Every Memorial Day, my mom proudly hangs an American flag outside of her house. It floats in the breeze with the other flags her neighbors display to celebrate the holiday, but she tells me it holds a different meaning to her. It is the flag she received on behalf of the U.S. Navy when her father passed away in 1996. I always knew growing up that my grandfather, Henry “Hank” Haligowski, served in the Navy during World War II, and was stationed in the Pacific during the war with Japan. But I never fully understood his story until I began my own work with the military, service members and military organizations.
World War II was a tumultuous time not only for the United States but for the world: atrocities committed in Europe, families displaced facing uncertainty, and troops heading out to the open seas of the Pacific.
My grandfather enlisted in the Navy in 1943, at the age of 18. Still a kid, he expressed to my mom when she was growing up that he felt he had to do something after seeing what was happening around the world during the war. It was pure patriotism that drove him to enlist.
He trained in Pearl Harbor (two years after the attack) and became a crew member on the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV 10), which participated in the Pacific Offensive in late 1943 and saw the defeat of Japan in 1945. My grandfather said that everyone aboard had a special job, and he trained as a meteorologist as part of the naval crew that followed and forecasted weather patterns for the ship. It was important to forecast weather patterns to ensure the planes aboard the aircraft carrier were safe during their missions. I bet he looked up into a sky that went on for days above the ocean, saying the sailor’s adage: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”
He described how “glorious” it was to see the planes take off and land on the aircraft carrier after missions. I can only imagine how exhilarating that was to an 18 year old from suburban New Jersey.
Not all times were pleasant. He recounted a truly fearful experience in 1945 on a mission near Japan when the Japanese bombed his ship’s hull and crew members were killed and gravely injured. My grandfather remembered that he “quickly grew up” after seeing what war really was and “what men do for war.” After seeing the Japanese planes bomb and suicide dive into his ship, he was forever a changed man.
Years later, he talked about his experiences with friends and family and proudly wore his naval cap during Memorial Day parades in his New Jersey town. He loved talking to vets who also served in World War II, as well as meeting men and women who served in later wars. They all had a common bond.
It’s no surprise that when he passed away, my grandfather was cremated with his naval cap and he asked that his ashes be sprinkled where the USS Yorktown was docked at Patriot’s Point in Charleston, South Carolina. To me, I think it was his way to return to the boys on the ship.
During Military Appreciation Month, I’d like to thank my grandfather, Hank, for his service in the Navy and honor his memory.