Centenarian Navy Veteran of WWII Lester E. “Tosie” Wawner who was a true patriot died last week.
Wawner was one of those individuals who knew how to keep you engaged in a conversation. He didn’t just tell you a tale, he recounted it in such an imaginative way that he placed you at the scene.
Oakwood Drive will never be the same for Wawner’s neighbors Betty and Joe Hales. His absence will be felt greatly, and they will miss spending time with their friend who they grew to love dearly.
“Lester was our neighbor for 48 years and we loved him,” said Betty. “He was amazing, and we were truly blessed having him share his life stories with us.”
Wawner retired from the Defense General Supply Center where he worked in the Directorate of Technical Operations as Supervisory Equipment Specialist.
One of Betty’s favorite tales told by Wawner was his year spent with the Civilian Conservation Corp [C.C.C.] in camps on Skyline Drive and Clifton Forge, Va.
“In October 1939, Wawner was working with C.C.C. helping to build the Skyline Drive in the Harrisonburg area when a Navy recruiter came to the camp,” said Joe. “Lester liked what he heard and joined the Navy.”
Wawner devoted six years of service from November 1939 to December 1945 and had plenty of experiences to share with others but for many years he refrained from doing so.
“Lester was extremely patriotic but did not talk about the war for a long time because of the friends that he lost,” said Sophie who celebrated 73 years of marriage with Wawner in April.
Wawner awarded 10 battle stars for action in the South Pacific
The following information comes straight from Wawner himself who wrote his own obituary.
Per Wawner, his ship was in the battle group with the first five U.S. aircraft carriers sunk early in the war, the U.S.S. Lexington, the U.S.S. Yorktown, the U.S.S. Wasp, the U.S.S. Hornet, and the U.S.S. Liscomb Bay.
Wawner was decorated with the Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Medal with the bronze letter “A” [North Atlantic patrol and convoy duty prior to Pearl Harbor], American Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, with two silver stars [each silver star replaces five bronze campaign stars], European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and the Navy Occupation Service Medal with the Asia Clasp [Japan occupation].
Prior to this country’s entry into WWII, he had the distinction of being assigned to berthing duty aboard the U.S.S. Constitution [Old Ironsides] in Boston, in the Fall of 1941, while his ship was being modified for anti-submarine duty in the treacherous North Atlantic and Iceland area where three other U.S. destroyers were sunk by German submarines prior to Pearl Harbor.
Before he separated from the Navy on Dec. 30, 1945, Wawner served on a destroyer, an aircraft carrier, and a minesweeper. His last ratings were Machinist First Class and Motor Machinist Mate First Class.
When Betty reached out to me in hopes that The Progress-Index would write a story about her cherished neighbor, she was elated because none of the other media outlets she contacted had any interest in sharing Wawner’s story.
After much reluctance, Wawner finally permitted the Hales to record him during their happy hours while he recounted moments of his life. Joe took it upon himself to compile his friend’s tales of which Colonial Heights Mayor Gregory Kochuba presented at the American Legion Post 284.
Wawner’s first ship was the destroyer USS Morris [DD-417] from March 4, 1940 to April 16, 1943. His ship was based in Iceland and protected cargo convoys taking war materials to England. Although the US was not yet in the war, they were in combat with German submarines going both ways. During one storm in the North Atlantic, his ship was almost lost when it rolled over 73 degrees.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the Morris was reoutfitted and sent through the Panama Canal [the first of four times] to the Pacific. During his time on the Morris, the ship was involved in the following battles: Coral Sea, Midway, Capture and Defense of Guadalcanal, Buin-Faisi-Tonolai Raid, Santa Cruz Island, Guadalcanal [Third Savo], and Consolidation of Soloman Islands.
During Wawner’s time on the Morris, they picked up survivors of five aircraft carriers: Lexington, Yorktown, Lipscomb Bay, Wasp, and Hornet.
