The old sailor is getting his affairs in order.
Nearing 90, Ike Zautner has no illusions about his future. He recently spent two days lying on the floor of his Curtice home, unable to get up from a fall. He says he “forced malnutrition” on himself due to a poor diet. The decline in his health coincides with his wife’s admittance to a nursing home, due to Alzheimer’s.
Now, he’s in a nursing home, too. But, he’s getting better. He’s animated. He’s feisty, again. Where he once turned down a suggestion from his nephew that he needed Life Alert, a personal emergency monitoring system, he knows better now.
|Ike Zautner with his painting of the U.S.S. Wichita.
(Press photo by Ken Grosjean)
That nephew, Rob Zautner, concerned that Ike hadn’t answered his calls, checked on him, notified emergency services and now he and his wife, Lisa, are helping Ike back to health. And, as Veterans Day approaches, they are also helping him with a project to honor one of our nation’s most storied ships—the U.S.S. Wichita.
Ike served on the Wichita for four-and-half years during World War II. He had enlisted in the Navy Reserve in 1939 at age 16, after lying about his age. He was called up, trained as a radio operator and saw his first action in the North Atlantic in 1941. This was during FDR’s Undeclared War when President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the Navy to hunt Nazi warships and provide support to the British Home Fleet, two months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Ike recalls the Wichita was in Iceland when the message came through to the ship. He said it read, “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor. This is no drill. We are at war.”
Ike said the news was not a surprise. “Hell, we were already at war in the Atlantic.”
Given the secrecy, Ike’s parents didn’t know where he was stationed. So, when a radio announcer in Tokyo claimed a Japanese torpedo plane sunk the Wichita in the Battle of the Solomon Islands and a story was published in American newspapers, the Zautners thought their son had been killed. But, at the time, the ship was in the Atlantic.
The heavy cruiser spent 15 months in the North Atlantic before sailing for North Africa and the South Pacific. In the book 300,000 Miles to Victory: U.S.S. Wichita, published as a souvenir for the crew and digitized by the Wichita Public Library, the authors write that the ship provided convoy support to Murmansk, Russia and saw combat in numerous battles including Casablanca, the Aleutians, Truk, Palau, Saipan, Guam, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Battle for Leyte Gulf, and Okinawa.
The Wichita sunk a Vichy cruiser and two destroyers at Casablanca, bombarded seven islands held by the Japanese, downed 10 enemy planes, was credited for four other “probables” and rescued 13 American pilots and crew men, according to the book. The ship was damaged twice, once at Casablanca and once at Okinawa.
Ike was there for all of it and getting bored as a radio operator, he volunteered to serve on the plane that rescued downed pilots. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery in helping to rescue five airmen.
When the war ended, Ike was ready for civilian life. “I was rather anxious to get out of the Navy, because I went through quite a bit, running from one end of the world to the other. It got be pretty boring after a while,” he said with a laugh.
Ike turned the training he received in the Navy to a career. After graduating from Waite in 1946, he worked for the City of Toledo Police and Fire Departments repairing radios and then spent 25 years with WTVG-Channel 13 as an engineer. He and his wife, Takeko (Judy), have four children.
When Ike lived on Walbridge Ave. in Toledo a friend’s father, R.H. Spalding, painted the Wichita from a photo taken at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and gave it to Ike as a present. Ike has had the painting since 1946 and recently decided it’s time for others to be reminded of the role the Wichita played in securing our freedom. “It (the painting) should be commemorated in the city it was named after. People in Wichita, Kansas, if they knew the history of that ship, would be very proud,” he said in an interview at Orchard Villa.
Ike made his wishes known to Rob and Lisa. They had the painting reframed and matted and added a plaque. Lisa contacted the office of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. Spokesperson Verdina Gilkey said the mayor will hang the painting in city hall.
Lisa, who works for C.H. Robinson, a global logistics company with a local office in Toledo and one in Wichita, will have the painting hand-delivered. She said Mayor Brewer wanted Ike to come to Wichita for a formal presentation, but Ike is not strong enough yet.