-Warriors in Our Midst-

I would like to bring my message today to the forefront of the minds and hearts of those among us whom appreciate and cherish the freedom and independence that God Almighty has allowed and given us to have and to enjoy for so many years. While no one would argue against it being God that ultimately gives us that freedom and independence. We also need to accept the fact and to realize as well, that all of the past, present and future lives that have or will have been sacrificed on the battlefields of our world against those oppressors whom have always been anxious to take it all away from us. Having the desire to bring us to heel under their own conquering ambitions. There has always been willing and patriotic men and women, within our nation, with the courage and bravery to immediately step up, meet the challenge, join our military and go to war against them all. Never mind the fact that it very well could cost them their own lives. To them Freedom and independence that others have fought and died for, is of such great value, to do anything less for.

Then beyond all of those who have given their last breath of life for our nation, our country and our families. The back rooms of VA hospitals are filled to overflowing with our veterans from past and present conflicts that have gone thru the horrors of war, then came back home an altogether different person. All shot up or blown to hell with missing arms, legs, eyes, ears, noses and a host of other body parts too numerous to mention. A body, a mind, a soul, and a spirit that has been forever changed and is no longer able to sustain a normal life style. Often it becomes a loving mother, a wife or another family member to care for them because they no longer can care for themselves. Many to be warehoused in the VA hospital or other institutions for the rest of their lives. Like a comrade, a young boy that was evacuated back home from Korea with me on a plane filled with such cases. He sat beside me on our flight back home to the good old USA. His jaw had been blown off, but all he wanted to do was talk because he was glad to be going home. But I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, that came gurgling out of a hole in his neck.

I have wondered a thousand times what his wife or girlfriends long term reaction to his condition would have been. Many men, and in Korea it was mostly seventeen and eighteen year old boys, their character not even set yet at that age, leave home a certain type person. After going through the misery, horrors and mind bending experiences in the insanity of this thing called war, especially in combat on the frontlines where people kill, maim and destroy others like themselves made in the image and likeness of God. It can take a life time then, to readjust again to what can be recognized or thought of as being normal. Yet it seems we must be ready and willing always to go to war to protect our cherished way of living free and independent. We should always be thankful, grateful and appreciative of those that step up and answer the call, at their own peril.

There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends.”

This brings me to a specific individual that I would like you all to become acquainted with. A couple years ago while eating in the Big Boy restaurant in Kalkaska, Michigan. A lady came into the restaurant pushing a wheel chair with an old man all bent over almost double in it. I paid particular attention because the old man had a Marine Corp cap on. Knowing the Marine Corp mindset that once a Marine, always a Marine, I noticed the old man’s pride in taking his cap off and laying it aside to eat his meal. I was able to talk a little with him before they left. But didn’t get the information I had wanted to get. I was upset with myself for not making a greater effort. I wanted to know more about this old man. Somehow because of his pride in wearing his Marine cap and his firm handshake, I instinctively knew there had to be a warriors heart still beating, deep in that old man’s chest. 

I was surprised this year when once again the couple walked into the same Big Boy restaurant while I was there. I made a determination that I would not let this opportunity to find out a little more, pass again. I approached their table and found that the old man could no longer talk, but his wife was willing to talk to me and reveal some very interesting information on the old man’s 27 years during his military career in the United States Marine Corp. I was able to make an appointment to go to their place to interview them on 8/12/2015. What follows is some things for us all to consider and to remember about where peace, independence and freedom comes from. And who it is that has paid and will continue to pay the price required for it. This is a short story, a small segment of the life and times of: Col John W. Rogalski.

One of the first things I learned about Col John Rogalski. He was a United States Marine Corp veteran of both WW11 and the Korean War. He was an F4-U Corsair pilot, flying combat missions off the USS Franklin aircraft carrier during WW11. On March 19, 1945. Then, Lt. John Rogalski at the time, was in what is known as the ready room. Where pilots were briefed an waited as their plane was being refueled and being made ready with whatever ordnance being required for that days sortie. Soon to step into the cockpit of his F4-U Corsair for an attack on the Japanese homeland only fifty miles away. Word came down that his F4-U Corsair had a problem that needed work upon it. He consequently was called out of the ready room, taken a distance away and informed about the situation. Lt. Rogalski was standing outside and away from the pilots' ready room aboard the USS Franklin on March 19, 1945, when a Japanese dive bomber escaping the detection of the Franklin crew, came screaming in and successfully dropped two 500-pound bombs that ripped into the aircraft carrier. 

