Scott County

Kopl Kay Vesole

Died 2 Dec 1943



One of the most disastrous bombing attacks against allied ships during the entire war took place at Bari, Italy on December 2, 1943. This port was in the British theater of operation, but several American ships with Armed Guards aboard were at Bari on that fateful day. When the last bomb had fallen and the last ship had exploded and the large fires had run their course, 17 ships had been sunk and six damaged. There were five United States ships sunk and one damaged. One other United States ship came through unscathed. . . .

The John Bascom was hit by three bombs at 1945. This fine ship was apparently the first in the harbor to open fire. An explosion on the John L. Motley caused the whole port side of the Bascom to cave in. The ship did not have a chance to survive. From this awful carnage emerged one of the finest heroes of the Armed Guard Service. Ensign Kay K. Vesole won the Navy Cross and later had a Navy ship named for him. But he lost his life in heroic service to his crew.

Wounded in the shoulder and over the heart, he still went from gun to gun directing action and rendering aid to the wounded and dying. Weak from loss of blood, he conducted a party of his men below decks and supervised the carrying of wounded to the boat deck. When the ship was in a burning and sinking condition he supervised the loading of the only lifeboat not destroyed. His crew had to force him into the lifeboat. He wanted to swim to make room for men with worse wounds than his.

He insisted on rowing with his one uninjured arm as he helped disembark the wounded. He helped carry wounded to the bomb shelter and had to be restrained from going back into the flames to rescue other wounded when an ammunition ship blew up. He dispatched a signalman to the end of the jetty to signal for help. He refused to embark in the first boat sent to rescue the Bascom survivors but was forced into the second. He appears to have sacrificed every chance to recover in his efforts to save others. He was in every sense one of the finest heroes of World War II and typified the finest in the traditions of the Navy and the Armed Guard Service. From this destruction of his ship nine of his Armed Guards perished with him. Nine men from that crew were awarded Bronze Star medals.

Bari was one of those sudden blows which did great damage but did not long delay the victorious march of the allies in Italy. The blow was too sudden for Armed Guards to do much to defend their ships. It well illustrates the danger which was always just around the corner for all Armed Guard crews. Men who go through such actions have to be highly trained and disciplined and to have superb courage.

Source: Askew, William C., Berkely; Lt. Francis L. Jr. USNR. “Administrative History of The Naval Armed Guard Afloat: World War II”.  Office of Naval Operations, United States Naval Administration. Sept. 13, 1946. Pp. 167-69.

Crew Members Tell How Ensign Vesole Died as Hero at Bari



Laud Davenport Man as Leader
When Nazis Attacked Allied Ships

“If he hadn’t been looking out for everybody else except himself, he might be here today.”

These are the terms in which 11 young armed guard gunners of the navy talk about their commanding officer, Ensign Kay Kopl Vesole, former Davenport lawyer, who died as a hero in Bari, Italy, 10 days after he was wounded when the Germans’ devastating sneak aerial attack last December turned the harbor there into a shambles of sunken ships.

The New Orleans office of navy public relations released their story today to add details to the previous accounts of the heroism of a self-styled “ordinary guy,” who has been posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Africa-Middle Eastern medal.

“Torch of Courage”

The navy called it, “The story of a Polish immigrant boy who gave his life, as he had lived it, for his country and for the men under his command,” and refers to the narrators as “11 young navy gunners who grimly carry the torch of courage he flung to them before going to a hero’s death.”

A copy has been furnished to Mrs. Versole, who lives with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. J. Boronstein, 1016 Twelfth street, Rock Island [Illinois], that some day their six-months-old son, “Butch,” “can understand how his father fought for his country and why.”

The gunners, whose story became available when the, 11 of 18 survivors of a crew of 28, arrived in New Orleans, cried unashamedly as they talked.

“We were the first ship to fire,” said Bill Kreimer, Cincinnati, signalman, telling of the resistance to the Nazi attack. “That’s the way the ‘old man’ (Ensign Vesole) had us trained.”

Gave Men Confidence

“Ensign Vesole was all over the ship, looking after his men and seeing that the ‘guns were fought with 100 per cent efficiency,” Added Seaman Walter J. Ainsworth, Kansas City. “He kept counting the men, spurring them on. It’s hard to imagine how cool he was and how much confidence we got from him.”

