think they will always appreciate it.”