World War II deeds echo in belated medal rites

June 29, 1995|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

Nearly 50 years ago, a Navy photographer's mate aboard the cruiser USS St. Paul captured many World War II battle scenes on film.

But it wasn't until half a century later, in his hometown, that Alexander "Otts" Palochonski received five combat medals for his service on the ship.

On June 14, during a Flag Day celebration in New Windsor, a representative of Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett's office awarded the 76-year-old veteran ribboned bronze medals in front of the town's World War II memorial.

"If anyone made a tape, I want to get a copy," Mr. Palochonski said.

The medals read like a wartime history of the ship, which was commissioned in 1943 at the Boston Naval Yard and was active in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters:

* An American Campaign Medal.

* An Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with a Bronze Star.

* A Navy Occupation Service Medal with the Asian clasp.

* A China Service Medal.

* A World War II Victory Medal.

"Getting the medals felt really good, gave me goose bumps and awoke my patriotism," Mr. Palochonski said. "The medals are a reminder of what we all did as a ship during the war. I really didn't get the full impact until the flag ceremony."

Phil Straw, an assistant to Mr. Bartlett, spoke for the 6th District Republican at the ceremony.

"Mr. Palochonski is the ideal person at the ideal time to remind us what the flag stands for and what the country represents," Mr. Straw said. "He was a fitting presence on that occasion in New Windsor. He and the ceremony were fitting reminders that we need frequently and get all too rarely."

Mr. Palochonski said he rarely talks of his war experience but that he remembers it with great pride. The St. Paul carried 8-inch, 5-inch and anti-aircraft guns.

"All we did was shoot," said Mr. Palochonski said. "Only I shot from a camera."

He trained in aerial photography in the back seat of a dive bomber but eventually was in a somewhat safer position taking photos aboard the cruiser.

In his basement, he has boxes and boxes of photos -- of battles and of the ship's big guns going off, of Japanese kamikaze pilots flying at the ship and U.S. planes going down into the sea.

"We patrolled in the Atlantic, sailed through the Panama Canal to the Pacific and joined [Adm. William F. "Bull"] Halsey's 3rd Fleet," he said. "We were involved in many battles."

Mr. Palochonski had his camera ready when the St. Paul rescued British aviators who had been marooned on a Pacific island and when his crew traveled through occupied Japan and later sailed up the Yangtze River in China.

His credit is on nearly all of the photos in "War Cruise of USS Saint Paul," a journal for the crew.

Mr. Palochonski said his favorite photo shows the ship in Tokyo Bay with its battle flags flying and snow-capped Mount Fuji in the background.

"That was one of the last photos I took," he said. "This is the way we all like to remember our ship."

Every crew member on the ship during World War II should have received similar medals within a year of discharge, Mr. Palochonski said.

"I didn't think we deserved medals. We were one big crew who did our duty. Medals are for the heroic, the out-of-the-ordinary deeds. We were just doing our part."

But as the 50th anniversary of the Japanese surrender approached, Mr. Palochonski decided that he wanted the medals. He said he is still unsure why the medals never caught up with him.

The St. Paul was scrapped about 15 years ago.

An active member of the USS Saint Paul Association, which meets every two years near naval bases around the country, he learned from other crew members that the medals were available. He contacted Mr. Bartlett's office about two months ago.

Mr. Bartlett's staff has helped to secure combat medals for many local veterans. Local chapters of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars also help in such efforts.

"If the veterans can prove they are entitled by way of their service record, we will do everything possible," Mr. Straw said. "We may have been 50 years late this time, but there is no statute of limitations on appreciation. The medals were well-earned and richly deserved."

Mr. Palochonski said he "got a little hammy" at the Flag Day ceremony. He couldn't resist breaking into a song he learned as a child about how Betsy Ross made the first flag. It ends with "three cheers for the red, white and blue."

"I couldn't resist," he said with a laugh. "I got a standing ovation."

Mr. Palochonski advises anyone who has earned military medals to make sure they receive them. He is keeping his in boxes, but he will show to his 12-year-old grandson and namesake, Alexander Wilson Rodgers.

"Kids today don't understand what we did during the war," he said.

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