World War II vet likely dancing on 95th birthday
Published: Friday, March 1, 2013 at 5:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 at 5:20 p.m.
During World War II, U.S. Army soldier Joe Kowalski's battalion made a town called Swanage, near the English Channel, its home.
The battalion's soldiers were there in 1944 for training but were known to make their way to London during the weekends. In the four or five months that he was there, Kowalski passed the time by dancing with local women at London's clubhouses.
Kowalski was present in the Allies' campaign in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily, the D-Day invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge as part of the 2nd Battalion of the 26th Infantry Regiment, known as the Blue Spaders. It was a section of the 1st Division in the U.S. Army, the Big Red One.
After surviving these four major campaigns in the war, the man whose face currently graces the Wall of Honor at the Atrium Independent Senior Living Facility is celebrating his 95th birthday Saturday. There will probably be waltzing. "Or at least my own version of it," he said.
"I've been dancing all my life," he said. Waltzes and polka are his favorites.
Kowalski's room at the Atrium is easy to spot. It's the one bearing a sign that says "dance while you can."
He can't dance like he used to. He hasn't been able to for some time thanks to an injury he sustained to his right knee during his Army training.
In 1942, after a six-day trip by way of a Jeep caravan from Fort Devens in his home state of Massachusetts, Kowalski arrived at Camp Blanding.
"I was carrying lumber off the Jeep," he said. "I jumped off — and click!"
"It's been a problem to this day," he said, pulling up the leggings of his pants to reveal a blue brace in the place of the injury he received so long ago.
Though his injury hindered his dancing ability, it possibly saved his life.
When he later arrived in Fort Benning, Ga., he was assigned to light duty because of his wound. He would be a runner, delivering messages and supplies between other soldiers.
The job kept him a little bit farther from combat than he otherwise might have been, though he couldn't avoid it entirely. He still ended up getting shot at more than he was comfortable with, he said.
His first taste of close combat happened in North Africa in 1942. With a bicycle strapped to his back — to help him with deliveries — he waded to the shore of an Algerian beach. He was welcomed into the country with an artillery shell flying at him and landing about 25 feet away.
"We didn't know what the hell to do," he said.
The shell turned out to be a dud. Kowalski said he and a few other men took the shell apart, saw the writing inside and learned it was made in a Polish labor camp.
After fighting in an anti-tank platoon in Gela, Italy, where he said he hit three enemy tanks during the Sicilian invasion, Kowalski was sent to England for more training in 1943. This is when the weekend London adventures with the local women took place.
"Some of the guys married the girls," he said. Kowalski, though, could barely remember any girl in particular — he just danced with them.
He went on to fight in D-Day in Normandy, where the captain of the ship he was on took a detour from the assigned landing location and brought it to a different spot. He attributes making it out alive to this decision, said his son-in-law, Frederick Gregory, and daughter, Tricia.
Kowalski suffered another injury in 1944 near the border separating Belgium and Germany. It was another incident with an artillery shell, but he wasn't lucky enough to get a defective one this time. The explosion knocked him into a truck, smashing his back.
It seemed like his luck was running out, but Tricia Gregory said the opposite occurred.
He was hospitalized in Cardiff, Wales, for four months. When he returned to his unit, most of the men he knew had been killed. Tricia and Frederick Gregory said being in the hospital had saved him from the fate that all but three of his brothers in arms experienced.
After being released from the hospital, Kowalski went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, near the end of the war. Kowalski said this is where he probably did most of his fighting.
He later got married in 1945 to Inez DiCreszenzo.
"My wife wasn't a dancer," said Kowalski, noting she liked only to square dance.
They were married for more than 60 years, until she died in 2006. They had two girls together, Kerry Ramunno, 62, currently living in Ohio, and Tricia, 66, currently living in Gainesville.
Shortly after his wife's death, Kowalski moved to the Atrium. His neighbor was a woman also named Inez. On his dresser, Kowalski has photos of both of the women with the name — his wife to the right and his neighbor to the left. He even made the Atrium install a door linking his room to his neighbor.
Kowalski built up a reputation around the Atrium as a dancer, and his neighbor Inez would dance with him, said Tricia and Frederick Gregory. She died about a year ago. After that, Kowalski rediscovered an old hobby — the violin. His daughters got him one for Father's Day last year. He hadn't played in more than 50 years.
He pulled the small instrument toward his face and began playing a familiar melody, probably a Christian hymn. He wasn't sure of the name of the song.
His luck having carried him to this point, the veteran who received a Silver Star and a Purple Heart probably will be dancing Saturday in honor of his 95th birthday. He only needs a dancing partner.
"There's a couple of girls," he said.
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