The twin blasts detonated among 31 bombers and fighters that had been armed with 30 tons of rockets and bombs, topped off with 36,000 gallons of fuel. The carrier erupted in sheets of fire and billowing smoke. Flying debris, including entire airplane engines, sliced through the deafening roar of exploding ordnance. Any pilot in the ready room would have been killed instantly. Without being there we can only try to imagine somewhat, the chaos, the shrieks, and screams of the horribly wounded and dying men. Being blown about with missing body parts, unable to help themselves, among others being burned alive or already dead.  Men were flopping around on deck with broken ankles and legs from the mind boggling magnitude of the horrendous impact of the twin bombs. The Franklin keeled over to one side as fires gutted its interior. The cruiser Santa Fe pulled close enough to take on wounded from the crippled carrier and its airmen that had been ordered to abandon ship. Speaking for her husband, Mrs. Rogalski said that he ( Col. Rogalski ) had told her that he had just jumped across to the Santa Fe. Col Rogalski has been quoted as saying, “Sometimes survival in war is not a matter of being a little quicker, smarter or steadier than the other guy.  Sometimes it's just being in the right place at the right time.”

It should be noted here that we can only touch on a tiny bit of his life and character traits in this written piece. Mrs. Rogalski whom we have affectionately been calling Sylvia, wanted us to know that Col Rogalski whom she calls Bill, has always had eyes like a cat. He could always spot deer on the roadways a great distance away. That trait served him well as a USMC aviator. His favorite plane was the F4-U Corsair, but he flew many other planes as well, including jets in the Korean War and later on. His commander would indicate which one to fly for the day, and he would just get into it and go. "We didn't have an instructor ride with us, but we had a good ground program," he said. "Once you're rolling down the runway, you adjust real quick," he quipped. He said that “any plane that brings you home is a good plane.” When asked about the difficulty of landing on carriers that many other pilots are incapable of doing, Col. Rogalski scoffs at the thought of it being hard and laughs it off.  

His four brothers in the family of 10 kids also went into the Navy and Army, and safely returned from the war. But of his brothers, only he mastered the art of landing an airplane on an aircraft carrier.  When you're at sea, flying over a world of water, that little floating runway looks mighty good, according to Rogalski. "It looks like home," he said. Mrs. Rogalski wanted us to know as well, that Bill was an excellent mathematician, and it could have saved his life many times over while flying off the Franklin. The pilots were required to plot their own course. Wind direction and speed, the distance to targets and return, calculating their own outer limits in time frame and distance related to fuel consumption. Many pilots with lesser math skills than Bill, never made it back to the carrier, and were lost in the sea.

During my interview with the Rogalski’s in their very well kept and pleasant living room, I noticed pictures of Bill in his uniform of earlier times in different locations. I made a mental note in my mind, of the spiffy looking dude that he was in those years. I decided to toss out a little humor to lighten the mood for a moment. I asked Sylvia if Bill had ever mentioned anything about getting all wild and crazy in his younger years, in taking part in any of those “Tail Hook” party reunions or conventions we used to hear about on the news years ago.  She said no, but the old man with some difficulty, raised his head with a wry smile upon his face and an impish twinkle in his eyes. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t have to, and his actions spoke louder than words. I couldn’t keep from laughing and telling him, “Good for you Col. Rogalski”. Sylvia remembered then that she had at one time discovered a number of pictures of good looking, foxy women in his personal things. We had a little fun with that for a moment before resuming the interview. Sorry if I am getting you in any trouble here Bill, but I’ll try and make it up to you by buying your lunch at Big Boy the next time we meet there. (I was privileged to do that later) Now back to the story.