“We took three direct hits right down the middle of the ship,” reported Coxswain David Goldstein, Cleveland. “Mr. Vesole had just checked the stern gun and was going forward.”

“Nobody knows just what happened to the ensign then,” continued Ainsworth, “but he came reeling up to the forward gun with his clothes blown off and his right shoulder bleeding. His right arm was dangling at his side, useless. The first thing he asked was whether anyone on the gun had been hurt.”

The crew was warned that an ammunition ship, burning nearby, would “go up” any minute, and one man followed Ensign Vesole below to haul up the wounded.

He “Was Wonderful”

“The ‘old man’ was wonderful then!” exclaimed Ainsworth. “The ensign wouldn’t leave until he had checked every inch of the ship himself and accounted for everyone. Then, with his bum arm and all, he insisted he was going to swim ashore so there’d be more room in the boat for the wounded. This was the only life boat that wasn’t destroyed.

 “That’s once we forgot regulations and laid hands on an officer. We had to use physical force to get him into the boat. It was tough rowing to the jetty in the oil and flames, but Ensign Vesole insisted on pulling an oar with his one good arm!

“The ‘old man’ fished three or four injured men out of the water. Then, as the flames
moved closer, he got three other men and our only stretcher and began carrying wounded with his good arm.”

“The ammunition ship [John L. Motley] exploded with a roar like nothing I’ve ever heard before,” said Seaman Bob Boyce, Zanesville, O. “It was only about 50 to 75 yards from Mr. Vesole. The heat and concussion was terrible. That may not have finished him, but it didn’t do him any good.

“As badly as he was hurt, he could have been just taking it easy in a shelter. All he was thinking of was ‘his boys,’ and even strangers laid out on the jetty. The explosion then more flames across the oily water and the jetty. It was hard to breathe, and the heat was intense. But we had to grab the ensign again to keep him from going into the fire. There just wasn’t anything anyone could do for the poor devils trapped in it.”

Ensign Vesole, they said, refused to leave the jetty until the last man had been removed to safety.

They told, too, of his selflessness and devotion to his men at other times – how he got them out of personal difficulties; made friends with merchant seaman on the ship, and taught them to fire the guns; how he would ‘break out’ cigarets (sic) when the crew members had none, refusing pay because he was there ‘to look out for you guys,’ saw that they were the first to get pay and mail.

“We could talk to him about any problem we had,” said one. “I’d discuss things with him I wouldn’t mention to my own folks.”

“He never ordered us around,” said Goldstein. “He’d just say, ‘Let’s do this or let’s do that – and he’d pitch in and help.”

Conscious only part of the time in the hospital, he worried about replacing the men’s pay cards, and when he died – The busy British doctors realized the effect it might have on the more seriously wounded men. They weren’t told.

His two deathbed wishes were never fulfilled – to ‘get a crack at those Nazis in the daytime” and “to see my baby.”

Source: The Daily Times, Davenport, Iowa, Monday, March 11, 1944, Page 1


The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Kay K. Vesole, Ensign, U.S. Navy (Reserve), for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the Armed Guard aboard the S.S. JOHN BASCOM when that vessel was bombed and sunk by enemy aircraft in the harbor of Bari, Italy, on the night of 2 December 1943. Weakened by loss of blood from an extensive wound over his heart and with his right arm helpless, Ensign Vesole valiantly remained in action, calmly proceeding from gun to gun, directing his crew and giving aid and encouragement to the injured. With the JOHN BASCOM fiercely ablaze and sinking, he conducted a party of his men below decks and supervised the evacuation of wounded comrades to the only undamaged lifeboat, persistently manning an oar with his uninjured arm after being forced to occupy a seat in the boat, and upon reaching the seawall, immediately assisted in disembarking the men. Heroically disregarding his own desperate plight as wind and tide whipped the blaze along the jetty, he constantly risked his life to pull the wounded out of flaming oil-covered waters and, although nearly overcome by smoke and fumes, assisted in the removal of casualties to a bomb shelter before the terrific explosion of a nearby ammunition ship inflicted injuries which later proved fatal. The conduct of Ensign Vesole throughout this action reflects great credit upon himself, and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Source: Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulleton No. 329, August 1944


Veterans say Davenport hero
deserves Medal of Honor

by Bill Wundram
On this Memorial Day weekend, Kopl K. Vesole, a Davenport hero, would be 95 years old. Instead, he is buried in Hebrew Cemetery off 30th Street in Rock Island. His death was the aftermath of a poisonous World War II inferno in which he is credited with saving a dozen lives, possibly many more, at the port of Bari, Italy.

