Rollin Fritch grew up as landlocked as any young man could be, spending his first 21 years surrounded by soil in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
Far from the one ocean that would take his life, far from the other that would give him honor.
The youngest of eight hadn't had an easy childhood. He was born in northeast Kansas but raised on a farm near Du Bois, in Pawnee County. His family broke apart when he was a boy in the 1920s, and he came of age during the Depression of the 1930s. He got as far as the 10th grade in Pawnee City and left his father's farm a few years later to join a brother at Cudahay’s packing plant in Sioux City.
As a girl, Donna Fuller shared a kitchen table with her uncle, though she was too young at the time to remember the man now. Still, she has done enough genealogy to know more about him than anyone.
She knows all of the dates that define his life and his death. And she knows he was always willing to help his family, she said. Like the time a mouse surprised her mother at their small house in Sioux City.
“Uncle Rollin jumped up and said, 'I'll get it,'” Fuller said. “He was a sweet person; he was just a good person.”
But the family historian doesn't know why the young man from the middle of the country chose the Coast Guard when he chose to enlist.
“That I could not answer,” she said. “When Pearl Harbor was bombed, he knew he didn't want to work in a packing plant. He was a young man willing to serve our country.”
* * *
By Jan. 8, 1945, he had been on the water for nearly three years, patrolling the Eastern Seaboard and participating in island invasions in the South Pacific. Now he was aboard the USS Callaway, an attack transport ship leading a convoy toward the Philippine island of Luzon.
The armada -- a line of transport and cargo ships, landing craft and amphibious assault vehicles -- was just 35 miles from shore when three Japanese kamikaze planes appeared.
Fritch and the other gunners got to work, spraying the attackers with 20 mm fire. They shot down two planes, but the third made it through.
Rollin Fritch did not try to hide from what was coming.
“Fritch remained at his post, forfeiting all chance of escape as he continued to fire his weapon,” said a Coast Guard press release. “He fought bravely until the very moment the aircraft crashed into the starboard side of the bridge in a burst of flames that rattled the ship to its very keel.”
The attack claimed 29 Callaway crew members, including the 24-year-old from the Midwest.
After his death, Fritch was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.
* * *
Back in Nebraska, his oldest brother, Edwin, was distraught.
“It was hard for him to lose the baby of the family, the youngest one,” said Edwin’s daughter, Bonita Schuster. “He felt responsible, like it should have been him, not the baby brother.”
Edwin Fritch had tried to enlist but was told no, his daughter said. He was older, married and had four children.
There were tears in Sioux City, too. Glenn Fritch’s daughters weren’t used to seeing their father cry.
“It was very unusual,” Donna Fuller said. ”We figured that’s when he got the word his brother was killed.”
Seaman 1st Class Fritch was buried at sea the day he died, though his family later placed a marker at the cemetery near Du Bois. The Coast Guard shipped his personal possessions to his oldest brother’s house in Pawnee County, where they were put in a trunk in the attic.
“Us kids were not allowed to play with it, but my mother would open it up and show us the pictures,” Schuster said. “We grew up very much aware he had given his life up for the country.”
* * *
Rollin Fritch had been gone for more than 70 years when his niece’s phone rang in Pawnee County.
The Coast Guard was calling, telling Schuster it was naming its new fleet of 154-foot fast response cutters after enlisted heroes, “the backbone” of the service.
“It was out of the blue that we learned it,” she said. “They said they chose to name one after Rollin based on his service, not only because of what he did on that particular battle. They said it was because of other deeds he had done previously.”
A Coast Guard historian needed someone to tell him Rollin Fritch’s story, and he eventually was directed to Donna Fuller in Sioux City.
“I said, ‘Oh, boy, you’ve got the right person,’” Fuller said.
She started working on her family’s genealogy in 1978, and she was able to copy and send 75 pages of information about her uncle to the Coast Guard.
“They really got to know who Rollin Fritch was.”
Fuller was named the ship’s honorary sponsor and, last year, she and her brother toured a shipyard in Louisiana to check on its progress. They met relatives of other Coast Guard enlisted members whose names would grace the new fleet.
“Some of them survived,” she said. “They were still heroes; they just all had different stories.”
* * *
Late last month, more than 30 of Rollin Fritch’s descendants gathered in Cape May, New Jersey, to commission the fast response cutter carrying his name across its stern.
It would have been like a family reunion, Fuller said, but they were surrounded by military brass and guided by maritime tradition.
There were speeches and ceremonies and gift-giving; Fuller gave the ship’s captain a framed photo and biography of her uncle; the Coast Guard presented her with a collection of his medals.
“There were so many admirals, I just can’t tell you how many dignitaries there were,” Fuller said. “Everything was perfect and everything was so sweet.”
The Rollin Fritch will be the first of the new Sentinel-class cutters stationed in the Coast Guard’s Mid-Atlantic region, patrolling the Eastern Seaboard from New Jersey to North Carolina, securing the coastline, searching for drug and human smugglers, helping sailors in distress.
It will carry a crew of 20 and two officers and is designed to stay at sea for as long as five days, traveling nearly 3,000 nautical miles.
Its commanding officer, Lt. Jason McCarthey, gave it a motto: “Until Properly Relieved.”
“Rollin Fritch’s devotion to duty reminds us how to conduct ourselves aboard this ship,” he said in a press release. “He manned his gun until the very end.”
Back in Pawnee County, Schuster wondered what her uncle would have thought about all of the attention.
“I’m sure he was a very humble young man and never would have dreamt that he would come to this honor and have his name live on,” she said.
“He was just doing his job.”