By the time the USS Franklin had become Bills home in late 1944, the carrier had already had several close calls in action at Iwo Jima, Peleliu, Okinawa and the Philippines. One Japanese kamikaze plane had hit the ship but slid across the flight deck before dropping over the side and exploding in the water. Another suicide plane hit the ship two weeks later, causing extensive damage. But the Franklin had inflicted far more serious wounds on its enemies. By March 1945, its aircraft had sunk 52 merchant ships, 12 warships and downed more than 100 Japanese aircraft. The carrier managed to limp home after losing more than 700 men. Two crew members were subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism, including the only such honor bestowed on a chaplain during the war. Sylvia said Bill knew the chaplain well as he gave all the pilots absolution or whatever else being required according to their religious persuasion, and blessed them before their air assaults.

Oral Histories - Attacks on Japan, 1945

Recollections of LCDR Samuel Robert Sherman, MC, USNR, Flight Surgeon on USS Franklin (CV-13) when it was heavily damaged by a Japanese bomber near the Japanese mainland on 19 March 1945. 

Just before dawn on 19 March, 38 of our bombers took off, escorted by about 9 of our fighter planes. The crew of the Franklin was getting ready for another strike, so more planes were on the flight deck. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a Japanese plane slipped through the fighter screen and popped up just in front of the ship. My battle station was right in the middle of the flight deck because I was the flight surgeon and was supposed to take care of anything that might happen during flight operations. I saw the Japanese plane coming in, but there was nothing I could do but stay there and take it. The plane just flew right in and dropped two bombs on our flight deck. I was blown about 15 feet into the air and tossed against the steel bulkhead of the island. I got up groggily and saw an enormous fire. All those planes that were lined up to take off were fully armed and fueled. The dive bombers were equipped with this new "Tiny Tim" heavy rocket and they immediately began to explode. Some of the rockets' motors ignited and took off across the flight deck on their own. A lot of us were just ducking those things. It was pandemonium and chaos for hours and hours. We had 126 separate explosions on that ship; and each explosion would pick the ship up and rock it and then turn it around a little bit. Of course, the ship suffered horrendous casualties from the first moment. I lost my glasses and my shoes. I was wearing a kind of moccasin shoes. I didn't have time that morning to put on my flight deck shoes and they just went right off immediately. Regardless, there were hundreds and hundreds of crewmen who needed my attention.     ( end quote )

It’s hard to imagine how quickly, efficiently and steadfast the survivors became during this chaotic mind bending time, as they pulled themselves together to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of staying afloat, disposing of the dead that were being buried at sea, attending the wounded and dealing with the raging inferno of uncontrollable fires throughout the carrier. To make matters worse they were dead in the water and only fifty miles away from the mainland of Japan, a Japanese attack was to be expected to follow up and finish the carrier off. The carrier commanding officer, Leslie E. Gehres sent out a message of promise to the American invasion force that surrounded them, “you save us from the Japanese, and I’ll save the carrier”. Which he did do, but the carrier never saw any further action. 

Col. Rogalski saw no further action in the bombing and attack on the Japanese homeland, but did go on and continue to serve as a Marine reconnaissance pilot in the Korean war. Taking pictures of troop movements, key installations, rail yards and other targets for our military aviators to assault and destroy. It would be impossible for us to imagine the vast number of fighting men and now women too, that lived on past their war experience, to be able to live another day and go home to their loving families, friends and acquaintances. I personally give much of the credit for my surviving the Korean War to F4-U Corsair pilots such as Col. Rogalski. My goal here has been to raise awareness of freedom and independence. Where it comes from and who has paid the price for it. While ultimately we all should know it comes from our Almighty God. Yet, down through the pages of time men and women like Col. Rogalski have stepped up when needed and signed a blank check payable to The United States of America, in the amount of, up to and including their life if necessary.

I would like Col. Rogalski to know that to all of us combat service men and women ourselves, he is and always will be a warrior of the highest order. Showing the willingness to give up all of his tomorrows if necessary, that others may continue to enjoy all of their own today's. It is to him and other brave, courageous and dedicated men and women like himself that we owe our very lives to on the battlefields of our world, fighting for freedom and independence. I personally as a combat machine gunner with the second Infantry Division in the Korean War will always remember and never forget. The welcoming sight and sound of two attacking F4-U Marine Corsairs slicing thru the air overhead. Their gull wing and body configuration making a distinct sound. 

