March 26, 2014 - Joseph Zikewich was a man of his word.
World War II veteran Joe Zikewich was interviewed by Leonard Elementary fifth-grader Zoe Haden during a Veterans Day celebration last November. (click for larger version)
As he stood on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Lexington (CV-16) in November 1944 watching 47 of his shipmates being buried at sea, Zikewich vowed that when he returned home, he would make sure these victims of a Japanese kamikaze attack would "never be forgotten."
After the war, Zikewich spent many years raising between $20,000 and $25,000 to establish the Peacoat Monument, the part of the Orion Veterans Memorial that honors military personnel "who have made the supreme sacrifice" and are "buried beneath the oceans and seas around the world."
The monument consists of an empty chair with a traditional navy peacoat draped over the back and a sailor cap resting on the seat.
Engraved bricks placed in front of the Peacoat Monument bear the names of Zikewich's 47 fallen shipmates.
The Peacoat Monument in the Orion Veterans Memorial at M-24 and Odanah. (click for larger version)
Zikewich, of Orion Township, was reunited with those 47 brave sailors when he passed away on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. He was 90 years old.
"He was a special guy," said his close friend Bob Watros, park manager for the Orion Veterans Memorial, located at the corner of M-24 and Odanah. "When Joe came around the memorial, the whole atmosphere changed. Guys were more friendly to each other. They were more patriotic. Everybody showed Joe respect."
The World War II U.S. Navy veteran was well-known in the Oxford/Orion area for his tireless commitment to honoring and remembering all the men and women who have served their country, from those whose last moments on Earth were spent in the heat of battle to those like himself who were fortunate enough to make it home.
An active member of the Oxford-based North Oakland Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 334, Zikewich, who was born in Newark, New Jersey, was always present for local Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies along with the annual Pearl Harbor Day remembrance held every Dec. 7.
"He loved the VFW and the members," said Post 334 Adjutant and Past Commander Ernie Baker, a fellow WWII veteran. "He did everything he could to help any veteran in distress. Often, when we would vote to give money to somebody, he'd pull out a $100-bill and add to it. He was generous."
Zikewich was a past commander of Post 334 and the post advocate at the time of his death. Baker described him as "kind, very sincere and very patriotic."
To those attributes, Watros, a Post 334 trustee, added "honest."
"I used to say the test of a good person is would you (feel) safe to leave him with your wife and your money," he said. "Yes, I would with Joe Zikewich."
Baker will never forget his smile. "He always had a smile on his face," Baker said. "He was a happy man."
"His smile would melt you," Watros noted.
Baker will also never forget how much Zikewich enjoyed meeting his buddies at the Lake Orion McDonald's for morning coffee.
"He was almost always there, smiling, laughing, just enjoying being together with his comrades," he said.
Zikewich frequently visited Oxford and Lake Orion schools to share his wartime experiences with students and answer their questions.
"Joe loved doing that," Baker said. "He would go to all of them. Anytime any school invited veterans, he was there. He was always ready to do that."
Zikewich constantly encouraged students to lead clean, healthy lives. He attributed his long life to the fact that he exercised regularly and never drank alcohol or smoked tobacco. He never missed an opportunity to let young people know that.
During WWII, Zikewich served aboard the U.S.S. Lexington (CV-16), an Essex-class aircraft carrier that fought in the Pacific Theater. He had many experiences aboard the ship, nicknamed "The Blue Ghost" by the Japanese because they reported they had sunk it on four separate occasions and were wrong every time.
But the experience that made the biggest impression on him was the Japanese suicide attack that claimed 47 lives on Nov. 5, 1944.
It happened shortly after the Lexington's participation in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a decisive air and sea battle that crippled the Japanese fleet and paved the way for the U.S. invasion of the Philippines.
Year after year, Zikewich would tell the story of the horrific attack during veterans' ceremonies and school visits. He always became emotional when describing the tragic event, even more so when talking about the funerals.