For this, Vesole was awarded the Navy Cross, one of the military’s highest honors. And now, there is a national campaign to upgrade this decoration to the military’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor.

Leaders of the effort say the Navy originally intended Vesole to receive the Medal of Honor, but it was vetoed by President Franklin Roosevelt because of the touchy issue of mustard gas carried in the American ship anchored alongside Vesole’s, which he knew nothing about.

The USS Vesole Association claims, “President Roosevelt concluded that, if exposed to public knowing, the (mustard gas) incident would undermine the war effort, and cause great public and media interest in awarding the Medal of Honor to Vesole … (it)  was elected to keep that information secret and limit Vesole’s recognition to the Navy Cross.”
Political figures, from President Barack Obama to members of Congress and leaders of military service organizations, recently have been pressed to elevate Vesole’s honor.
“We realize there was validity in this,” says Roy Yeater of Muscatine, Iowa, who served on the destroyer that was named in honor of Vesole in later years.  Yeater was chairman of the annual reunion of destroyer Vesole shipmates, of which there are several thousand.  “I believe we’re making progress on the upgrade. We’re gathering signatures all over the country,” Yeater says.

An immigrant’s story
There is more poignancy than a medal’s upgrade to the life of Kopl K. Vesole, a Polish immigrant who was more familiarly known as “Kay.”

There was his wish to hold his 3-month-old son, whom he had never seen.  There was the sense of responsibility that caused him to join the military and serve America, the country that had adopted him when he came from Poland with his parents as a 7-year-old. There may even have been a predilection to save lives because, as an excellent swimmer, he saved a man from drowning in the Iowa River near the University of Iowa.

Vesole graduated from Davenport High School, now Central, and the University of Iowa College of Law and practiced law for a short time in Room 624 of the Davenport Bank building, one of the floors now occupied by the law firm of Lane & Waterman. There is no indication he was with that firm. He wed a young woman named Ida Mae Boronstein after college graduation, and in October 1942 left for the service. His wife was pregnant.  A son, Frederick, was born Aug. 6, 1943. Vesole died in December.

 A few days before his death, Vesole received in ship’s mail prints of  baby Frederick’s feet. They were probably lost on the day of that inferno because most of Vesole’s clothes were blown off in the sinking of his Liberty ship, the Bascom, in Bari Harbor, Italy.  It was at this site, called “Little Pearl Harbor,” that Vesole saved so many lives, and ultimately lost his own.

In his book, “Nightmare in Bari,” Gerald Reminick writes: “His (Vesole’s) actions were responsible for saving countless lives.”

“I know he saved mine,” says Warren Brandenstein, 86, of Long Island, the last survivor of the Liberty ship on which Vesole was in charge of the gun crew.

“Kay had just gotten the mail and was proud of the footprints of his baby in the mail. Then, the German bombers hit, wiped out just about every ship in port. My face was full of blood; I was a mess. My eardrums were shattered by the blast. Kay had only one arm hanging on, and a bad wound around his heart. But he kept searching and finding survivors in the sinking ship. Pulling out guys. One lifeboat made it to the breakwater, but Kay wouldn’t get on.  I remember that day, Dec. 2, 1943.

“We finally got Kay into the second and last lifeboat, fire and mustard gas all around us. He was trying to row with his one arm.  I yelled to Kay, ‘What the hell are you trying to do with one arm?’  He just kept rowing.”

The breakwater where they landed was a shroud of flames. “Ensign Vesole kept pulling guys, burned and hurt, out of the water with his one arm.  If he didn’t, they would have drowned or burned to death.  I can’t say how many lives he saved, dozens. It was like hell on Earth. Ensign Kay really deserves the Medal of Honor,” says this last survivor.

Vesole, exhausted, in pain and weak from loss of blood, died several days after his rescues.

Mustard gas syndrome
Mustard gas is a toxic gas that attacks the eyes and lungs. There is no known antidote. The USS Vesole Association has Navy records telling of burns and temporary blindness from mustard gas at the port of Bari.