To the Japanese ground troops in WW11 they became known as, “Whistling Death”. In the battle for Wonju, Korea… They would come in low and fast out of the clouds with machine guns blazing every morning. Either launching rockets,  bombing and strafing or all of the above. Dropping napalm ( jelly gas ) on the enemy positions ahead of our assaults. Doing its intended job of softening the enemy up while cutting our causalities down a lot. The enemy caught in the path of a napalm bomb would often look like and remind me of a shish-ka-bob on a stick. All of their charred and burned to a crisp body drawn up in the middle in a 25 or 30 pound ball of charred and stinking flesh. The sights, sounds and smell alone had to strike great fear in the hearts and minds of the fleeing Chinese and North Korean soldiers. Ground zero napalm attacks didn’t leave anyone caught in them, able ever again to kill or wound any of our comrades.

Being involved myself in handling many horribly mangled, rotting and decaying bodies of my dead comrades at the hand of our brutal enemy, didn’t leave me with any empathy, sympathy, love or care of what happened to any of them. The way they ran over and brutally murdered their own people, indiscriminately maiming and killing pregnant women, women with babies, young children, old men and women alike. It left me with a purple passion of hatred toward them all. The more of them we can kill and destroy today, the less we’ll have to do tomorrow. Having dropped down like dead dogs at the days end, in the snow and ice to try and get some rest from the day of killing or being killed. That was my waking mindset every morning after a sleepless night, while being kicked in the ribs and told to saddle up for the task of the day. I had learned to really hate that order, even though I knew it had to happen.

When the Marine Corsairs came whistling thru the air above with machine guns blazing, I hoped that each and every round of hot lead would find a home in the stinking bowls of one of those animalistic gook bastards. Whether it is a rocket or napalm attack as well, let the ground open up and swallow them all, burn them to ashes and cinders, that they might be good for something, as fertilizer for the South Korean rice paddy. I had totally lost any sympathy, empathy or any compassion toward the less than human enemy we were fighting against. The military in combat situations like these are not big on teaching such things; it could quickly get one killed or worse yet, be turned into a crippled vegetable the rest of your life. I do not apologize for using stout language to relay a word picture of the brutality and insanity of war.

My position is, if many others actually have to endure and live it whether they like it or not, it should not hurt others, to just read about the reality of war. If it is bothersome to the reader, just stop reading and hope and pray you never have to be the one to experience it firsthand. I do need to explain to you though, since that time so many years ago I have had a spiritual awakening. God has opened my mind to a greater understanding. I now believe that all of us on this planet earth are brothers and sisters. We all will eventually belong to the kingdom of God. I look forward to that time which is sure and certain to come, when man will no longer war against themselves. But when I was eighteen years old and living in an environment of absolute mental and physical pain, misery, despair and hopelessness, in 30, 40, and 50 below zero weather, in knee deep snow and ice, with no proper food or clothing, with frozen weapons that failed to work, never inside, never a warm meal, half-starved and to then have every ounce of everything sucked out of you that can be taken out and still remain alive, either hunting down and killing the enemy, or them doing likewise to us, you have to take a good long look at the reality of it all. 

I felt certain I was going to die right there on that rotten, stinking Korean soil, that was being stained with the blood, bones, brains and body parts of thousands of my military comrades and friends. But I didn’t die there; God must have saved my life for a purpose. Maybe it is to tell others about the insanity and reality of war, and to help others become more aware of the warriors in our midst who have always stepped up when needed and answered the call to protect and to preserve our freedom. Men like Col. Rogalski, a U.S. Marine Corp pilot, proud and grateful to have had the opportunity to serve our country and we as individuals, in the way and the fashion that he did. 

Being interviewed a few years back, Col. Rogalski had made some comments.  In a heartbeat, Rogalski's life balanced on the thin edge of fame and fortune.  And all he'd wanted to do was fly. "When you're flying, you're on your own, you pretty much control your own destiny," said Rogalski, 87, of Olmsted Township. Flying had been his dream while growing up in Cleveland. Soon after graduating from East Tech High School in 1939 he enlisted in the Navy, figuring it was wartime and that'd be a good place to become a pilot. He got his training and transferred to the Marines. His four brothers in the family of 10 kids also went into the Navy and Army, and safely returned from the war. But of his brothers, only he mastered the art of landing an airplane on an aircraft carrier. "Hard?" Rogalski, scoffed at the suggestion. When you're at sea, flying over a world of water, that little floating runway looks mighty good, according to Rogalski. "It looks like home," he said. 

