The Grand Marshall for the 2011 Basilone Parade is Joe Kovac of 73 Anderson St. in Raritan
During World War II Joe Kovac served in The U.S. Navy aboard the USS Suwannee. The ship had an impressive record during the war as it saw action at many battles including Guadalcanal, North Africa, Tarawa, and Leyte Gulf. 90 years old today, Joe was born on December 12th, 1920. Like most babies of his era he was born in his home at 73 Anderson Street in Raritan. Joe, outside of his time in the Navy, has lived at that house his entire life. The photos shown here of him in front of his home were taken in 1943 and 2011 - 68 years apart! He has 1 brother Andy (still alive today) who is 7 years younger, and he had 4 sisters. One, Helen, is still alive today at the age of 93.
As a youth he attended St. Joe's School on Somerset Street in Raritan. Later he attended junior high school at The Washington School which was brand new at the time. After junior high school, Joe did not have the luxury of attending high school. The U.S. was in the midst of The Great Depression and his family needed him to go to work.
He joined the Navy in September of 1941. After basic training he was assigned to the U.S. Suwannee - a small aircraft carrier which held 39 planes - mostly Hellcat fighter planes and some Avenger dive bombers. The ship was first built in 1939 as an “oiler” – whose purpose was to travel with a large convoy and supply fuel to the other vessels. However, when the U.S. entered the war in December of 1941, there was a shortage of aircraft carriers, so a number of cargo vessels (including the Suwannee) were converted into small aircraft carriers. While the ship was small by aircraft carrier standards, it was still 550 feet in length. Aboard the ship, Joe had 2 jobs; one was in the logistics of moving aircraft between the flight deck to the hanger deck. His other job was repairing the aircraft in the “Metal Shop”.
In October of 1942 Joe Kovac and the USS Suwannee set sail for overseas. Destinations and orders were usually kept secret when docked stateside, but as soon as they began sailing across the Atlantic the ship’s announcer came on the loud speaker and said “We are to participate in the long-heralded second front– in the vicinity of Casablanca.” This was on the North Coast of Africa where French forces (known as “Vichy French”) who were loyal to the Germans had control. When the battle began The USS Suwannee’s job was to support a huge amphibious landing force. The planes from the USS Suwannee swarmed overhead while U.S. armed divisions hammered away making progress in land. It did take long for the enemy forces to capitulate. Here at Casablanca a second front had been opened with the USS Suwannee playing a significant role - for one of the dive bombers from the ship sank an enemy submarine. They were the first aircraft carrier of that type to do so.
After that battle, the USS Suwannee set sail for the Pacific to engage the Japanese. They first came back to Bermuda, where the crew was granted a short leave on the beautiful island. Then they went through the Panama Canal and towards the Pacific Islands. They rendezvoused with other ships that were bringing troops and equipment to the fight at Guadalcanal. That battle had been raging for several months. Their job at Guadalcanal was to provide air support for the landing of additional troops and equipment. The sea battle at Guadalcanal had been ongoing and was still in process when they arrived on January 27th, 1943. When the U.S. landing craft hit the beaches and the troops were wading their way in - the Suwannee’s planes hovered overhead dropping their bombs on enemy strongholds, conducting observation for the big guns afloat, and firing on Japanese positions. With the USS Suwannee’s help the U.S. was successful in bringing men and material to the island. With the additional U.S. troops now on the island and a large naval force just off the coast, the Japanese saw that they were greatly outnumbered , thus they choose to retreat from the island. The battle of Guadalcanal was over. The island, along with its strategic importance, was in U.S. hands.
Joe Kovac recalls that during these battles often all the planes that had been launched from The USS Suwannee would return. However, a few times, during the more intense battles, some planes did not return. When this happened the onboard crew would hope that the missing men had been recovered at sea by one the other U.S. ships. Sometimes the missing men were found and brought back to the ship, but other times they were never heard from again.
In war, danger comes from many directions and often not the enemy. Like all military units, the crew of this aircraft carrier operated large heavy machinery and explosives that could be dangerous. Joe recalled that one on board accident occurred when they were simply moving planes up to the flight deck. It resulted in a couple of sailors being killed.
