In this Dec. 7, 1941, photo provided by the U.S. Navy, sailors on a small boat rescue a USS West Virginia crew member from the water after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (AP Photo)
MILWAUKEE — Frank Kruck was 7 when he saw his mother crying and fingering her rosary beads as she listened to the terrible news on the radio.
The announcement on a Sunday morning in December 72 years ago: Japanese planes had attacked Pearl Harbor, ships were burning, sailors and soldiers were wounded and dying. Frank’s mother was praying for his brother Gene, a sailor aboard the minesweeper USS Widgeon.
It would be more than a week before the Western Union telegram was delivered to the Kruck family home in Waukesha: Gene was OK.
“It wasn’t like today. We didn’t hear for a while,” Frank recalled.
Gene survived World War II and the Korean War, spending 22 years in the Navy. Divorced with no children, he died of complications from diabetes in 2002 in California, where he lived for decades. He was buried with full military honors. The flag over his casket was carefully folded and placed in a keepsake case.
No one is sure just how Gene Kruck’s mementos ended up at a flea market in San Bernardino, Calif., more than a decade after his death. But a history buff who collects military memorabilia saw a blue sleeve poking out of a plastic box and stopped for a closer look.
When Ron Hallock realized it was a genuine dark blue Navy jersey with boatswain’s mate arm patch, he called the vendor over and asked his price. Hallock paid $50 for a couple of uniform shirts. As he walked away, the vendor told him a large box came with the uniforms.
Hallock didn’t want the box but took it any way and stored it in his garage where it sat for a couple of weeks before he opened it. That’s when he discovered Eugene James Kruck’s life.
From birth information to his career in the military — records, certificates, medals and battle ribbons, a family picture album, a photo Gene Kruck snapped of President Harry Truman. A life.
“His battle ribbons — good Lord, he fought and earned those things. At the bottom of the box was the tri-folded flag from his funeral and the empty cartridges from the 21-gun salute,” Hallock said in a phone interview from California. “I just choked right up. It was too real for me to keep.”
Finding Gene’s family was difficult. He finally found a phone number that led him to Frank Kruck in Wauwatosa. Last summer, Hallock, a senior vice president for nutrition supplement company GNC, traveled to Wisconsin to meet Frank and his wife Barbara and give them Gene’s possessions.
Frank, the youngest of seven kids, was surprised to learn his brother earned five bronze service stars denoting the number of campaigns in which Gene had participated. And he was deeply grateful for Hallock’s efforts.
“Thank God he did this. I never would have known he got all these medals or gotten his flag,” said Frank, who was 12 years younger than his brother.
Shortly after graduating from Waukesha High School in 1940, Gene Kruck quietly joined the Navy and left home. He didn’t like goodbyes. When he was a kid, he was a strong swimmer and taught his brother Frank how to swim. Nicknamed Geno and Pickles because he often fished them out of a large barrel at the grocery store, he was an altar boy at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Waukesha.
Gene’s first two assignments in the Navy were on submarines stationed in Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 7, 1941, he was serving on the Widgeon when Japanese planes dropped out of the sky.
After Widgeon crew members fired machine guns at attacking planes, the mine sweeper left its berth at Pearl Harbor’s submarine base and headed toward Ford Island, where it helped douse burning ships on battleship row and began salvage operations on the overturned battleship Oklahoma, as well as the Nevada and California.
Although Gene didn’t talk much about his war experiences, “he said he could throw an orange and hit the Japanese planes they were so close,” recalled his brother.
Gene lost a lot of buddies when one of the submarines he had once served on, the USS Shark, was sunk by the Japanese just three months after the Pearl Harbor attack.
When Frank joined the Air Force in 1952 during the Korean War, he listened to his brother Gene’s advice to study hard, which paid off when he was one of only a handful of airmen in his unit chosen for cryptography school. Frank deciphered coded messages and worked as a courier in London. His friends who joined the military at the same time were sent to Korea; a few were seriously injured.
“Who knows if I’d be here today? I would’ve ended up in Korea,” said Frank, who has two daughters and three grandchildren.
Frank’s older brother went on to serve on the large cruiser USS Guam, which was attacked by kamikaze planes and participated in the invasion of Okinawa. He was assigned to the USS Missouri a year after the Japanese surrendered on the ship’s deck, he took part in the Battle of Inchon at the start of the Korean War and was deployed to the Mediterranean for the Suez Canal crisis.
“Reading the papers was like reading his life story,” said Hallock. “I said ‘Holy mackerel, this fella is like the Forrest Gump of the World War II Navy.’ He was everywhere.”
After he retired from the Navy, Gene stayed in California, married, played golf, worked at Santa Anita racetrack and got divorced. He joined the VFW and American Legion.
Now that he has his brother’s burial flag, Frank is donating it for display at his American Legion post in Brookfield.
And Gene Kruck’s blue Navy uniforms?
The Kruck family wanted Hallock to keep them now that they and the history buff from California have become friends. It was a way to thank him for bringing so much of Gene’s life and legacy back home.
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