Lynn Ischay/The Plain Dealer; Bill Rogalski points (photograph not available) to himself in a photo of fellow pilots of the VMF452 "Sky Raiders" squadron aboard the carrier Franklin. Rogalski joined the carrier's Marine aviators flying Corsair fighters of the VMF452 "Sky Raiders" Squadron, just as American planes were attacking targets on the Japanese mainland. He was in the pilots' ready room early in the morning of March 19 when a mechanic pulled him out to discuss a mechanical problem with Rogalski's airplane. Then the bombs hit. "The flame came right over us. Boom. That flame just shot out from the hangar deck, up and all around us," he recalled. They tried going into the ready room but were turned back by black, choking clouds of smoke. "If I'd been in there, I'd have been gone," Rogalski said. He and the mechanic struggled to reach the flight deck. "Everything was going up and blowing up. Fire and flames, bombs and gasoline, rockets and whatever shooting off," Rogalski said. He recalled passing several fellow crewmen who were limping or lying down with damaged, "distorted" legs, injured by the concussion of the blast as it traveled through the decks. The Franklin keeled over to one side as fires gutted its interior. The cruiser Santa Fe pulled close enough to take on wounded from the crippled carrier and its airmen who had been ordered to abandon ship. The carrier managed to limp home after losing more than 700 men. Two crew members were subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism, including the only such honor bestowed on a chaplain during the war.

Photo courtesy of Bill Rogalski. ( photograph not available ) Bill Rogalski flew several types of aircraft during the war, his favorite being the Corsair, but he notes, "Any airplane that brings you home is a good airplane."Both the Franklin and Rogalski were done fighting. The aviator finished the war as a test pilot of new planes including a 28-cylinder F2G Corsair that could tear through the air at 420 mph. But even faster aircraft awaited.  After the war, Rogalski served in the Marine Reserves when pilots were transitioning to the propellerless planes. "We didn't have an instructor ride with us, but we had a good ground program," he said. "Then they'd set you in the cockpit and you'd just take it and go. "Once you're rolling down the runway, you adjust real quick," he quipped. Rogalski returned to action during the Korean War, flying photo-reconnaissance jets over enemy targets, before retiring as a lieutenant colonel after 26 years in the Marines. 

He put in a sales career as the Cleveland rep for the Hager Hinge Co. of St. Louis, but kept his eye on the skies, piloting a Cessna. He and his wife, Sylvia, have four children: John, Val, Mark and Jim. He also keeps in touch with former "Sky Raiders," periodically attends their reunions and still shares some of that old Franklin spirit with them. His wife recalled, "After 9/11 they were like, 'What can we do? We're ready to go.' “The aviator said he never wondered if he was going to make it through the war. "No, I never gave it a thought," he said. "Too busy thinking about the other things -- about the aircraft, what your mission was going to be, how to perform it, the maneuverability of the aircraft, enjoying life in general, I think." But that confidence was tempered by the knowledge, as he admitted, that "luck played a major part." Just being in the right place at the right time.

During my time in the Korean War, the Marine F4-U Corsair, a propeller driven plane was able to give us soldiers on the ground close air support far beyond that of the faster Air Force F-80 and Sabre jets that flew faster and higher. My first encounter with the Corsairs in Korea came one day as we were assaulting an enemy held hill. It was my first day in combat, and I didn’t have the foggiest notion in my mind on what to expect. Moving rapidly across a rice paddy, my heart racing in anticipation of what was to take place, I was suddenly hit in the head with a projectile. I feared that I had been taken out of the action before I had even fired my first shot at the enemy. I was upset and disgusted with myself for being hit so quick and possibly being removed from the battle. Because, I had read in the Stars and Stripes newspaper about all of the atrocities these North Korean and Chinese Communists had been involved in. Such as tying the hands of our captured comrade’s hands behind their back and shooting them in the back of the head execution style.

