Batavia WWII vet, vet son-in-law share Honor Flight
By Steve Lord email@example.com May 25, 2012 6:56PM
George Gebes, Batavia resident and WWII veteran who served in the South Pacific aboard the LST 813, the Eleanor, is welcomed home from the Honor Flight by his daughter Barbara Kalina and their family Wednesday evening at Midway Airport in Chicago. |Michael R. Schmidt~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 3, 2012 8:43AM
When George Gebes wrote home to his wife during World War II, he always put somewhere in the letter a guarantee: that he was coming home.
“I don’t know — I just always had that feeling that I would make it home,” he says.
But Gebes, now almost 97 years old and still living in his hometown of Batavia, saw plenty of the carnage of World War II, and he knew plenty of men who did not make it back. For that reason, he helped build the Batavia Overseas Post 1197, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and has always considered Memorial Day special.
“I felt it was an honor to be in the Navy,” he says.
His son-in-law, Dick Kalina, 83, is also a World War II veteran, an unusual situation. Kalina joined the Navy in 1944 when he was 17 and echoes his father-in-law’s sentiment about being honored to have been in the Navy.
“On Memorial Day, I think about all the Americans who die in the wars — all of them,” he says.
The holiday will be even more special for the two this year: Just this past week, they both flew together on one of the Honor Flight trips to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
It was a day that taxed the two veterans, starting when they got up about 4 a.m. to get to their plane at Midway Airport in Chicago, and ending when they returned home after midnight. But it was a day neither of them would have missed, nor will ever forget.
As Dick Kalina’s wife Barb stood in a crowd to welcome the two home at Midway, she laughed at the thought the day would be too tiring for the men.
“Both of them were like little kids this morning, they were so excited,” she says.
George Gebes volunteered in 1943. He had a wife and two kids, and worked for a greenhouse in Batavia.
His first contribution to the war effort was to work at the Willow Run bomber plant in Michigan, the biggest such plant in the country. Then he went into the Navy, even though local recruiters wanted him to go into the Army.
“I said, ‘I don’t care, I’d rather go to the Navy,’ ” he says. “The clerk said, ‘I’ll take care of that right now.’ ”
After basic training, he was sent to the South Pacific, where he spent the entire time on an LST, a Landing Ship Tank. This special boat — designed to land troops, provisions and armaments on shore — was 150 feet long, 50 feet wide, and had a flat bottom with lots of cargo room below and on top. The flat bottom allowed it to get in close to shore and shallow water areas.
But it was slow and had what would be considered small guns aboard it. The sailors used the guns during invasions to fire at planes strafing the landing parties. Because of that, the men gave it another name, based on its initials — Long Slow Target.
“We delivered groceries, food, tanks and were in lots of invasions,” Gebes says.
Those invasions included Okinawa and the second wave of Iwo Jima.
“On the ship, I was kinda in charge,” Gebes says, chuckling. “Most of them were 18, the oldest was 20. I was 27, so the boys called me Dad.”
For the most part, Gebes’ LST got away with being a Long Slow Target — except for one time. A Japanese kamikaze speedboat hit the side of the boat, opening a big hole. Gebes had to replace the pumps constantly to keep water from getting into the engines as crewmen fought to get the ship to shore. It took such a physical toll, Gebes got a hernia out of it.
“We limped into Guam,” Gebes says, where he and the ship were patched up and sent back into action.
Dick Kalina turned 17 in 1944, and the Batavia native immediately joined the Navy.
While many from the area trained nearby, he was sent to San Diego for boot camp. From there, he went to San Francisco, and then overseas.
Kalina first went to Guam but spent most of his two years in the Navy at a base on Saipan that “supplied everywhere throughout the South Pacific.”
One night, he was standing guard duty for the island’s commander, who came outside and confronted him.
“He said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ” Kalina says. “I said, ‘I’m on guard duty, sir.’ He said, ‘But what the hell are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Well, they told me to come here.’ He said, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ’17.’ He said again, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ”
It seems that while a recruit could join the Armed Forces at 17, no one was supposed to be deployed until they were 18. He should have been sent back to the states, Kalina says with a smile.
But he wasn’t. He finished his guard duty that night and spent two years working at the base, guarding Japanese prisoners of war and supervising the building of offices.
As a guard, he got to know Japanese POWs, and they got to know him. Many Japanese on the island had committed suicide as the Americans took control of Saipan, fearing the horrible things they had been told about Americans. Both sides discovered the stories they had heard about each other were untrue.
“It changed your opinion, that’s for sure,” Kalina says. “They were human like everyone else. They just wanted what we wanted — to get home to their families.”
Oddly enough, the Japanese prisoners engaged in a strange ritual the Americans allowed. In rotation, prisoners would be allowed to escape to the hills and forests of the island, then return to camp, while other prisoners would do the same thing.
Their captors felt that with the isolation of the island, the prisoners would have to return because there was nowhere for them to go. And they couldn’t hurt anyone. There was an upside to their temporary absence for the Americans, Kalina says with a chuckle. “They didn’t have to feed them.”
When Kalina came home, he returned to Chicago on a late train and had to hurry to catch the last Chicago, Aurora & Elgin electric train to Batavia. As he walked through the cars, looking for a seat, he saw someone he never expected to see: his mother.
“Yeah, she had been working in Chicago and was on the same train,” he said. “She had no idea I was coming home.”
So how did Barb Kalina end up with the unusual situation of having both a father and husband who were World War II veterans?
When Barb Kalina’s father, George Gebes, left home to serve in the Navy in World War II, she was 5 years old. A 16-year-old boy in the same hometown of Batavia was waiting for when he would be old enough to serve his country.
But Barb Gebes and Dick Kalina did not know each other then. While Barb waited at home anxiously for her father to return safe, she had no idea she also was waiting for her future husband to return.
At some point during that time, George Gebes was on Iwo Jima, and asked a commanding officer if he could climb Mount Suribachi, the place where the flag had been placed that became the symbol of the U.S. Marines and one of the enduring memories of World War II.
Although not completely secured, Gebes and some of his fellow sailors climbed up to see the flag. As they looked down, they still could see the bodies of dead soldiers, some on the sand, some floating in the sea.
“He decided when he got home, he was going to build something for veterans,” Barb says.
And he was good to his word. When he got back to Batavia, he joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Batavia, which at the time consisted of about five guys who would meet in Batavia’s City Hall building.
They were able to only raise $28 toward buying the land they were interested in on Route 25 along the Fox River, which was mostly trees and weeds. Gebes approached a local bank and asked for a loan.
“They said, ‘What have you got for collateral?’ ” Barb says. “He said, ‘Nothing; just my name.’ And they gave him the loan. You could do that in those days.”
George became well-known through the VFW post and around town for his support for veterans. Many of his friends and VFW buddies would hang around his house.
“Dick,” Barb says smiling, “was one of those guys.”