Born December 6th, 1924 in Sokoly, Poland, Calvin Joseph Lepkowsky immigrated to New York City with his parents Benjamin and Francis along with his brother David in 1927. Francis was an expert seamstress and crafted handmade sailor outfits so her boys would look more “American” upon arrival. Settling down in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Calvin graduated from Samuel J Tilden High School. It was there he would meet his future wife of 72 years Irene Shapiro. The day after Calvin’s 17th birthday was “a date that would live in infamy” and Calvin, like every other young American at the time headed the call of duty and would go on to enlist in the Navy some 2 years later. I recall my grandfather telling me he was approached by a Marine recruiter who brazenly solicited him to join the Marines by stating “JOIN US, DO YOU WANT TO LIVE FOREVER?!” As a Jewish American soldier, Calvin wanted to increase his odds as being sent to the European theater would ensure certain death upon capture by Nazi forces. He completed boot camp with the Marines at Camp Lejeune (as Navy Corpsman served with them in WWII) in early 1943.
Calvin was assigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to finish his medical training and await orders. Those instructions came in the fall of 1943 and after enjoying a bowl of Oyster Stew in Grand Central Station (at the Oyster Bar still in operation) he set out for a cross country train ride to Oakland, CA. After a stint in San Luis Obispo for amphibious assault training he stood out of San Francisco Bay for New Guinea on the USS Gilliam (APA-57). The ship was the lead ship in her class of attack transports during WWII. En route to the Philippines on December 5th, 1944 the 36 ship convoy came under heavy air attack. The fighting became so intense that Calvin was called upon to help man a 40 mm machine gun. He recalled a particular kamikaze that came so close to the deck he could see the pilots face! The USS Gilliam went on to take down two Japanese Zeroes and Calvin, being the ships newsletter illustrator was called upon to paint two rising sun flags on a gun turret to commemorate the accomplishment. The ship would go on to participate in the Invasion of Luzon and Okinawa and earn two battle stars for their actions during the conflict.