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USS Callaway

On Jan. 8, 1945, Rollin Fritch was on the USS Callaway off the coast of Luzon in the Philippines when the troop transport ship was attacked by Japanese kamikaze pilots. Fritch manned his anti-aircraft gun to the bitter end as the attacker plunged into the ship, killing Fritch and 28 other crew.

Rollin Fritch is not as well known as Pawnee City's native son Dan Whitney, aka Larry the Cable Guy, but Fritch has something the famous comedian doesn't have -- a ship named after him.

The U.S. Coast Guard is building a fast response cutter at the Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, Louisiana, and naming it after Fritch, a World War II hero who hails from the Pawnee City area.

The USCG Fritch will be commissioned in late 2016, according to a Coast Guard spokesperson in Washington, D.C.

"Well, I think it's wonderful that we have two people like this from our city and I think it's good to be aware of Rollin Fritch. To have a ship named after you means you were important," said local tourism promoter Yvonne Dalluge.

The Coast Guard is honoring Fritch and more than a dozen other enlisted heroes who distinguished themselves in the line of duty by naming new cutters after them. Cutters are used for enhancing the country's national security by patrolling along waterways and coasts as well as ports, fishery patrols and search and rescue.

On Jan. 8, 1945, Fritch was on the USS Callaway off the coast of Luzon in the Philippines when the troop transport ship was attacked by Japanese kamikaze pilots.

Fritch, a member of a gun crew, was at his station when one of the suicide planes broke through heavy anti-aircraft fire and zeroed in on the ship's bridge.

"He unhesitatingly relinquished all chance of escape as the plane plunged toward the target and remained steadfastly at his gun. He continued to direct his fire with unrelenting fury upon the enemy until carried away with his weapon by the terrific impact," the Coast Guard wrote in an account of the battle.

Twenty-nine of the ship's crew, including Fritch, were killed and 22 were wounded that day. Fritch was buried at sea.

Seaman First Class Fritch, 24, was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his "indomitable fighting spirit and unyielding devotion to duty in the valiant defense of his ship." He also received the Purple Heart, the WWII Victory medal and several other medals for gallant service to his country.

There is no monument commemorating Fritch in Pawnee City and his name is not that well known in this town of 852 people in Southeast Nebraska.

Harold Schlender, a past commander of the Nebraska Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he was not aware of Fritch and the honor bestowed upon him by the Coast Guard until he read about it in the local paper -- The Pawnee Republican -- on Jan. 8.

"He wasn't in this area very long," said Schlender, who lives in Pawnee City.

Rudy Fritch, a retired farmer and rural mail carrier who lives in nearby Table Rock, said he has heard about the heroic seaman but is not related to that branch of the family.

"I think it's a pretty nice deal to be honored like that," said Rudy Fritch, who is 82.

But Donna Fuller, 75, of Sioux City, Iowa, knows a great deal about seaman Fritch and his heroism.

"That's my uncle! He's getting a ship built in his honor," she said in a phone interview.

Fuller said Rollin was the youngest of seven kids in her dad's family and although the Coast Guard lists his birthplace as Pawnee City, Rollin was born in Blue Rapids, Kansas, about 56 miles southwest of Pawnee City.

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Her genealogical research shows that her ancestors came to the Humboldt/Pawnee area in 1874 and took up farming. Fuller said Rollin's parents, Frank and Mary, were from Pawnee City.

"Rollin spent time in Pawnee City," at the age of 7, Fuller said, and attended one year at the local high school.

But the young man also lived in Sioux City, where he had relatives. Rollin worked at a meat packing plant there, before he enlisted in the Coast Guard on March 17, 1942 in Omaha, Fuller said.

His name is on a plaque of veterans who died in World War II at the Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City.

"He was a real hero. He was such a good-looking and kind person," Fuller said.

Fuller said she learned about how the Coast Guard was going to honor her uncle when a service historian called her in July. He said he had been trying to find a relative for eight months.

"I was completely shocked. It took a long time to completely grasp it," she said.

In November, she and her brother had a chance to tour the cutter (even though it is still under construction), courtesy of the Coast Guard, which paid for the trip.

"It is huge. It is just gigantic," Fuller said. "We were just thrilled beyond any description."

Fuller said she felt proud and humbled that the Coast Guard had singled out her uncle for such an honor because "there were so many heroes throughout all the wars."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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