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World War II Veteran Returns to His Ship After 73 Years

Molly Hamilton Jul 24, 2018

On the morning of Friday, July 6, 2018, Waitman Kapaldo was joined by generations of his family for an emotional trip back to the USS Laffey DD-724 for the first time since September 1945.  As the 97-year old approached the ship, the pier was lined with hundreds of citizens who came to thank him for his service and cheer for his return.  Their cheers and applause nearly drowned out the tune of “Anchors Away” being played aboard the ship by a Navy band as a Navy color guard marched Mr. Kapaldo and his family toward the destroyer on which he served for more than a year during World War II.  It was a hero’s welcome, indeed.

It had been nearly 73 years since Waitman Kapaldo last set foot on the USS Laffey and for decades he had no desire to return. Even though the ship and her crew had kept him safe for 17 months during the height of World War II, other crew members never came home and for Kapaldo, the battle scars were deep and he just didn’t think he could ever return.

Waitman Kapaldo enlisted in the Navy on 30 September 1941 not long before the attack on Pearl Harbor that officially entered the United States into World War II.  He served in various capacities aboard several ships before being assigned to the first crew of the USS Laffey DD-724 in February 1944.  Known as a plankowner, Kapaldo was aboard for her commissioning on 8 February 1944 and remained onboard for the remainder of the war.  He was part of the Laffey crew that provided support during the invasion of Normandy at Utah Beach in June 1944 and he was also on the destroyer when it was attacked by 22 Japanese bombers and kamikaze planes off the coast of Okinawa in April 1945.

During the attack off Okinawa, Kapaldo was part of the crew manning one of the forward guns. While the ship and the majority of her crew bravely and fiercely fended off the attack and miraculously survived, 32 of his fellow sailors were killed.  For many years, his family says his “survivor’s guilt” was so great, he gave away all of his memorabilia from the war and he had no desire to return to his ship.  After leaving the Navy as a Ship Serviceman Third Class in October 1945, Kapaldo never looked back.

He married his wife, Nancy, in 1948 and they raised their five children in DeMotte, Indiana.  Decades ago, the family learned that unlike the ships of many veterans that have long disappeared for the scrap yard, the USS Laffey was actually still afloat and has been part of Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina since 1981.  Over the years, several of Kapaldo’s family members visited the Laffey and they, along with his wife, had encouraged Waitman to make the trip as well.  But his bad memories of the war and his guilt for surviving kept him away.

Yet the family persisted. Finally, earlier this year, at the age of 97, he told one of his fourteen grandchildren, Amber Whitlock, that he would return with his family, including his 11-year old great-grandson, Zachary.  The family notified the museum and plans were put in motion for a proper welcome for this veteran and his family.

His patriotic welcome back on July 6 was befitting a man who served his country for four years during World War II.  Various Navy officers were in attendance, along with a color guard and the Navy band from the United States Navy’s Nuclear Power Training Unit in Charleston.  In addition, scores of citizens of all ages, veterans and active-duty military personnel showed up to welcome Kapaldo back aboard the Laffey.  As Kapaldo reached the ship, he was followed by a parade of well-wishers who watched as the Navy sailors lifted Kapaldo’s wheelchair up onto the gangplank.  When he reached the deck, Kapaldo rose from his wheelchair and proudly walked to his seat at the front of the ceremony held in his honor.

The brief event honored the sailors of the USS Laffey, including Waitman Kapaldo, and involved military personnel from the area who lavished praise on Kapaldo and all veterans for their service to the nation.  One of the participants was Captain Dale Barrette, Commanding Officer of the Charleston Naval Health Clinic. His words were thoughts shared by many in attendance:  “Mr. Kapaldo, you made a tremendous sacrifice to preserve our democratic way of life. You committed to the possibility of laying down your life for this country the first day you put on your uniform, as did your shipmates.” Captain Barrette continued, “It was that courageous sacrifice and love for our country that we honor today. You fought for peace and freedom and your country thanks you, and I thank you.”

Mr. Kapaldo was joined by several other WWII veterans in the audience as they tossed a wreath into the waters beneath the fantail of the USS Laffey to remember the 32 sailors who were killed aboard the Laffey during the Okinawa attack.

At the end of the ceremony, Kapaldo’s wife rose to the podium to thank everyone for making this special occasion so great for her husband. “This was my wish for him.  It took a long time, but it was worth it,” said Nancy Kapaldo while holding back tears of joy.

Afterward, dozens of guests waited in line for at least 30 minutes just to greet Mr. Kapaldo and thank him for his service to our country. Young children approached him as if he was a superhero as they shyly asked him to sign their hat or shake their hand.  The World War II veteran graciously obliged each guest as more than a dozen of his family members stood around him, beaming with pride.  After the “Meet & Greet” session, Kapaldo and his family visited other areas around the main deck of the ship, including near the gun mount in which he served off the coast of Okinawa.

As Kapaldo prepared to leave the Laffey for one final time, he stopped his family members pushing his wheelchair across the gangplank.  He had decided earlier that when he left his ship, he was going to walk.  So he did.  With his family supporting him, Kapaldo disembarked the USS Laffey one final time.  This time, he leaves with all new memories of his time aboard.  Gone are the days of lost friends and survivor’s guilt for not being one of the 32 sailors who didn’t come home.  This time he leaves with memories of a patriotic welcome fit for a hero of the “greatest generation.”  His wife kissed his cheek once he came off the ship, proud of her husband for making what may prove to be his final visit.

Check out the gallery of photos from the day below:

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