"We lost 47 great fellas that day, and I knew them all," Zikewich told the Lake Orion Review in November 2006. "This is an experience I will never forget . . . Burials at sea really tear you up. You're standing there with tears in your eyes, knowing their moms and dads and families don't even realize that their loved one is gone."
It was that experience that fueled Zikewich's passionate involvement in VFW Post 334 and the Orion Veterans Memorial for years to come. He never forgot the sacrifice of these men and he didn't want anyone else to, either.
He carried the memory of this attack not only in his mind and heart, but around his neck. Zikewich kept a piece of the kamikaze plane and made it into a necklace.
"He lived the navy and he lived (for) that U.S.S. Lexington," Watros said. "Wherever we went, he'd talk about the kamikaze attack and the Peacoat Monument. That was his life. He really believed in what he was doing. There was nothing phony about him. For years, Joe carried a chair and real navy peacoat around to promote it.
"He was dedicated to that monument at the beginning and then, he got to where he was dedicated to the whole park."
To Dr. Joe Mastromatteo, chairman of the Orion Veterans Memorial Board of Directors, the Peacoat Monument is a "poignant statement" because for the men buried at sea, there are no gravesites to visit, lay wreaths upon or plant flags by. There are no tombstones to mark their time or deeds on this Earth.
Mastromatteo said Zikewich never gave up on the monument and made it his "personal mission to recognize these veterans who gave their all for their country."
"He instilled in all of us the desire to work harder to get (the Orion Veterans Memorial) done," Mastromatteo said. "He was so fervent about it."
Mastromatteo learned of Zikewich's death during the March 19 meeting of the Orion Veterans Memorial Board of Directors.
"In the middle of the board meeting, the telephone rang, announcing his passing," he said. "Wasn't that apropos? Of course, we had a moment of silence in his honor. A few tears were shed. It was a board meeting we'll never forget."
Zikewich never let his reverence for or remembrance of the dead make him a somber person or diminish his zest for living.
"He was a very outgoing, gregarious type of person. He enjoyed a good laugh," Mastromatteo said. "And that's quite remarkable when you stop and think about the trauma that he went through when the kamikaze hit (the Lexington)."
When he wasn't working on veteran-related activities, Zikewich was an avid sportsman who loved hunting and fishing.
His passion for the great outdoors took him across Michigan and Canada, and to the other side of the world in Russia.
"That's a whole other side to the guy," Baker said. "They called him 'Ice Flow Joe' because he got caught on ice flows twice (while fishing) on Lake St. Clair. He had to be rescued by helicopter by the (U.S.) Coast Guard."
One of his main hunting and fishing buddies was Tom Huggler, a freelance outdoor writer. A column penned by Huggler about his experiences and friendship with Zikewich appears in the April 2014 issue of Woods-N-Water News.
"Over 40 years, you learn the measure of a man, especially when you share time in bush planes, in deer camps and on Great Lakes breakwaters when the steelhead are running," Huggler wrote. "Joe is one of those rare people who give everything and ask for nothing back. For example, when my father was in the hospital and dying from cancer, Joe was there to help me through the long nights of vigil."
Zikewich spent many years working as a millwright for General Motors.
He is survived by his loving wife of 67 years, Alice (Cook) Zikewich; son Bill (Linda) Zikewich, of Traverse City; daughter Joan (Tom) Fisher, of Lake Orion; grandchildren, Michael Zikewich, Lisa (Dave) Hendrix, and Ben and Carrie Fisher; great grandchildren, Mason, Owen, and Ethan Hendrix; and sister Shirley Zikewich. Zikewich was preceded in death by his parents Wasil and Myrtle Zikewich, and his siblings Jacque Winn and Helen Stanford.
A memorial service will be held 3 p.m. Saturday, March 29 at VFW Post 334 (American Legion Post 108) located at 130 E. Drahner Rd. in Oxford Township.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Perpetual Care Fund for the Orion Veterans Memorial. Information can be found at www.orionveteransmemorial.com
Arrangements have been entrusted to Sparks-Griffin Funeral Home in Lake Orion.
Reflections may be shared by visiting www.sparksgriffin.com
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.