– For a super long time, Milan sat in my stuck file, he was an only child [no one alive to contact]; I had found little about him. Things changed when I answered my phone. My lucky charm is a retired chiropractor friend. He checked in with me and I spent 50 quality minutes on the treadmill while he chatted me up. He inquired, “So how is that park thing?” I told him I needed a pep talk. He then proceeded to tell me a story about how his mother once dragged him to a park dedication [“like a million years ago”] .. then something about his mom’s friend Gladys and her boy Bobbie. Thanks god. 🙂 My lucky day. I found a little clarity and worked off that raw chocolate chip cookie dough I had abused the day before. Honor the small things in life, they can change the landscape in an instant. Thanks for reading. ag
Sometimes parks tell their own story..
BEST FRIENDS IN WARTIME
Walter Josefiak Jr. and his siblings Robert, Harry, John and Geraldine were raised as eastsiders on Fairport Street. Walter graduated from Detroit’s De LaSalle Collegiate in 1942 and enlisted in the US Marines for the WWII effort. He was assigned to Camp Lejeune, home to the War Dog Training Center in North Carolina. Here he trained as a soldier and dog handler with the Marine 3rd War Dog Platoon. Rusty, a faithful Doberman Pinscher would become his protector and best friend during his days on Guam and Iwo Jima. They shipped out for the fight in the Asiatic Campaign from Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, CA.
War dogs were used by both the Allies and the Japanese in WWII. The dogs varied by breed and were specifically trained to scout, guard, attack, carry messages, detect underground land mines and trip wires. They were an important part of the Asiatic campaign and a contributing factor to the liberation of Guam in 1944. Additionally they had their own cemetery and were assigned rank. Rusty was a Corporal.
SURVIVAL THEN RETURN FIRE
On March 22, 1945, Walter and Rusty were leading a patrol on Iwo Jima searching for snipers. Scouting about 15 feet ahead of the unit, they were first to sniff out two hidden Japanese soldiers. Josefiak shot the first soldier; his rifle then jammed and he won the fight in hand-to-hand combat with the second soldier.
A short time later, the duo continued up along a ledge to the mouth of a cave where several enemy snipers were holed up.
Josefiak began firing but was downed and wounded from return fire. Fulfilling his duty, Rusty guarded his master, staying between Josefiak and the snipers. The Japanese began to throw hand grenades; Rusty was hit full force. Seriously wounded, Rusty crawled to Josefiak’s side to protect him while grenades continued to blast around the pair. In the meantime, Marines in the unit threw a rope to Josefiak and pulled him to safety. Regardless of his wounds, Josefiak refused to be immediately evacuated and ordered others to remain under cover until the enemy soldiers were annihilated. He was later taken to a battalion hospital where he died. Lt. William Taylor, the commanding officer of the unit, noted that Corporal Rusty died as well, ‘on the scene without a whimper’.
Walter Josefiak Jr. earned the Silver Star posthumously for his assertive nature in combat and courage. He was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery with a full Marine military salute. The small playground honoring him is stocked with newer equipment. It is located on Grenier St. near Fairport – around the block from the Josefiak‘s childhood home. In 2014, it was adopted by volunteers and was well tended during the warm Detroit weather.
Thanks so much to the Josefiak family and John Monigold of De La Salle Collegiate for their assistance with remembering Walter’s story.
All rights reserved. Copyright Andrea Gallucci, 2015.
Corporal William Anthony Biraga
Location: Mount Elliot at Richardson
Yep! Sometimes Detroit parks are found within apartment complexes. I believe this park is actually owned by the apartment complex now and not the City of Detroit. A big thank you to Kim B. for reaching out and sharing the photo of her relative. I love it when that happens! – Andrea G.
William Anthony Biraga (1918-1943) served in WWII with Company I, Third Battalion, First Marines Division. On December 26, 1943, he was up against Japanese forces in the Battle of Cape Gloucester on the island of New Britain in the South Pacific. It was a fierce battle and as an early casualty, William would be posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his courageous efforts.
The objective was to capture a major Japanese airfield on the island and set up safe passage for Allied Forces through the straits separating New Guinea from the island of New Britain. This battle began in December and lasted approximately 4.5 months. It was code named: Operation Cartwheel.
ALWAYS A MARINE, DUTY BEFORE SELF
Per his citation, Corporal Biraga led a group of six men behind a General Sherman tank in an assault against entrenched Japanese troops. He became severely wounded yet continued to direct his men in combat. His efforts were successful in beating back enemy forces.
He was evacuated to a waiting LST-453 [ Tank Landing Ship – an amphibious boat] where he died en route to hospital. Biraga was interred at the US Military Cemetery in Soputa, New Guinea then transferred home to Detroit for re-burial in Mount Olivet cemetery.
Biraga Memorial playground was dedicated in 1952 and was originally on Dwyer Street near the convergence of Detroit and Hamtramck. Biraga lived with his Polish immigrant parents on Comstock Street about 10 blocks north.
A few years back an apartment complex was built on the property and the playground was incorporated into the new development. Fronting Mount Elliot, this small and tidy playground offers kids and adults a green space to enjoy while honoring the memory of a one-time neighborhood kid. Mount Elliot in 2018 is looking better than ever.
Thanks for reading!
So from what I hear and overhear.. I think this park got an upgrade or new signage over the summer. There is always a lot of confusion about how to spell the Yaksich name. Someone actually thanked me for spelling it correctly. Ahhh.. it’s just the small things that make me happy. I haven’t trolled through this neighborhood lately so I will have to make it a destination to take another photo. ag
ONE MAN BLITZ
This neighborhood park is sandwiched between Anglin and Brinker Streets north of Nevada on Detroit’s east side. Unfortunately, it is devoid of all signage to point to the heroics of John T. Yaksich, a courageous WWII hero. Conant Gardens, a historic and permanent African American Detroit neighborhood is nearby. See photos below.
By February 9th 1943, newspaper headlines were screaming:
JAPS ADMIT DEFEEAT IN THE SOLOMON ISLANDS; the nation could partly thank Private Yaksich.
As a Marine in the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division at the Guadalcanal, he became known as “The One Man Blitz” for singlehandedly capturing Japanese weaponry and his courageous fighting which earned him the Navy Cross.
At his own will and under heavy fire, Yaksich overtook a Japanese machine gun operator and subsequently captured his weapon. Before killing the gunner, he saw hand-to-hand combat with two other Japanese soldiers and bayoneted them both.
Figuring he may become overpowered by additional enemy soldiers, he returned to his own front line and refreshed his cache of weapons/ ammunition. Secretly, he worried about being reprimanded by his platoon leader for leaving camp without permission.
“I knew that if I had asked to go they wouldn’t let me,” commented Yaksich. “So I told my buddy to give the word when I was .. to far to be called back to camp.” Upon his return, Yaksich requested volunteers to help him carry the enemy machine gun back to the front lines. A friend named Billy ‘Red Dog’ Van Orden stepped up to assist. The Marines returned to the field and captured a second machine gun Van Orden had spotted. Recalled Yaksich, “Van Orden shot the gunner. We picked up the machine gun and ran. Snipers tried to get us, but we were lucky. Van Orden was magnificent.”
John T. Yaksich was born on April 7, 1922 and was released from service in November 1943. It was a hard road returning to civilian life but he made it through WWII and felt lucky in doing so. He died on January 23, 1991. He is one of the few Detroiters to be honored with a memorial park during his living years.
All rights reserved. ©Andrea Gallucci, 2015.