Local hero makes good reading
"60 Years Later" is a book that belongs in every library and every school in the nation. The subtitle, "A small town discovers a hero in their midst," really tells it all. Tom Balunis has captured the spirit of residents of his community as they sought to bring proper honor to a World War Two hero in their midst. Bill Van Wilpe was just the maintenance superintendent, a custodian at LakelandRegionalHigh School, and a World War Two veteran until his story was told. Balunis is a councilman in the Borough of Wanaque where the story takes place. It is the narrative of the struggle to get the U.S. Navy to recognize the heroism that took place 60 years ago. Balunis has captured many of the feelings that consumed people during World War Two. He tells the story of the young men who played their last football game knowing they would soon be in the service in a terrible war. They chose to leave school and join the services when possible so they could have some little say in where they went. The young people of that era knew they were going to go into the service then. They just didn't know when or how. Many enlisted and many were drafted. Van Wilpe was among them. He wanted to go into the Merchant Marine but ended in the Navy with a date with destiny. As I read this book I recalled some of the people Balunis worked with. Warren Hagstrom was my lifelong friend. He and his wife Dolores were part of the Upper Passaic County Heart Association. We all worked together on that. Angelo Morando and I had roasted chestnuts back when Wanaque was part of my beat for the Paterson News. I stopped by to file my stories and we chatted about life in Wanaque. Andy Perputin and other police officers were my close friends. I often spent late nights riding in squad cars in PomptonLakes or Wanaque.
Because Van Wilpe hurt his ankle in the Butler football game on Thanksgiving Day 1943, he could not immediately join the Merchant Marine. During that period of time there was an intense rivalry between PomptonLakes and Butler and I can recall the games. In 1943 we all knew the boys would be in service soon, and we had learned that some of them would never return.
Van Wilpe's date with history came after the Destroyer U.S.S. Indianapolis was torpedoed. Through a series of omissions and blunders the survivors of the action were left in shark-infested waters for at least four days. There are many accounts but wartime security left the victims of the sinking destroyer to fend for themselves.
After the men were spotted by a patrol aircraft, Navy ships rushed to the area and Van Wilpe's ship the "Basset" was in the midst of the rescue. Disregarding his own safety, Van Wilpe left the security of a rescue boat and pulled the victims from the oil-slicked sea. At one time records indicate he went under the water to save three sailors who had fallen into the water from the rescue ship.
The book is available on Amazon.com.