|Eyewitness to Pearl Harbor had Webster ties|
Thursday, April 21, 2011
It was a longtime, long-distance telephone relationship between a couple of first cousins, Edward J. Chlapowski of Billings, Mont., and Albert G. Chlapowski of Webster, and it finally brought them to Ed’s role as one of the Navy radio operators that reported the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.
Ed was probably a decade older than Al. They knew about one another as kids, but not to any great extent. Information related by his namesake, Edward Chlapowski Jr., in his eulogy at Ed’s funeral, set the contrast of sorts.
Ed had a difficult childhood.
He lost his mother while he was still a child. His father struggled to raise the family from a small farm in Dudley; Al lived with his family in Webster. Ed was 12 when he hopped freight trains to California and back. This wasn’t that unusual in the bleak days of the Great Depression.
More than a quarter of a million children left their homes and hopped trains looking for work or adventure, according to “Riding the Rails,” a book by Errol Lincoln Uys. Ed was made a ward of the state on his return, and was placed on a working farm.
His education ended with the 8th grade.
Ed initiated the phone dialogue. Al was happy with his cousin’s inquiries, and shared in the calls. The men talked every week or two for several years. Then, Ed telephoned on a Thursday evening in January of this year. “He wanted to tell me about a diagnosis he had just received.” It wasn’t good; Ed died that Sunday. “He had a type of mesothelioma” (asbestos lung cancer) said Al Chlapowski. He had been exposed to asbestos early on in his Navy career while assigned to prepare U.S. ships for lend-lease to England, said his cousin. The program was developed to help America’s allies before the country was drawn into the war.
Brothers Ed and Charles Chlapowski joined the Navy in June 1948, according to clippings forwarded to Albert G. Chlapowski by Ed’s widow, Betty (Thomas) Chlapowski, of Billings. Ed added to his age to qualify. The brothers never served together.
Navy recruit Ed Chlapowski trained as a radioman, and had been stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, aboard the USS Arizona, but was transferred to Adm. Husband E. Kimmel’s staff at the submarine base at Pearl Harbor some months earlier.
Ed watched the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, first from his quarters and later from a vantage point, and related the experience to his Webster cousin quite some time ago. It included the great radio revelation, as made those 70 years ago from the basement of Adm. Kimmel’s command center.
Radioman Chlapowski and others alerted the world to the Japanese attack: “This is no drill. Pearl Harbor is being attacked,” was the first message. Others followed.
The Ed and Al conversations were mostly low-key, Webster-Dudley recollections, updates, current events, and family reports, says Albert G. Chlapowski, a longtime banker, who still serves as a director of the Webster First Federal Credit Union. He told his Montana cousin about his stint as chairman of the WCU board, convening the last meeting held at the credit union’s former headquarters in Webster and later convening the first meeting of the union at the new headquarters building in Worcester.
Cousin Ed slowly began to “open up” about his life and service career, says Al. He related the minutes to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the message that stunned the world. He spent some five years in the Navy, and subsequently worked 34 years as an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration. He was also an instructor during his career at the traffic controller’s school in Oklahoma City, Okla.
The clippings in Al Chlapowski’s possession paint a picture of Ed’s 24 hours before the Japanese attack:
Ed visited friends still aboard the Arizona on Dec. 6. He had a 3 to 7 a.m. watch the next morning. The shift was quiet, without any hint of trouble. It was a clear Sunday morning in paradise.
Ed was in his fourth-floor quarters when he saw a hangar roof at nearby Hickman Field get bombed away. Japanese aircraft were all about. He ran to the radio room. A supervisor handed him a message, and he joined others notifying the world through Morse code messages.
He was called into formation on a green field near a destroyer fueling station at some point. Japanese planes were strafing, bombing and torpedoing all around, and the men were told to disperse. Ed Chlapowski saw the bombardment that struck the starboard side of the Arizona, about where his duty station had been. Many of his close friends were among the hundreds killed.
Word about Ed Chlapowski’s attack messages made its way to Billings somehow, and he was interviewed by newspapers from his home area and called upon to speak about his experiences, say the clippings in Albert Chlapowski’s possession. One graph says, “At a 2009 commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he told his story at a packed meeting of the Downtown Billings Rotary Club.”
The clippings held by Al Chlapowski were apparently published in The Billings Gazette and possibly other regional newspapers. Edward and Betty Chlapowski had seven children, and Ed saw to it that all graduated from college, something he never accomplished, the notes say.
Edward J. Chlapowski was the youngest member of his family, according to cousin Albert. “People here might remember his brother, Stanley Chlapowski, who was the Dudley gas inspector.” Al Chlapowski senses the loss of his Webster-to-Billings connection, revealing that a great bond can develop between cousins.
For the record, Albert Chlapowski is the kind of banker who’ll never violate a trust. He consulted Betty, Ed’s widow, before sharing his power-of-cousins information with this corner.
Baseball researcher Dixie Tourangeau’s search for old-time player Joe Marcustry and sportswriter Floyd Pierson, both with Webster identities, appears to be at a dead end.
There’s little new to report, except that Joe Marcustry ran a bowling alley in downtown Southbridge in the mid-1940s. Francis “Lolly” Walkowiak, Webster’s retired DPW superintendent, says his first job was with Dugas Vending Co., and he serviced accounts in Southbridge. Mr. Marcustry ran bowling alleys in what Lolly remembers as an unusual location.
Bowling alleys were traditionally at basement level all those years ago, but the Spectown lanes managed by Mr. Marcustry were on the second floor of a Main Street block.
“I remember there was always this woman in the place with him, and they had a big Great Dane dog,” says Mr. Walkowiak. Dugas Co. had a jukebox at the location, he said.
He never learned whether the woman was employed at the alleys. Incidentally, Lolly says his growing-up years on Webster’s Eddy Street were “great” because the athletic field was nearby and it was about halfway between downtown and swimming at Webster Lake. The town had a playground at Marcustry Park, another nearby field, says Mr. Walkowiak. There was a well to the front of a nearby house, the one backing to right field, and the owners let the playground kids pump drinking water at will, he said. “They were good people.” He thinks the occupants might have been related to Joe Marcustry.
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