On Dec. 30, 1944, Clarence Penaz was a 21-year-old Navy electrician stationed on a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean, far from his hometown of Silver Lake, Minn.

He climbed up to the deck of the U.S.S. Gansevoort when he saw the first kamikaze.

“I looked up, and here came a Japanese plane in a ball of fire,” said Penaz, who turns 96 next month. “I thought he was coming right at us.”

This time, the pilot missed — crashing into the ocean 200 yards away. But just after 3:30 p.m. that day, right when Penaz and the other 200 crew members were about to exhale, he noticed another Japanese plane turning back, low over the water.

Patrolling islands in the Philippines, his ship’s gunners had shot down five enemy planes and helped fend off a dozen others as the Gansevoort provided protection for a large convoy of U.S. warships in the final nine months of World War II.

“I remember thinking the attack was over, but this one plane circled back,” Penaz recalled. “Maybe his plane was damaged and he knew he would not make it back to base so he thought he could do some real damage before he crashed in the open water or in a jungle.”

The Gansevoort’s guns rattled. “We threw everything we had at him but he kept coming and coming,” Penaz said. “Our luck was about to run out.”

The Japanese plane, with a bomb on board, smashed through the port-side hull and blew out through the top deck. Penaz ducked into a machine shop and out to the starboard side as the ship rolled from the collision. “I was knocked down to my knees and thrown against the lifelines,” he said. “If those lifelines were not there I would have been thrown into the ocean.”

Nineteen sailors died that day and more than a dozen were injured.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” Penaz said the other day from the Augustana Chapel View Health Care Center in Hopkins, where his hearing remains as sharp as his memory, despite all the deafening blasts from his Navy days.

The son of farmers, Penaz grew up speaking Czech as the youngest of three sons in Silver Lake, about 45 miles west of Minneapolis. The three brothers served in World War II and survived. That’s just one reason Penaz considers himself lucky.

After that kamikaze attack crippled his ship, he stayed aboard as it was towed for repairs while Allied forces wrested control of the Pacific.

“First of all, I swear to God if that kamikaze pilot hit us a few feet lower, he could have cracked our keel and split the boat in two,” Penaz said.

Equally fortuitous, his ship’s damage kept him away from the Okinawa invasion — an 82-day battle that started four months later, claiming nearly 5,000 sailors’ lives.

“I believe we might have been right in the middle of that battle,” Penaz said. Instead, he was in San Francisco while his ship was repaired, “ready to go back and fight those kamikazes” when two U.S. atomic bombs detonated on Japan 74 years ago — dropping the curtain on the bloody Pacific theater.

They were told little about the bombs, just that the war had ended. Aboard ship, they had no big celebrations that he recalled. “But I did have a bottle of whiskey in my locker and we got rid of that,” he wrote.

With the help of Vietnam War-era submarine veteran Kent Withington and his senior building’s chaplain, Nancy Carlson, Penaz’s story has been meticulously captured in a 103-page memoir recently accepted by the Library of Congress.

“Of the thousands sent in, they accepted mine,” he said in an interview from his apartment, where he proudly sports a “Tin Can Sailors” cap.

At only 347 feet long and 35 feet wide, his destroyer was smaller than battleships and lacked the larger ships’ armor plating — “which is why they are called ‘tin cans,’ ” Penaz said.

“The job of the destroyers was to go in harm’s way, and that’s what we did,” he said, insisting his good fortune included more than surviving naval battles. “I got pretty lucky in the marriage department, too.”

He met Mary Ann Jerabek escorting her home from a house party in Silver Lake before the war. After he enlisted, she joined the Cadet Nurse Corps. He can’t remember who wrote the first of their wartime letters, but once when the mail finally caught up to his ship anchored off a Pacific island, “I had a stack of 32 letters from Mary Ann waiting for me.”

They wed on Dec. 28, 1946 — nearly two years after the kamikaze attack. They raised five kids, living in south Minneapolis, Hopkins and then in Minnetonka. Clarence retired in 1983 after 35 years as an electrician at Northern States Power Co. Mary Ann gave up nursing to run her own antique shop for 30 years. She died in 2012 at 89.

The Navy tried to persuade Clarence to re-enlist after the war, but he said in his memoir, “I always just wanted to go home to my Mary Ann. I was one lucky sailor.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.