I wanted to enact some revenge on them and spill as much of their brutal, animalistic blood as possible. I had not known then that the Corsairs had six 50 caliber machine guns mounted inside the wings, three in each wing. The empty brass shells fell out of the bottom of the wings thru slots for that purpose, I had been hit in the head with an empty brass shell, and fortunately I had my steel helmet on and wasn’t hurt at all. I learned quickly how important the Marine Corsair plane and the pilots that flew them were to us grunts on the ground. Occasionally they were close enough when they would do a certain bank; you could actually see the pilot waving at us. This is the same plane that Col. Rogalski flew against the Japanese in WW11. Then he went on to serve in the Korean War as a USMC Recon pilot, spotting enemy targets to be bombed or destroyed. Whenever I happen to see Col. Rogalski at his home or at the Big Boy Restaurant in Kalkaska, I have a mental image of yesteryear in my mind’s eye, of him as a young man, a Marine pilot streaking across the ski and swooping down thru the clouds in his favorite plane, the F4-U Corsair with all six machine guns a blazing. Our nation and every individual that enjoys freedom owe our grateful thanks to Col. Rogalski and all other men and women with the guts and courage to serve in our military to maintain it.

I recall while in Korea, reading about a Marine Corsair pilot in The Stars and Stripes newspaper. He was making a run on some enemy soldiers he had spotted. He saw them seeking cover in a railroad tunnel. He was able to make a direct hit on the entrance, as the smoke and fire ball belched out of the other end. Instead of saving themselves, they all perished in a fiery hell right then and there. One Marine Corsair pilot not unlike Col. Rogalski, no doubt in one strike, saved a countless number of our own comrades through this one well directed hit. I offer a heartfelt thank you here to Col. Rogalski. A dedicated USMC F4-U Corsair pilot during WW11 and serving then as well in the Korean War. Col. Rogalski continues to pay the cost for freedom in the broken body he lives in due to the number of violent tail hook carrier stops he made on the USS Franklin. 

Fighting the enemies of our nation away from home and family on the other side of our world. He knows all too well the inscription written on the Korean War Memorial in Washington D.C. “Freedom is not Free”.  The fighting may stop; peace may reign for a season. But the cost continues to be paid by hundreds and thousands of broken bodies, souls and spirits, as they await their ultimate reward to return to the Almighty God of all heaven and earth from which we all come. Col. Rogalski however does not suffer any post-traumatic stress disorder, nor does he hold any negative feelings about his service, he has no regrets, he loved the Marine Corp. He is forever grateful and thankful that he had the opportunity to serve our country in the way that he did. As I close here I salute and thank you for your service to our country, Col. John W. Rogalski.

I am thankful that I have had a part in revealing important information from our nation’s past. That others may learn too, and know where freedom and our independence comes from, and how it continues to be maintained yet on a regular daily basis. If we don’t document these things of our past now, they will soon be lost forever May God bless our nation and our military as we do our part in following after His will as we understand it.

Leith Cunningham

7044 West Sharon Road

Fife Lake, MI 49633

A post script:  John Milks is a combat Marine out of the Vietnam War. John learned that it helped him deal with his own PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to assemble and put models together. He volunteered and put together a model of the USS Franklin that took him well over one hundred hours to complete. Our plan was to present this model to Col. Rogalski at the long term care facility that he was spending time recovering in, after a short hospital stay. Sylvia, his wife had invited folks in and had gone to great lengths to secure and arrange a great scenic room with fire place and an awesome atmosphere, along with the breath taking fall beauty surrounding the area. I had called 9&10 news to cover the event, and had invited a professional photographer to come to make a photographic record of the occasion to uplift and encourage the ninety five year old man in his declining time with us here. It was becoming a pretty big deal; the old Marine was very much looking forward for the day to arrive. We had planned it for Friday October 16, 2015. It was all systems full ahead, with everything in place. On Tuesday , God had decided He had watched a son suffer the consequence and aftermath of war long enough; it was time to release him of all pain and to call the spirit He had given him at his birth, back to Himself. On Tuesday October 13, 2015 the spirit of Col. John W. Rogalski, returned to our God and his God. May his great sacrifice for mankind be long remembered and never forgotten.   

Freedom is not free”

Written by Leith Cunningham for Veterans Day November 11, 2015