APPLETON — Sweat covered the three-inch-high silver crucifix held firmly in Don Janssen’s hand as his ship, the USS Mindanao, steamed toward the United States from Shanghai in the fall of 1945 after supporting U.S. naval operations in the Battle of Okinawa.
“We were 3,000 miles from home when we got word a tsunami was going to strike our ship. They said it would crack the ship in half,” said Janssen, 86, of Little Chute.
The crucifix was one of three blessed by the late Msgr. John Sprangers of Little Chute and given to local soldiers heading off to war.
On Nov. 10, 1944, barely a year before, Janssen boarded the USS Mindanao, the engine repair ship was heavily damaged and 180 of its crew killed when the USS Mount Hood, parked 350 yards away in a port near New Guinea and laden with 3,800 tons of ammunition, blew up killing all 350 men on board.
Janssen escaped that disaster and hoped the crucifix from home he clutched in his hand would help him escape the threatened tsunami.
“We were scared. We were all ordered to put our life jackets on,” said Janssen, at the time a Navy Seaman First Class on the USS Mindanao. “I pulled out that crucifix and held on to it. I was scared, but the tsunami passed without causing damage. I considered that a miracle from God.”
Brothers relied on faith
As Janssen told his story, two of his brothers, Gary, 85, and Pete, 80, both Korean War era veterans, listened by his side, pondering the times their strong Catholic faith, instilled by their parents, came into play in their military careers.
“I went to Mass every Sunday while I was in the military. We had a Catholic priest and were fortunate to be able to go to a regular church,” said Gary Janssen, who served with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Armored Infantry Division in Germany from 1950 to 1952, during the “Cold War” that brought the world to the brink of nuclear hostilities.
The three Janssen brothers, who worked a total of 131 years at the former Kimberly Clark paper mill in Kimberly, were gathered at Gary’s house, discussing plans to get up early the next morning and board a plane that would take them to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II, Korean War and other monuments to military veterans on the National Mall.
Old Glory Honor Flight
The Old Glory Honor Flight from the Outagamie County Regional Airport to Washington, D.C., marked the first time any of the three brothers visited the nation’s capital.
“It was a great honor to serve our country and a great honor to visit the memorials to men and women who gave their lives. I felt very privileged,” said Pete Janssen, who served in the U.S. Army from 1954 to 1956 and was stationed in Berlin, Germany, 200 miles behind the former “Iron Curtain.”
“It was a tremendous duty. We were put on alert a few times and issued rifles in case something happened. I prayed a lot during those times,” he said.
The Janssen brothers are three of eight sons and three daughters born to the late Peter and Martha Janssen of Little Chute. Another brother, the late Roman Jannsen, also served in the military.
Gary, who lives in Kimberly, is a member of St. Paul Parish in Combined Locks.
Pete and Don, residents of Little Chute, are members of St. John Nepomucene Parish in Little Chute.
Vocations in Janssen family
“We were all brought up pretty strict Catholics. Our parents had a very strong faith. Every evening our family prayed the rosary. If one of us would laugh or anything dad would say ‘Up to bed with you,’” said Pete Janssen, noting there is a history of religious vocations in the Janssen family.
The brothers are first cousins of the late Fr. Orville Janssen and Sr. Therese Janssen of Appleton.
Attending Mass while in the service wasn’t so easy for Pete, who turned 80 shortly before the brothers’ trip to Washington, D.C.
“We were pretty much on our own when we were in Berlin. Our unit didn’t have a priest assigned to it or have a Mass. I missed going to Mass, but I prayed,” Pete Janssen said.
Don Janssen said attending Mass while on a naval ship in the Pacific Theater of Operations wasn’t easy, but with some logistical planning Sunday Mass was a regular event.
“There was always a ship in the area to which the Navy would transfer us to attend Mass. We also had a lot of sunrise services on our ship,” Don Janssen said. “When I was in service my faith was very important to me. I did plenty of praying every night and every morning. It’s important to go to Mass wherever you are. I still go to Mass every day.”
Brothers remain active in church
Don Janssen, who suffers from cancer, has had to curtail regular church activities, but brothers Gary and Pete remain busy in their respective churches.
“I go to Mass every morning. I never miss Mass,” Pete Janssen said.
Pete also helps set up for funerals and distributes Communion to area nursing homes. Twice a year he helps load trucks with supplies donated by area residents to help the people of Honduras.
Gary Janssen serves as an usher at his parish and, in an evangelization effort, spends many hours making rosaries to ship to Honduras.
“I’ve made more than 13,000 rosaries in the past two years. I spend a lot of time doing that, especially while I watch Green Bay Packer games, although I do sometimes get the bead colors mixed up if I pay too much attention to the game. Then I have to start over again,” Gary Janssen said.