American military had believed the Germans were ready to use mustard gas, in defiance of the Geneva Convention.  Americans would have a cargo of their own, just in case. Only a cadre of six American and British officers were entrusted to the secret of mustard gas bombs in the American ship, John Harvey, which anchored at a breakwater alongside Vesole’s ship, the Bascom.  Existence of the mustard gas was not known to all ships in the harbor until the German Junkers-88 bombers hit the Harvey.

The Harvey was blown to pieces, spewing the acrid poison on flaming waters and ultimately sinking Vesole’s ship and 17 others.

Members of the USS Vesole Association are convinced they have a Medal of Honor cause. All formerly served on a destroyer that was later named for the heroic ensign.

 “We’re petitioning the secretary of defense, the Navy secretary, all of Congress,” says Leonard Owen of Gulf Shores, Ala., one of the chairmen working for the Vesole upgrade.

“With the passage of so much time, it is proper and fitting to redress the iniquity,” Owen said. “He received a prestigious, but lesser medal, the Navy Cross.  He is deserving of the Medal of Honor.”

 The efforts will not be easy, Owen said.  The campaign is less than a month old, so it’s understandable that Iowa’s members of Congress have not had the opportunity to study the petitions.

Today, Vesole’s son, Frederick Nameth, is a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles.  His mother had later married a man named Albert Nameth, who raised the ensign’s son.
“I know that my dad enlisted in the service because he loved his country so much,” Nameth said last week.  “He wanted to pay something back.”

Vesole wrote a letter to his baby son shortly before his death. It was read by Nameth when his dad was inducted into the Central High Hall of Honor.

“The letter said the best thing you can do is serve your country,” Nameth says.

In 1944, the Daily Times dedicated much space to the heroism — and death — of Kay Kopl Vesole.
There is one important fact missing. Navy records show that his last words were:
“I’ve a 3-month-old baby at home. I certainly would like to see my baby.”

Do you think Vesole deserves the Medal of Honor?
If you want to help in the effort to award the Medal of Honor to Ensign Kopl K. Vesole, the contact is Ray Gorenflo, communications director for the campaign. His address is 32 Charlotte Road, Fishkill, NY 12524-2707. E-mail is

What happened to the USS Vesole?

In honor of the World War II hero Kopl K. Vesole, a destroyer was laid down in his name in 1944. It was launched by Vesole’s widow and commissioned in 1945.
It saw significant duty with the 6th Fleet, participating in blockade operations in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and went on duty for carriers in the Tonkin Gulf in the Vietnam War.

The Vesole was decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register and sunk at a target off Puerto Rico in 1983.

Source: Quad-City Times, Davenport, Iowa, Saturday, May 23, 2009, Page 1

NOTE: USS Versole (DDR/DD-878) was launched by Mrs. Kay K. Vesole on December 29, 1944 and earned the Armed Forces Expeditionary medal for service of Lebanon in 1958 and again in 1962 for service during the Cuban missile quarantine. She was the first Atlantic Fleet DD to do a tour in Vietnam, 1965-66, earning two battles stars for service during the Vietnam War.  ~ Tin Can Sailor, July of 1993, Page 13.

Kopl Kay Vesole (deceased) Class of 1932 – Ensign Kopl Kay Vesole seemed destined for a life of heroics. Born in Pzedboz, Poland, September 11, 1913, he immigrated with his parents to this country at age 7. A better than average athlete in high school, he lettered in football, basketball, and track and was a strong swimmer. It was recalled that while attending the University of Iowa pursuing his Law Degree he noticed a man struggling in the water near a dam in the Iowa River. He jumped into the swirling water and saved the victim. After graduation from law school, his law practice was cut short by World War II. He was commissioned and Ensign in the U. S. Navy on October 19, 1942. His heroic exploits at Bari, Italy, in 1945 attracted nationwide attention. During that Nazi attack, while saving the lives of many of his crewmen, he sacrificed his own life. The United States Navy deemed his action so heroic that our Government awarded, posthumously, The Navy Cross for Bravery. A street in the Navy Base in Charleston, South Carolina has been named in his honor. In Addition, the Destroyer, USS Vesole 878, was named in memory of his extraordinary valor. Inducted October 15, 1992. ~ Davenport High School/Central High School Hall of Fame Brochure, October 1991, Page 5