A Sailor’s Tale: The story of a WW1 Veteran
Editor’s note: In honor of Veterans Day and the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, The Banner-Press has decided to retell the story of John Novacek of Brainard, who served in the U.S Navy during war. His son, Alfred Novacek of Portland, Oregon, recently came into possession of a scanned copy of John’s memory book, a 61-page diary that his father used to keep track of all of his experiences while enlisted. A photocopy of the diary was emailed to Alfred from his brother, Frank, who recently passed away in October. It was shared with the paper by Alfred and this article serves to summarize its contents.
It was exactly half past noon when they were impacted.
Lookouts aboard the USS McCall were able to trace the wake of the torpedoes back to their point of origin. Unbeknownst to them, the German submarine UB-87 had launched similar attacks on three other ships less than a week prior, sinking two others, the SS Highcliffe and SS Milly.
This time, they had set their sites on the SS Missanabie, a British ocean liner carrying hundreds of passengers. Just 52 miles south of Daunts Rock, Ireland, the destroyer McCall was escorting Missanabie along with the rest of convoy OL-34 when they were caught off guard by the enemy. Water Tender First Class John Novacek lay witness to the destruction before him on Sept. 9, 1918.
But just two years prior, John wasn’t a crew member on the McCall, or even anywhere near the ocean. While the great war, the trench war, the war to end all wars raged on across the globe, John was in Lincoln, Nebraska, enjoying himself at the State Fair on Sept. 7, 1916.
Born in 1894 in Brainard, John was one of 10 kids raised by Charles and Mary Novacek. The couple immigrated to the United States a few years prior to John’s birth in Moravia, which today is part of the Czech Republic. To his family’s surprise, John enlisted in the U.S. Navy in Omaha at the age of 22 on Sept. 8, 1916.
John worked at a grain elevator in Brainard and had been thinking of enlisting for more than a year. According to a newspaper article from the time, he never told any of his family that he planned to join the service.
“He said he just got tired of it,” Alfred Novacek told The Banner-Press about his father. “He was tired of shelving grain and wanted a change of venue.”
The next day he was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago for training. On Jan 2, 1917, John traveled via railroad to Philadelphia. It was there the sailor would be introduced to his new home, the USS McCall.
Before leaving port, John got some time off to explore the town. He was quite the tourist, visiting places like Independence Hall and the home of Betsy Ross to see the first American flag.
On Jan 16, 1917, he and the McCall left for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. For the next few months, the ship patrolled the Caribbean. Alfred Novacek said he remembered that his father’s job on the ship was shoveling coal into the engine. He also remembered his dad talking about Bowser, a dog who lived aboard the ship, which John was quite fond of.
The McCall was stationed in Rhode Island when the news broke out. On April 4, 1917, the United States was at war with Germany. The standard peacetime patrols for both John and the McCall were over.
Several months later on June 14, 1917, the McCall left to cross the Atlantic. It was one of the hundreds of ships transporting the first batch of U.S. soldiers to France. Eleven days later, the group of ships the McCall was traveling with met up with six destroyers from Europe. They exchanged troops and cargo 200 miles out to sea from France before turning around to head home. Throughout the war, the McCall would continue to transport men and supplies to the Western Front.
The ship soon arrived at Newfoundland on June 29. 1917. In his journal, John wrote that no submarines were spotted during this trip. At the time, the First Battle of the Atlantic was raging. German U-boats could be lurking anywhere, hiding beneath the waves waiting to attack.
As so, the crew of the McCall was constantly on the lookout for an ambush. On July 10, 1918, John wrote in his journal of the McCall encountering a submarine in the Atlantic. The McCall got 20 shots at it before the submarine signaled that it was one of their own. Lucky for the crew, all shots missed.
About two months later the McCall was accompanying a convoy en-route from Liverpool to New York City when they were ambushed. John wrote:
“Monday, Sept 9. A disaster took place at 12:30 p.m. Two torpedoes headed (near) our stern and hit one of the largest ships in the convoy. The name was Missanabie, 14000-ton displacement. She was hit by both of the torpedoes in the aft end, making a large explosion. She went down in eight minutes, stern first and stood in the straight for about three minutes and then she disappeared.”
Forty-five lives were lost with the ship’s sinking.
“It was an awful sight to see those people struggling in the water, crying out for help,” John wrote. “One of the survivors died on our ship being a boy, about 14 years old, just after the ship was destroyed.”
His name was was William Paul Stuttle, a Brit who held the rank of a Steward’s Boy on the Missanabie. For John, this would be his closet brush with death in the entire conflict.
On Nov. 11, 1918, an armistice was signed. The war was over.
In peacetime, John served on the destroyer USS Babbit. On Sept. 6, 1920, John was officially discharged after being in the service for exactly four years and eight days.
He last journal entry was written 10 days later. John returned to work for the grain elevator he previously left to enlist. He went on to wed his wife, Mary Hamsa, and have four kids together; Edith, John, Albert and Frank. In 1953, he passed away at the age of 58 and was buried in Assumption Cemetery in Dwight.
Alfred Novacek said he is proud of his father’s service and how he enlisted out of nowhere before the war broke out.
“That was real special, Alfred said. “Just to join out of a blue sky, that was special.”
Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at email@example.com.