On this Memorial Day weekend, Kopl K. Vesole, a Davenport hero, would be 95 years old. Instead, he is buried in Hebrew Cemetery off 30th Street in Rock Island. His death was the aftermath of a poisonous World War II inferno in which he is credited with saving a dozen lives, possibly many more, at the port of Bari, Italy.

For this, Vesole was awarded the Navy Cross, one of the military’s highest honors. And now, there is a national campaign to upgrade this decoration to the military’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor.

Leaders of the effort say the Navy originally intended Vesole to receive the Medal of Honor, but it was vetoed by President Franklin Roosevelt because of the touchy issue of mustard gas carried in the American ship anchored alongside Vesole’s, which he knew nothing about.

The USS Vesole Association claims, “President Roosevelt concluded that, if exposed to public knowing, the (mustard gas) incident would undermine the war effort, and cause great public and media interest in awarding the Medal of Honor to Vesole … (it)  was elected to keep that information secret and limit Vesole’s recognition to the Navy Cross.”

Political figures, from President Barack Obama to members of Congress and leaders of military service organizations, recently have been pressed to elevate Vesole’s honor.

“We realize there was validity in this,” says Roy Yeater of Muscatine, Iowa, who served on the destroyer that was named in honor of Vesole in later years.  Yeater was chairman of the annual reunion of destroyer Vesole shipmates, of which there are several thousand.  “I believe we’re making progress on the upgrade. We’re gathering signatures all over the country,” Yeater says.

An immigrant’s story

There is more poignancy than a medal’s upgrade to the life of Kopl K. Vesole, a Polish immigrant who was more familiarly known as “Kay.”

There was his wish to hold his 3-month-old son, whom he had never seen.  There was the sense of responsibility that caused him to join the military and serve America, the country that had adopted him when he came from Poland with his parents as a 7-year-old. There may even have been a predilection to save lives because, as an excellent swimmer, he saved a man from drowning in the Iowa River near the University of Iowa.

Vesole graduated from Davenport High School, now Central, and the University of Iowa College of Law and practiced law for a short time in Room 624 of the Davenport Bank building, one of the floors now occupied by the law firm of Lane & Waterman. There is no indication he was with that firm. He wed a young woman named Ida Mae Boronstein after college graduation, and in October 1942 left for the service. His wife was pregnant.  A son, Frederick, was born Aug. 6, 1943. Vesole died in December.

 A few days before his death, Vesole received in ship’s mail prints of  baby Frederick’s feet. They were probably lost on the day of that inferno because most of Vesole’s clothes were blown off in the sinking of his Liberty ship, the Bascom, in Bari Harbor, Italy.  It was at this site, called “Little Pearl Harbor,” that Vesole saved so many lives, and ultimately lost his own.

In his book, “Nightmare in Bari,” Gerald Reminick writes: “His (Vesole’s) actions were responsible for saving countless lives.”

“I know he saved mine,” says Warren Brandenstein, 86, of Long Island, the last survivor of the Liberty ship on which Vesole was in charge of the gun crew.

“Kay had just gotten the mail and was proud of the footprints of his baby in the mail. Then, the German bombers hit, wiped out just about every ship in port. My face was full of blood; I was a mess. My eardrums were shattered by the blast. Kay had only one arm hanging on, and a bad wound around his heart. But he kept searching and finding survivors in the sinking ship. Pulling out guys. One lifeboat made it to the breakwater, but Kay wouldn’t get on.  I remember that day, Dec. 2, 1943.   

“We finally got Kay into the second and last lifeboat, fire and mustard gas all around us. He was trying to row with his one arm.  I yelled to Kay, ‘What the hell are you trying to do with one arm?’  He just kept rowing.”

The breakwater where they landed was a shroud of flames. “Ensign Vesole kept pulling guys, burned and hurt, out of the water with his one arm.  If he didn’t, they would have drowned or burned to death.  I can’t say how many lives he saved, dozens. It was like hell on Earth. Ensign Kay really deserves the Medal of Honor,” says this last survivor.

Vesole, exhausted, in pain and weak from loss of blood, died several days after his rescues.

Mustard gas syndrome

Mustard gas is a toxic gas that attacks the eyes and lungs. There is no known antidote. The USS Vesole Association has Navy records telling of burns and temporary blindness from mustard gas at the port of Bari.

American military had believed the Germans were ready to use mustard gas, in defiance of the Geneva Convention.  Americans would have a cargo of their own, just in case. Only a cadre of six American and British officers were entrusted to the secret of mustard gas bombs in the American ship, John Harvey, which anchored at a breakwater alongside Vesole’s ship, the Bascom.  Existence of the mustard gas  was not known to all ships in the harbor until the German Junkers-88 bombers hit the Harvey.

The Harvey was blown to pieces, spewing the acrid poison on flaming waters and ultimately sinking Vesole’s ship and 17 others.

Members of the USS Vesole Association are convinced they have a Medal of Honor cause. All formerly served on a destroyer that was later named for the heroic ensign.

 “We’re petitioning the secretary of defense, the Navy secretary, all of Congress,” says Leonard Owen of Gulf Shores, Ala., one of the chairmen working for the Vesole upgrade.

“With the passage of so much time, it is proper and fitting to redress the iniquity,” Owen said. “He received a prestigious, but lesser medal, the Navy Cross.  He is deserving of the Medal of Honor.”

 The efforts will not be easy, Owen said.  The campaign is less than a month old, so it’s understandable that Iowa’s members of Congress have not had the opportunity to study the petitions.

Today, Vesole’s son, Frederick Nameth, is a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles.  His mother had later married a man named Albert Nameth, who raised the ensign’s son.

“I know that my dad enlisted in the service because he loved his country so much,” Nameth said last week.  “He wanted to pay something back.”

Vesole wrote a letter to his baby son shortly before his death. It was read by Nameth when his dad was inducted into the Central High Hall of Honor.

“The letter said the best thing you can do is serve your country,” Nameth says.

In 1944, the Daily Times dedicated much space to the heroism — and death — of Kay Kopl Vesole.

There is one important fact missing. Navy records show that his last words were:

“I’ve a 3-month-old baby at home. I certainly would like to see my baby.”

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