By Lt. Cmdr. Heidi Lenzini, Naval History and Heritage Command,
Communication and Outreach Division
WASHINGTON – In the past century America has witnessed tremendous turmoil, technological and medical advances, and the indomitable spirit and dedication of the American Sailor.
Regardless of their length of time in the Navy, Sailors frequently display a spirit of service long after they have hung up their uniforms. One former Sailor turns 101 years old, Sunday, April 13 and there’s very little that Bremerton resident Fred Lewis hasn’t seen. Still, he feels most at home serving as a volunteer for the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Puget Sound Naval Museum (PSNM), where he has logged more than 1,150 hours since 2006.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who now holds an office that did not even exist when Lewis was born, thanked Lewis for his service in a letter delivered last year on his 100th birthday. In the letter, Greenert said he was most impressed with Lewis’ “selfless devotion to others.” Lewis was also presented with a key to the city by Bremerton’s mayor.
As a young man, originally hailing from Kansas, Lewis was looking for adventure in 1942 and he found it in ample amounts on the destroyer USS Niblack (DD 424). Drafted in his late twenties, Lewis spent the rest of World War II hard at work in the engine room on the destroyer as it raced around Europe and North African waters, protecting convoys, escorting troop ships, and hunting down German submarines.
According to the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Niblack supported the bombardment of Italy during the Salerno campaign, clearing a path for Allied troops from Sept.-Oct. 1943. In early December, the ship rescued 90 survivors – approximately half the crew – of British destroyer escort HMS Holcombe (L 56) that sank in less than five minutes after being torpedoed by a German submarine.
A month later, the ship was sent to support the Anzio landings, where the ship “fought off simultaneous attacks by dive and torpedo bombers, E-boats, and human torpedoes” and “repulsed repeated attacks by enemy aircraft. “ Outlasting many of her sister ships, Niblack completed many missions during 1944 as part of Task Force 86, and earned five battle stars for her WWII service.
After the war, Lewis traded in his uniform for the life of a carpenter for nearly 40 years. He has spent almost half his life in Bremerton, Wash.
Although it had been decades since he had served in the U.S. Navy, Lewis found the call to serve impossible to ignore. He first volunteered at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Wash. and is now the most senior of 50 volunteers at PSNM. No threat seemed insurmountable after his WWII experiences – even as he recovered from lung cancer, a broken hip, or a recent hospital visit.
Carolyn Lane, the volunteer coordinator for PSNM, says Lewis inspires both the museum’s visitors and staff.
“He always has a smile, kind word, and fun anecdote for our visitors,” Lane said. “He doesn’t let his age or health challenges slow him down…there’s no stopping him!”
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