Aug. 31 through Dec. 16 of 1943, Wawner served on the aircraft carrier USS Corregidor [CVE-58] and took part in the Gilbert Islands Operations.
On the Minesweeper YMS-468 between Aug. 31, 1944 and Nov. 29, 1945, Wawner took part in two campaigns: Third Fleet operations against Japan and Minesweeping Operations Pacific [Honshu area].
One of Wawner’s more riveting stories involved a typhoon.
“His ship the Morris – of which he was the last surviving crew member – was berthed in a harbor during a typhoon when a line broke loose and the ship was banging against another ship and the line was tangled on the propeller,” shared Joe. “He was the senior person on the damage control for that part of the ship and dove down several times with a hacksaw until he was finally able to cut the line and untangle it from the propeller.”
Due to problems caused by ingesting the filthy water, Wawner was treated for several years.
According to Betty, Wawner was of the family in Petersburg that owned the fireworks factory C. N. Romaine & Bros. in Blandford, Va.
“Lester was extremely poor in his teens and walked from Blandford to Washington Street to work every day with cardboard in his shoes tied with string,” shared Betty. “What an amazing hard life he had early on. His youth reads like a depression novel with incredible stories of survival.”
Mover and shaker
Over the years, Wawner was very active in the community. He was a lifetime member of American Legion Post 2 in Petersburg and a member of the Coral Sea Association, the U.S.S. Morris [DD-417] Veterans Association, the Naval Mine Warfare Association, and a charter member of the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C.
An avid hunter and fisherman, he was a life member of the National Wildlife Federation, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Virginia Deer Hunters Association, the National Rifle Association, the Second Amendment Foundation, and the NRA Institute for Legislation Action.
He was also a member of the Centennial Road Hunt Club in Prince George County and an honorary member of the Southwark Hunt Club in Surry County. He was past president of the former Petersburg Rifle Club and a past member of the Board of Directors of the Virginia State Rifle and Revolver Association.
Wawner held a private airplane license for both land and seaplane and was a member of the Popular Rotorcraft Association.
In May of 1991, Wawner retired from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. He first became a member of this group as a member of Flotilla 51 [now Flo. 31] on April 23, 1954 in Richmond.
Fit as a fiddle
Just shy of turning 101 in July, Wawner knowing his time was near, insisted he was to be buried in his wedding suit as it still fits 73 years later after marrying his bride Sophie Kreicar.
Read this story online at progress-index.com to watch video footage of Wawner sharing his experiences with his wife and the Hales. His tales include bits and pieces about the USS Morris [DD-417], taking convoys to England, watching three destroyers go down before WWII even began, and more.
“I was quite, quite strong in those days. I mean 19, 20, 21 years old…man. I was somewhat of a horse really,” shares Wawner while being recorded in his home. “But you get to climbing up that cargo net with someone on your shoulders…it takes it out of you.
“And, it got so that I could not hold onto the durn cargo net. The ship was kind of rolling. Like I told you, in calm waters the ship would kind of go like that [Wawner sways his arms back and forth], and the waves were just rising waves. They’re not blowing waves; they’re rising…like that [wave motions continue], like that, and like that.
“When they come over, I grabbed the cargo net and when she went back, I just could not hold my own weight,” said Wawner. “So, I kept like that [wave motions continue] and when I went over one time and the wave came up like that… it pushed me up and a guy reached out there and caught me and my hair and pulled me forward.
“That’s the truth,” added Wawner. “And, I laid there on the deck for a long time and in fact, it took me really overnight to get over it.”
Wawner died peacefully on Wed. May 26 in the home of his close family friend Linda Ashby who was always there for Sophie and Lester as needed.
The family will receive friends from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 1, 2021 at the Petersburg Chapel of J.T. Morriss & Son Funeral Home. A graveside service will be conducted at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, June 2, 2021 at Blandford Cemetery. Condolences may be registered at www.jtmorriss.com.
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