After the battle at Guadalcanal, the USS Suwannee returned to the U.S. for supplies. During this time Joe was able to get leave and come home to Raritan. As fate would have it, this was the week of The John Basilone Welcome Home Parade. Joe Kovac recalled the large crowd that came to Raritan and especially remembers how beautiful the movie stars Louise Albritton and Virginia O’Brien (who rode in the parade) were. He also remembers going to Duke's property after the parade for the patriotic rally. There he heard the speeches and got a hotdog.
After attending this historic parade on the homefront, it was time for Joe to go back to the battle front. At the end of October 1943 the USS Suwannee headed out to the Pacific again to join other ships to do battle in the invasion of Tarawa. This was the first step in the next phase of the war. The U.S. now needed to capture islands that were held firmly by entrenched Japanese defenders. In early November, 1943, the U.S. forces arrived at the outskirts of the Island of Tarawa. In the early morning of November 20th , the U.S. unleashed a tremendous naval bombardment which lasted several hours. Then they began invading the island. During the invasion (and even before it) planes from the USS Suwannee bombed and strafed Japanese emplacements. They also flew air patrols where they gathered information that could be used in helping various units coordinate the attack. The battle of Tarawa lasted 3 days. The U.S. wiped out 4700 Japanese who had held the island. The U.S. causalities were high with around 1000 dead. This was the U.S.’s first amphibious landing against a well dug-in fanatical enemy who was willing to die. Much was learned at Tarawa. This knowledge was put to use in future battles.
After Tarawa, in the Spring/Summer of 1944 the USS Suwannee along with Joe Kovac moved across the Pacific as the U.S. captured several islands that had been in Japanese hands. With each battle they moved closer to Japan. The ship did its usual mission of providing air cover through its fighter planes, bombing through the dive bombers, and providing surveillance on enemy positions and strengths. It fought in the initial landings in the battles at the islands of Palau, Saipan, and Guam.
In Joe Kovac’s closest brush with death, luck spared him and his shipmates. During one battle in the Pacific, a Japanese Torpedo Plane was able to avoid antiaircraft fire and drop a torpedo in the water around a hundred yards before the USS Suwannee. With the Japanese plane traveling much faster than the torpedo, the plane came upon the ship first, flying just a few feet over the flight deck. Joe Kovac, who was on the flight deck, recalled that the Japanese pilot had opened his mouth to taunt the Americans as he expected the torpedo to explode against the ship in just a few seconds. However, the look on the face of the enemy pilot must have surely changed from one of gloating to one of disappointment as the torpedo was a dud, and it just bounced off the side of the ship. Today Joe says of the Japanese pilot "The pilot was so close to me that I could have reached out and shoved an apple in his mouth".
In July of 1944 Joe Kovac was re-assigned duty on the homefront at a base in Kansas, thus he left the ship. (The USS Suwannee continued battling the Japanese in the Pacific, but was hit by multiple Kamikaze planes on October 26th, 1944 at the battle of Leyte Gulf resulting in many casualties. While the ship was not sunk, the resulting damaged forced the ship to return to the U.S. for repairs.)
One night toward the end of the war while he was stationed in Kansas, Joe Kovac attended a USO dance that was held for servicemen. The organizers of the dance must have found this young sailor who had participated in many battles quite charming. They named him the dance’s official “King of Hearts”. They then put him on an NBC radio show where he told about his experience in the war. A photo of him in the NBC studio was taken.
After the war, Joe Kovac remained in The Navy. He made it his career - retiring in 1961 after 20 years of service. Then he came home to Raritan and in a few years married his wife Lorraine. Today after 45 years they are still married. Joe and Lorraine live at his childhood home at 73 Anderson Street in Raritan. The couple has one son Kevin who lives in Pennsylvania.
For his service during World War II as a crew member of The USS Suwannee Joe was awarded the following Medals: World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign, European African MiddleEast Campaign, American Defense, Asiatic Campaign, and National Defense
As an individual, he received: Distinguished Service from Somerset County, Good Conduct (5 times) And now he is awarded one more honor as Raritan invites him to serve as the Grand Marshall of the 2011 John Basilone Memorial Parade.