World War II veteran, Herminie man remembers shipmates killed in training mishap
Out in the Pacific Ocean on a Navy destroyer, Frank Helmetzi was ready to fire the No. 2 battery during a training exercise.
It was late May 1945 when the 20-year-old Herminie man noticed the firing practice on the USS Stanly did not go as planned in the No. 5 battery.
“When we practiced like that, he fires, then I fire,” said Helmetzi, now 88. “I could tell by the controls that I had automatically that something was wrong.
“Right away, I pushed the alarm button and notified the captain, ‘Something's wrong.' ”
The officer told him to go back to the battery and see what had happened. He found that the charge that used 38 pounds of gunpowder had gone off inside the gun, killing two crew members.
Decades later, Helmetzi said, on holidays such as Memorial Day, the deaths of those two shipmates have stayed with him.
“I was the one that took them on the shore and buried them,” he said. “It was just the Lord's way. That's the way the Lord made it. That's the way it is.
“Sometimes you would think, how come it wasn't you or the other guy? But accidents happen, and that's it; nothing you can do about it.”
His family in Sewickley Township appreciates Helmetzi's living history, especially because both his grandson and great-grandson are serving in the Army, and three of Helmetzi's nephews served during the Vietnam War.
“I probably wouldn't know as much as I do” about World War II, said daughter Barbara Mignogna. “It makes finding out about it more fun because you have a direct link to the situation.”
Helmetzi is one of about 1.2 million World War II veterans remaining of the 16 million who served, with about 550 passing away every day, according to the National World War II Museum.
His older brothers Bill and Dan were drafted during the war, and Helmetzi's younger brother Steve joined the Army after the conflict. All three are deceased.
“It was your job. It was your duty, and that's it,” Helmetzi said.
Helmetzi, a native of Fredericktown, Washington County, said he had no problem with adjusting to 24 months on the water.
“Us kids at that time, we were called river rats,” he said of growing up in the Monongehala River town.
Helmetzi filed for Selective Service a few days after his 18th birthday on Dec. 11, 1943, because of a snowstorm and was called up on March 25, 1944.
After training in Chicago and receiving orders, Helmetzi joined the crew of the USS Stanly, a Fletcher-class destroyer, becoming a gun captain and helmsman at the coxswain rank.
“You learned to handle a 50-pound shell like it was a football to you,” he said. “Guys would throw you a 50-pound shell, you caught it. That's the kind of muscles you ended up with.”
The destroyer, one of six ships known as the “Little Beavers,” was a part of the Solomon Islands campaign.
After earning his sea legs — the ability to walk without losing one's balance, especially in rough seas — Helmetzi said he got used to his long tour at sea, without even docking for supplies.
“Young as we was, I would say you just adjusted yourself,” he said, recalling once when a storm knocked unsecured food into the water and the men had to subsist for four days on baked beans.
Helmetzi said he remembers the Stanly being involved in at least seven or eight encounters with Japanese planes, including April 12, 1945, when it was bombarded by kamikaze pilots.
“This was the first operation that we ever encountered the suicide planes,” he said. “Our planes were coming in to land on a carrier, then they started following our planes in. Once we discovered, ‘Hey, those are strange planes,' our five ships scattered to protect the other ships.”
One of the “flying bombs” zoomed toward the ship and punched through the starboard side of the Stanly's bow above the water before passing through the port side and detonating in the water, according to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.
Helmetzi has an oil painting of the encounter, along with a service record book given to his family from Westinghouse Air Brake, where he worked, as well as his uniform.
He also remembered the kamikaze attack on the cruiser USS Nashville, twice the size of the Stanly, that killed 133 sailors on Dec. 13, 1944.
“They hit right in midship,” he said. “We knew it was suicide planes. ... After that everything changed.”
Helmetzi said he has never forgotten the sinking of the USS Spence, another destroyer, during a typhoon on Dec. 17, 1944, which left only 24 surviving crew.
He helped recover a lifeboat from the wreckage.
“All I found over there was the boat, and then inside the boat was a pair of surgical scissors,” he said. “I'll never forget that as long as I live.”
The veteran said he was near the Mariana Islands in the Northern Pacific when he got word that the war was over. He was discharged on May 7, 1946.
After the war, Helmetzi, who had only a grade school education, worked for years as a machinist and welder until his health faltered.
Now, his daughter Barbara said, he is in good health and lives in Herminie with her sister Cheryl visiting every day.
In speaking about Memorial Day, Helmetzi said he is glad people remember.
From the destroyer he served on that traveled 32 knots to jets that zoom across the sky faster than the speed of sound, Helmetzi said, he remembers the day with respect but understands that times have changed.
“You just thank the Lord that it's over with,” he said. “Thank the Lord that it's over with.”
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.