He was there at the start of D-Day, the biggest military invasion of all time. And he was there at the start of the invasion of Okinawa, the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific in World War II. Few men experienced both, but John Ullinskey did.
He wears his veteran's cap with great pride. It reveals when he served, but not where. Ullinskey enlisted in the Navy at 18. He was assigned to the newly commissioned USS Arikara. To England they sailed... and waited.
"The skipper he turned around and he told the fellas, well one of these days we're going to go into something very, very big. We didn't know what, but we knew it was going to be something big," Ullinskey recalled.
The skipper was right. The Arikara was at Omaha Beach for the start of D-Day. Its job as a sea-going tug was to quickly remove anything that got in the way of the Higgins boats loaded with young men bound for the beach. Under heavy enemy fire, many did not make it.
"As these Higgins boats are going in and you see them going down, it's hard. It's hard. But there's nothing you can do. You still have that picture in your mind, don't you? But after a while you regain your senses and say hey, buckle up, you've got a job to do," he said.
He remembers the sea shaking from the thunder of guns. He remembers pulling bodies from the water.
After two weeks at Omaha, the Arikara was sent to other invasion points in southern France, the Mediterranean, and then the Pacific for the invasion of Okinawa.
"That's when you had time to think and you say, I'm not going to go through this all over again, am I?" he recalled.
The answer was yes. Okinawa was brutal. Weeks of zigzagging to avoid aerial bombardment and kamkazes while towing half-wrecked ships. The Arikara was vulnerable but never hit. It would later come close to capsizing in a typhoon.
Ullinskey lived all this at 19. He's 94 now, sharp as a tack, funny and says he's had a long, wonderful life. His longevity, he believes, is the product of good genes and his favorite adult beverage.
He often talks to school groups. His message is: learn about the past and you'll better appreciate what you have today. It's a message that's not just for kids.
"The best way to have an enjoyable life: sit down and have conversation with people. It doesn't cost you anything. I learn from you and you learn from me. It's like a textbook going back and forth," Ullinskey said.
He is a witness to history. It's easy to see why John Ullinskey wants everyone to know he wears his veteran's cap with great pride.
Local veteran shares life lessons after surviving D-Day, invasion of Okinawa
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