For years, the Coast Guard flag sat inside a wooden trunk upstairs in the World War II veteran’s North Carolina home.
There, it had been mostly forgotten. Crease lines formed along the stripes, the stars, the large blue eagle and the Coast Guard symbol with the words Semper Paratus.
After nearly 80 years in the dark — happenstance brought the flag back into service, this time as a link between one ship’s history and its service today.
The Tampa is a Coast Guard cutter. Today the 270-foot ship is based in Portsmouth, but its patrols take it to the eastern Pacific and Central and South America where the crew of 100 conducts search and rescue operations and drug busts.
First commissioned in 1912, the Tampa was sunk in 1918 by a German U-boat in World War I. All 131 crew members were killed, making it one of the largest U.S. naval combat losses in World War I.
During times of war, Coast guardsmen fall under the Navy and ships like the Tampa help out. All the time their flags, known as ensigns, fly to mark that they’re in service.
In 1921, another Tampa was commissioned for international ice patrol missions formed after the Titanic sank.
But then the United States went to war again.
After Pearl Harbor, the Coast Guard was moved from under the Department of Treasury to the Department of Navy. That’s when a teenager named Alex Obrizok from Yonkers, New York, was assigned to the ship as a radarman.
The USS Tampa was one of a handful of Coast Guard cutters that escorted merchant ships with soldiers, ammunition and other supplies from New Foundland to Greenland and Iceland, protecting them along the way from German U-boats. From there, the ships would be escorted by the Royal Navy over to Europe.
If there was a submarine sighting, Obrizok would move to the stern of the ship where the depth charge racks were located. Those weighed 500 pounds, Obrizok remembers, and it was part of his job to turn them off if the Tampa was sunk.
That didn’t happen during World War II, but the Tampa came close enough to disaster.
Not too long before Obrizok was assigned to the Tampa, it helped escort a U.S. Army troop ship called the Dorchester in the North Atlantic. On that trip the Dorchester sank after being hit by a torpedo off Newfoundland. History shows that four military chaplains gave up their life jackets before going down with the ship.
By 1946, the war was over and the Tampa was decommissioned. The flag wound up with Obrizok. He doesn’t quite remember how it happened, but it’s been in his possession ever since.
He went on to join the Navy during the Korean War and serve for several more years with the Seabees.
Obrizok then went home, working for more than 30 years for the New York Telephone Company in the Bronx. He worked underground in manholes and up on telephone poles doing repair and installation work.
In that time, two more ships would don the Tampa name, one in the 1950s and ’60s and then the current Tampa in Portsmouth.
Obrizok, 96, now lives in Selma, North Carolina, by himself. All the time, the ensign from the 1940s stayed with him. He didn’t display it. His family barely was aware of it. His daughter thought the flag was something every Coast Guard member got after they left the service.
The flag’s fate changed this fall.
Obrizok’s granddaughter recently got married in Ireland but wanted to have a wedding celebration back home with her granddad and friends. At the gathering at Obrizok’s house, the World War II veteran got to talking with a woman who was a 2003 Coast Guard Academy graduate.
She had once been assigned to the Tampa. He mentioned that he had the flag, went upstairs to get it and handed it over to the woman.
“I thought it belonged on the ship and not with me,” Obrizok said.
The flag was still in good condition, worn a bit and thin in spots, but not tattered.
A short time later, Obrizok got invited to come on the Tampa. The flag had made its way there through a connection the woman had to her former ship.
Obrizok drove up with his daughter, Jacalyn Ruh, and her husband to Portsmouth. The Coast Guard crew gave him back his flag so he could then officially hand it over to the ship.
For a brief while, it was hoisted up and flew in the cool, fall breeze.
Obrizok toured the Tampa and ate a lunch of pulled pork with members of the crew, including the ship captain, Cmdr. Michael Cilenti. He got to read the promotions of four officers who moved up in rank that day to lieutenant junior grade.
At one point, the veteran turned to Cilenti and whispered that he’d like to say something.
Obrizok thanked the men and women for their service. He also thanked Cilenti, who was taken aback by the World War II veteran’s gratitude.
Cilenti said he was almost embarrassed by it.
Obrizok replied by saying, “I did what I had to do. You do the same thing.”
Before he left, Obrizok was given an ensign from the current cutter to take home with him.
For now, Cilenti is keeping Obrizok’s original flag in a zipped plastic bag. They have to figure out how to add it among other historic mementos aboard the Tampa, some dating back to World War I.
For an agency that’s about responding and living in the here and now, Cilenti says, the flag is another way to remember the past.
© 2019 The Virginian-Pilot
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